AFRICOM Airpower Challenges: One Flew over the Arab Spring Nest. The US on Air Operations in Libya Research Paper


The period of the Arab Spring was, doubtlessly, one of those events that shape the world history.

Followed by massive outbursts of violence and aggression, revolts in Libya had clearly gone completely out of control by the time that the world’s most powerful states could possibly do anything about it.

Therefore, the situation concerning the revolt in Libya, as well as numerous terrorist acts arranged by the Libyan rebels, required urgent regulation. Consequently, the assistance provided by the American Air Forces was more than welcome by the European states.

However, because of the breach of the U.S. Air Force Code of Ethics, which dictated that no actions of the air force crew should affect civilians, the measures undertaken by the U.S. military was considered inhumane and unnecessarily violent.

In a retrospective, it might seem that some of the actions taken by the members of the U.S. Air Force, as well as the commands given by the commanders, could have been less aggressive.

There is no reason to deny that a number of things should have been done differently when addressing the problem of the Libyan revolt, especially concerning the actions of the military towards the citizens.

Still, despite the fact that the U.S. Air Force has been accused of being too harsh on the Libyan citizens and breaking the Code of Ethics, which states that no civilians should be harmed in the process of revolt regulation, the decisions made by the U.S. Air Force commanders can still be justified.

By taking a closer look at the events of the Arab Spring and evaluating the consequences, one can draw a number of important lessons regarding ethics and military regulations of revolts.

AFRICOM Airpower Challenges: One Flew over the Arab Spring Nest. The US on Air Operations in Libya


The idea of protecting the Libyan population from the turmoil of the Arab Spring was definitely reasonable. However, it is worth keeping in mind that the U.S. AFRICOM faced a number of challenges when providing its assistance to the Libyan population.

Ranging from strategic to ethical, these concerns demanded urgent solutions, the latter predetermining the fate of the Libyan nation. If AFRICOM had paced the actions of the U.S. Air Forces in Libya more carefully, it would have avoided the accusations of the breach of the U.S. Air Force Doctrine ethics, as well as ethical norms adopted in Europe.

First Challenge: Kinetic Targeting vs. Non-Kinetic Targeting

Since, according to the Air Force Doctrine Document 3-0 9 November 2012, “Commanders employ lethal and nonlethal means, through kinetic and non-kinetic actions to create desired effects”1, it was necessary to come up with the strategy that allowed for attacking only the people who posed a threat to the well-being of the civilians and at the same time avoiding harming the latter.

Indeed, when analyzing the critique of the endeavors of the American Air Forces in regulating the political issues within Libya, one may notice that the claim of the U.S. Air Forces being unnecessary cruel to the civil population of the state are quite recurrent.

True, the AFRICOM organization was to face the dilemma of either being called unnecessarily violent for attacking both rebels and civilians, or providing inefficient help to the Libyan population, therefore, making the situation regarding the rebellion even more drastic.

In a retrospective, one could argue that taking such drastic actions as kinetic targeting was the only possible way of quelling the riot.

However, it was obvious that, from an ethical point of view, the U.S. Air Force and the AFRICOM did not handle the challenge of attacking solely the sources of conflict without hurting the civilians.

Second Challenge: Collateral Damage. Between Scylla and Charybdis

Stemming from the previous concern, the possibility of collateral damage as a result of the increase in civilians’ aggression was also to be prevented by the AFRICOM.

According to the existing code of the AFRICOM organization, in the process of an operation, the possibility of a collateral damage must be driven to zero, which the AFRICOM officials clearly failed to carry out.

As the Joint Operation Planning guide says, it is the concern of the commander of the plane, as well as the staff, to “determine how to maximize combat power against the enemy while protecting the friendly forces and minimizing collateral damage”2.

Again, it is necessary to emphasize the fact that the AFRICOM was in a no-win situation: if the U.S. air forces focused on striking down the rebellions, the process would have taken too much time for the operation to be carried out successfully; more likely, by the time that the U.S. had located the headquarters of the rebellions, the latter would have succeeded with the revolution, probably, killing even more innocent people in the process.

If the U.S. Air Forces had attacked the entire state without even taking the political convictions of their targets into account, the world community, as well as Libya, would have called them barbarians, who should have known better than intruding the political issues of another state.

Therefore, even though the actions of the AFRICOM should have been more subtle, at present, the policy adopted by the U.S. Air Force seems rather legitimate.

Third Challenge: Molding an Efficient Command Policy

As the recent records show, AFRICOM clearly lacked a well structured command policy3. As a result, when the necessity to maintain command policy in Libya appeared, AFRICOM had to come up with a new one within a relatively short amount of time.

With the lack of cultural understanding of the Libyan conflict, AFRICOM had very little chances for success in creating a brand new and nonetheless efficient command policy on the spot.

There is no need to stress the significance of a command policy that has been planned ahead and, therefore, can provide several strategies depending on the outcomes of the actions that were taken previously.

