Libya shows NATO hollow


News that some NATO allies operating in Libya could see their forces “exhausted” within the next 90 days should come as no surprise.

The North Atlantic alliance has a long tradition of “stocking the shop window” while leaving the store room bare. At the height of the Cold War in 1987 it was said by some that the then-British Army of the Rhine would be able to resist a Soviet invasion for 72 hours before starting to run out of ammunition, fuel and equipment.

More sanguine studies gave NATO a few days more but all concluded that after a number of days the western alliance would have to “blow up Europe” with nuclear weapons and thereafter the rest of the planet to stop a Warsaw Pact victory.
“The problem right now, frankly, in Libya is that … within the next 90 days a lot of these other countries could be exhausted in terms of their capabilities, and so the United States, you know, is going to be looked at to help fill the gap,” US defence secretary Leon Panetta said to American troops in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday. He did not say which countries he was referring to, or what the US response would be to calls for help, Reuters reported.

NATO warplanes have been bombing Libya under a UN mandate since March to prevent civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, but the alliance is under mounting strain because of the cost of the operation and the failure, after more than three months, to produce a decisive outcome.

US author Jon Connell wrote in 1986 that 155mm ammunition would run out, in “some sectors …after a week or ten days. So, in about the same amount of time would anti-tank missiles and even much [of the] mortar and rifle ammunition. Air-to-air missiles are also in short supply.” [The new Maginot line, Coronet Books, London, 1986, pp 26, 124, 135] NATO was also “very short of transport, especially of five-ton trucks to take ammunition and supplies to the front line during a war. As a result, the then-Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Bernard Rogers, believed “the Alliance would be hard pressed to last more than two weeks.”

After the end of the Cold War in 1990, most NATO governments took a “peace dividend” and wore down their equipment and ammunition holdings, such as they were. That era coincided with the increased availability of so-called “smart weapons”, especially of the air-launched variety. However, the cost of these, the hopes of a peaceful era ahead and smaller defence budgets meant that in most cases little more than “sample quantities” of munitions and spares were acquired – as is now abundantly clear.