The longer the US, and its allies wait to establish a No Fly Zone over Libya, the harder the job will be when the decision to do so is ultimately made.
Despite the institutional resistance from the Defense Department and the State Department, inside the beltway political pressure is building up in favor of such an operation, and the logic of the policy will, in all likelihood, win out. The big question for US policymakers is whether it will do so in time to be effective.
Gaddafi's Libya has, at this moment, a pitiful air force, but its military is improving: every day we see that more and more sorties are being flown -= indicating that some of the large numbers of unserviceable aircraft that Gaddafi had sitting in storage are being repaired and put into the fight.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies 2001 report, Libya had, at that time, more than 450 combat aircraft. Even if most of these are now unusable, they are a valuable source of space parts. If Gaddafi were able to get dozens of plane like these into the air over rebel positions, it would be a big step towards his victory.
If called upon, the US Navy and US Air Force could knock these MiGs, Sukhoi's and Mirages out of the sky without too many problems. Such actions, however, could involve risks that would not exist if action were taken soon.
The Libyan air defense system that worries US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in just as bad a condition as the Libyan air force, but, like the air force, it is almost certainly being upgraded and repaired, probably by mercenaries and by troops from Gaffadi's remaining allies -- in particular the SA-3 and SA- 6 surface-to-air missile systems, which date from the 1960s and 1970s. I properly used, however, they can still be deadly. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War the SA-6 was effective against Israeli fighter bombers, and the SA-3 was used in Serbia in 1999 to bring down a US F-117 stealth fighter.
There are also four major long range SA-5 Surface-to Air-Missile units, which have been proven to be inaccurate and easily evaded by US aircraft. The SA--5 was designed by the Soviet Union to be used with nuclear warheads against American bombers, and -- according to a few reliable reports -- against US missiles, but as a conventional air defense weapon it has been a bust.
An additional danger is that the longer the US and its allies wait to set up a No Fly Zone, more advanced air-defense weapons may be smuggled into Libya. America's problems in gaining air supremacy would be considerably increased if Gaddafi got hold of a number of SA-22 "Pantsir" Gun/Missile air defense weapons from Syria or elsewhere.
The outcome of this war will be decided by which side wins the race between the growing number of effective armored vehicles and operational aircraft available to Gaddafi, and the rebels' ability to take and hold towns, and to create, from almost nothing, an army capable of defeating Gaddafi's loyalists. The No Fly Zone, and even a No-Drive Zone will give the rebels the time and the safe-havens needed to build up the forces that will drive him out of power.
In some ways the action in Libya resembles the early days of the Spanish Civil War, when neither side was well organized or well armed. The government troops were almost entirely made up of barely organized militias, as described by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; their weapons were mostly confiscated from government arsenals, and they had extreme difficulty in getting modern artillery, tanks or planes from anywhere except, eventually, the USSR. The rebels had a few well organized regular army units, were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, but they controlled little terrain; and, as the Spanish Navy refused to join them, they found it hard to move their best forces from one part of the country to another. It was only through the use of German transport-aircraft moving regular "Moorish" units from Spanish Morocco to southern Spain that the Franco revolt was able to gain any traction at all.
The unconfirmed reports that Gaddafi is using mercenaries from Sudan, Syria, Belarus and elsewhere are not important: although the mercenaries may add to his front line combat power as they can repair and maintain the massive arsenal of more than a thousand tanks, mostly Russian, and a very wide variety of other heavy weapons that Gaddafi has in storage.
For the Obama administration, the motivation to get Gaddafi out of power as soon as possible should be obvious, the longer the war goes on the higher gas prices will climb. History shows that high gas prices can not only choke off a recovery, but also lead to high unemployment and inflation. A long war in Libya would insure that oil prices remain above $100 a barrel well into 2012 and perhaps beyond.
The successful environmentalist effort to shut down large chunks of America's oil exploration industry has made the US uniquely vulnerable to oil price hikes. It may be too late to revive oil drilling operations in Alaska's ANWR area or in the Gulf of Mexico, but if oil production in Libya restarts soon, then there is a good chance that oil prices will fall to below $100-$90 dollars a barrel.
The US has an large and longstanding account to settle with Gaddafi, The good people of Libya have given us the opportunity to settle it. We should take it. While there are good reasons to believe that whatever government the rebels set up will not be a close ally of the US, it could certainly be an improvement. There is even a remote chance that it could turn into a model for an Arab Muslim democracy; after all, the people have suffered through 40 years of a Socialist, Islamist regime that, in spite of all the oil, has left them miserable and impoverished..