With opposition forces having entered the Libyan capital, Tripoli, largely unchecked on 21 August, the combat phase of NATO's Unified Protector campaign is widely expected to begin drawing down within the coming days or weeks.

But as NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with international leaders for a summit on Libya in Paris on 1 September with the whereabouts of Col Muammar Gaddafi still unknown, can the alliance realistically consider its mission to have been accomplished?

In the months since assuming full command on 31 March of the United Nations-mandated mission to protect Libyan civilians, NATO and other coalition aircraft had flown 21,090 sorties. The alliance classed 7,920 of these as having been concerned with locating or striking regime targets.

According to NATO operational updates, almost 1,840 of these sorties were flown in the two weeks to 31 August, with one-third categorised as strike missions. Having initially been concentrated largely on striking regime targets such as command and control facilities, armoured vehicles and missile launchers in Tripoli and several other sites, activities later shifted almost exclusively to Bani Walid, Hun and Sirte.

 Gaddafi posrt - Sipa Press Rex Features
© Sipa Press/Rex Features
While the whereabouts of Col Gaddafi are unknown, NATO's operation will have to continue

While aircraft from multiple nations continue to strike pro-Gaddafi assets as his supporters continue to oppose the regime change brought about as part of the "Arab Spring", the allies' emphasis will increasingly turn to maintaining intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance duties while maintaining the ability to use lethal force when needed.

This shift has been evidenced by the large number of strike aircraft equipped with reconnaissance pods, including those from France, Sweden and the UK. And in a marked change, the French and Italian air forces also in late August began operating medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicles over Libya for the first time.

Harfang - French air force 
© French air force

Italy is using its newly introduced General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator Bs from Amendola air base, while France is flying its EADS/Israel Aerospace Industries Harfang/Heron 1 systems from Sigonella, Sicily (above). France has also brought other assets closer to the operational area, having moved its Thales Areos/Reco-NG reconnaissance pod-equipped Rafale strike aircraft there from Solenzara, Corsica.

For some nations, Unified Protector has been a voyage of discovery. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have learned lessons by deploying and operating their respective Mirage 2000-5s and Lockheed Martin F-16s as part of a major coalition campaign. Others, such as Denmark, have surprised their partners by their willingness to perform a large number of strikes using a detachment of just four F-16s deployed in Sigonella. By 31 August, its aircraft had dropped more than 800 weapons during the NATO campaign and the preceding US-led phase, Odyssey Dawn.

The use of aircraft carriers and other aviation-capable ships by at least four nations has highlighted the contribution that such vessels could make to a long-term military presence off Libya, although by late August the French navy's Charles de Gaulle had returned to port and the UK's Royal Navy's helicopter carrier HMS Ocean was undergoing scheduled maintenance.

With the Libyan Arab Air Force having ceased to exist as a functioning entity and the majority of its inventory destroyed, NATO nations may need to remain involved in the country for several years to come, dependent on the success or otherwise of the National Transitional Council's attempts to introduce democracy.

The potential need to continue providing expensive surveillance and strike cover will provide a fresh test of the willingness and ability of some alliance members to sustain contributions in the face of budgetary constraints and in some cases political opposition at home.

Following a meeting between contributing nations, NATO on 30 August said: "There is no intention and no plan to put any ground troops in Libya. NATO will not be taking the lead role in a post-Gaddafi period. That is very clearly for the United Nations to do." But for some allied air forces, "mission accomplished" is unlikely to mean "mission over".

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Source: Flight International