The United States has quietly withdrawn its air and sea assets from Libya and virtually ended its military intervention against Muammar Qaddafi's armed forces. This action over the weekend exposed NATO and its leading powers Britain and France as badly short of the air and sea capabilities necessary for halting Muammar Qaddafi's military advances, enforcing a no fly zone over the territory he controls or maintaining a sea blockade on Libyan ports.
debkafile's military sources report that US Air Force AC-10 Thunderbolt and AC-130, which are designed for attacking tanks and other ground targets, disappeared from Libyan skies Saturday, April 2. They were followed Sunday by the departure of all 100 American fighter-bombers from the Libyan war arena.
In consequence, the scale of Western coalition air attacks dropped abruptly by 80 percent.
Other coalition allies still have 143 warplanes in action over Libya, but less than half are capable of combat operations. The rest are used for surveillance and espionage and include the slow-moving transports which are easy prey for ground fire.
Western air force experts say that this number is too few to sustain effective combat duty for longer than 24 hours at a stretch and only over small patches of territory, such as the towns of Tripoli, Misrata or Ajdabiah – not enough to police the entire sweep of the Gulf of Sidra or broad spaces east or west of Tripoli.
Those experts note that, even when American warplanes were still in action, the troops loyal to Qaddafi were not prevented from recapturing cities along the Gulf of Sidra. The no-fly zone, supposedly the centerpiece of the coalition's military campaign against Qaddafi, was never enforced outside the skies of the rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk in the east. Without US participation, even that reduced task will be almost impossible to maintain.
Qaddafi has taken advantage of coalition shortcomings to start deploying his fleet of 145 large air transports. Free of around 90 percent of Libyan airspace, they are now able to move troop reinforcements and ordnance from place to place.
debkafile's intelligence sources report that since last week, those transports have also been sent outside the country to load up at a number of African military air bases on ammunition and spare parts, which the Qaddafi regime purchased from Arab and African sources as well as arms traffickers.
Western estimates that a large part of his loyalist armored and ground forces were put out of action by American bombardments have proved over-optimistic; more than 80 percent of those forces appear to be in "good" operational shape and the number of troops who defected does not appear to exceed roughly 1,200.
As US aerial bombardments tailed off Saturday, so too did sea-borne missile attacks on strategic government locations, as the US began pulling back the 12 warships anchored off the Libyan coast since March 19, including the USS Providence nuclear submarine and its escort of guided missile destroyers, which led the US naval assault on Libya.
With the Americans gone, Qaddafi is free to start rebuilding the air defenses and command centers which their attacks crippled; he is now in a position to effectively shut down the Western allied military campaign to topple him. In every military sense, that campaign was a flop.
Qaddafi's regime and military strength came out of the confrontation bruised and battered but in better shape than they themselves expected. NATO – and especially London and Paris – are still insisting that they are ready to fight to the finish. In fact, since the middle of last week, they have been exploring diplomatic channels for an exit.
The Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Kousa's arrival in London as a defector from the Qaddafi regime gave Britain the opening for a rumor that "at least 12 top-level" officials close to the Libyan ruler were looking for ways to desert the sinking ship and reach London. Another rumor claimed that Qaddafi's son, Saif al Islam, had sent a trusted messenger Mohammed Ismail to London to test the ground for his desertion too.
Those rumors were in fact signals to Qaddafi that the Cameron government was ready for a deal so long as the Libyan ruler agreed to give up his plans to recapture Benghazi and was willing to leave the rebels in control of the eastern province of Cyrenaica.
Such a deal would enable NATO, Britain, France and the other coalition allies to perpetuate the current standoff in Libya and quit the battlefield without losing face.
Conscious that their sponsors were looking for a way out, the rebels are angling for a ceasefire. Qaddafi for his part is cautiously testing his options after attaining his primary goal, the end of American military intervention, as his troops press forward.