NATO turns up the heat on Colonel Gaddafi

French officials say that attack helicopters will soon be deployed in Libya. It's a major escalation of the assault on Gaddafi – but has NATO gone too far?

The war in Libya is entering a new phase. Monday night saw the most intense bombing of Tripoli – the Libyan capital – since operations began. At the same time, French officials revealed that Gaddafi could soon be facing a new and deadly kind of weapon: the Apache attack helicopter.

For two months, NATO warplanes have been enforcing a 'no-fly zone' over Libya. They've also been launching airstrikes against forces loyal to the Libyan dictator, Colonel Gaddafi.

On the ground, a disorganised army of rebels has been locked in military stalemate with Gaddafi's troops, with neither side able to make any significant advance.

So far, NATO involvement has been through so-called 'fast-air' – fast-moving jet aircraft which use laser-guided missiles and bombs to attack from afar. They have mainly been targeting fortified positions and armoured vehicles.

The deployment of attack helicopters will change that picture. Apaches can provide close air support, hovering above battlefields and picking targets with much greater precision than a distant jet. Mounted chain guns provide close-range anti-infantry fire. They could also provide covering fire for rebel attacks.

This marks a significant step up in the amount of pressure NATO is putting on Colonel Gaddafi. It also makes operations a lot riskier for British and French pilots.

High-flying fighter jets are safe from Gaddafi's anti-air defences, but helicopters, hovering close to the ground, can be brought down by rockets – or even a well-placed rifle shot.

When NATO first intervened in Libya, one rule was made clear: the campaign was for aircraft only. No foreign soldiers would be deployed on Libyan soil.

But although France and Britain are sticking to the spirit of 'no boots on the ground,' the new helicopter force means they're taking the fight a lot closer to ground level.

Moving targets
Are the helicopters a step too far? NATO went in to protect civilians from Gaddafi's attacks, and quickly stopped loyalist troops from advancing.

But yesterday Britain's armed forces minister spoke of the need to 'intensify the campaign.' The aim now seems to be to destroy Colonel Gaddafi's regime and to help the rebels go from defence to attack. Critics say the Libyan operation has experienced 'mission creep', and is getting out of control.

For the rebels, however, any increase in NATO firepower is a good thing. Struggling rebel fighters have long been calling for NATO to play a more active role in the conflict. They say Gaddafi is a tyrant, and must be removed. If that's the mission, Apaches will certainly help.

You Decide

  1. 'The Libyan intervention was a bad idea.' Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  2. How bad would it be for British or French soldiers to put 'boots on the ground' in Libya? Why?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to a newspaper arguing either for or against the deployment of attack helicopters in Libya.
  2. Do some research into the role of helicopters in modern warfare. How important are they and why might Apaches make a difference in the Libyan conflict?

Some People Say...

“There's nothing good about weapons of war, however advanced.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How much difference can a few Apache helicopters really make?
The AH-64 Apache has been described as 'the most capable and lethal attack helicopter in service today.' It has twin engines, a pair of lethal 30mm chain guns, Hellfire missiles and Hydra rocket pods. Each one costs around $20m.
And they're going into action in Libya?
That's what the French say. France will be deploying its own Tiger helicopters, and officials said UK Apaches would soon follow. The UK government, however, says the decision has not yet been made.
What's this 'mission creep' that people are worried about?
'Mission creep' happens when a mission doesn't have clearly defined objectives and the aims keep growing and changing. In Libya, critics say, NATO arrived to protect civilians but is now taking part in a civil war.

Word Watch

Operation
Military actions are organised into 'operations', each with a distinct name. So, for example, the British campaign in Afghanistan is 'Operation Herrick'. The Allied invasion of Normandy in WWII was 'Operation Overlord'. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden was 'Operation Neptune Spear'.
NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a military alliance. Several NATO countries are involved in Libya but the main forces come from Britain and France.
Colonel Gaddafi
The 68-year-old Libyan dictator. He has ruled Libya for more than four decades.
Covering fire
In military jargon, 'covering fire' is a technique where soldiers fire towards the enemy to force them to hide. While enemy forces take cover, friendly forces can advance.
Tyrant
A brutal and powerful ruler, from the Greek tyrannos, meaning 'king' or 'despot'. The dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex, gets its name from the same word.

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