Without a decent basis, a command policy cannot possibly exist, which the case of the on-air operations on Libya, which the U.S. undertook, has proven.

Analyzing the situation created by AFRICOM, one can hardly spot the point at which it became obvious that the command policy needed reconsideration. While at the start of the operation, Locklear specified that the course of the future actions had been designed properly:

Locklear said one of the first things he did was obtain copies of the US Joint Forces Command “Joint Task Force Commanders Handbook” and give them to his component commanders so that they would understand their roles and responsibilities and how the force would be structured and organized4,

the further commentaries on the actions that the American Air Forces carried out in Libya pointed at the necessity to use the OPCON relationship5.

Seeing how the U.S. could have agreed with the OPCON concerning the future cooperation in Libya in advance, the command policy clearly left much to be desired.

Analysis: Facing the Challenges. When the Big Game Starts

Although the U.S. Air Forces could have done much better in their on-air operations on Libya, the given case provides the foil for crafting more efficient strategies for providing political assistance to the states that need it, e.g., Syria.

In a retrospective, the issue regarding the attacks on the civilians seems the most dubious aspect of the AFRICOM Air Forces performance.

Taking a look back at the strategies that the U.S. Air Forces adopted towards the protection of the Libyan population and the ones that were supposed to make the enemy surrender, one must admit that these strategies could be better thought out6.

Either for the lack of time, or care, the U.S. Air Forces attacked a number of civilians along with their actual targets, which could have been avoided, had the AFRICOM suggested a more elaborate strategy of taking the rebels down.

Given the technological possibilities, the key rebels locations, along with the rebel headquarters, could have been attacked, which would have made the rebels less enthusiastic about the further terrorist acts. Thus, the lives of a number of civilians would have been spared.

It is also remarkable that the command policy, which is traditionally designed with a careful consideration of the tiniest obstacles that may possibly appear in the way of the people performing the military operations, was more than flawed.

As the existing pieces of evidence show, the command policies clearly lacked clarity and coherency; in fact, command policies for the Libya operations were half-baked, with little understanding of the cultural and political specifics of the setting: “Guidance from the White House and DOD was confusing”7, as Libya: Operation ODYSSEY DAWN (OOD) Executive Summary reports.

Hence, it can be assumed that, on the one hand, the U.S. is to blame for the inconsistencies in the policy adopted for the operation.

On the other hand, it still must be admitted that, with the deficiency of information for further actions, the U.S. Air Forces managed to carry out the operation with a relative success8.


Despite the fact that the US on air operations in Libya were admittedly harsh and affected not only the rebels, but also the civilians, with around 4,000 people falling prey to the incautious actions of the AFRICOM air forces, the results were quite satisfying.

While the Operation Odyssey Dawn was far from perfect, it can be used as a lesson to learn when providing similar assistance to Syria9.

Claiming that the operations that were carried out in Syria by the U.S. Air Force were impeccable would mean making too big a stretch – after all, the world community has pointed at the obvious lack of humanity in the actions of the U.S. Air Force.

AFRICOM should have paced the strategy of the U.S. Air Forces in Libya more carefully, as well as address the issue of kinetic and non-kinetic targeting.

With a more elaborate strategy and the attacks of the center of aggression instead of blind attacks across the state, AFRICOM would not have been judged for the lack of ethics in the Arab Spring operation.

Reference List

AFRICOM and the Recolonization of Africa. 2012, Aug. 2.

Air Force Doctrine Document 3-0 9 November 2012. Washington, DC: Joint Publications 3-0, 2012.

Garamone, Jim. Africa Command Learns from Libya Operations. 2011, Sep.15.

Joint Operation Planning. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Navy Publications, 2011.

Libya: Operation ODYSSEY DAWN (OOD) Executive Summary. Suffolk, VA: JCOA, 2011.

Miles, Donna. Africom Forms Military Relationships with Libya. 2012, June 15.

Stevenson, Jonathan. AFRICOM’s Libyan Expedition. 2011, May 9.


1 Air Force Doctrine Document 3-0 9 November 2012 (Washington, DC: Joint Publications 3-0, 2012), 18.

2 Joint Operation Planning (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Navy Publications, 2011), IV-29.

3 AFRICOM and the Recolonization of Africa (2012, Aug. 2), .

4 Libya: Operation ODYSSEY DAWN (OOD) Executive Summary (Suffolk, VA: JCOA, 2011), 3.

5 Joint Operation Planning (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Navy Publications, 2011), 24.

6 Jonathan Stevenson, AFRICOM’s Libyan Expedition (2011, May 9), ().

7 Libya: Operation ODYSSEY DAWN (OOD) Executive Summary (Suffolk, VA: JCOA, 2011), 15.

8 Jim Garamone, Africa Command Learns from Libya Operations, 2011, Sep.15, .

9 Donna Miles, Africom Forms Military Relationships with Libya, 2012, June 15, .

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