The Libyan Uprising, a Tactical Analysis
OK, thought I’d have some fun with this looking at it purely from a tactical or wargaming perspective. I’ve done a lot of wargaming, too much really. And Libya is a classic battlefield so to speak for wargames. That’s because some classic battles were fought there during World War Two, Libya was the scene of much of the fighting between Germany’s Rommel and the Afrika Korps against the British Eighth Army. It as some interesting fighting indeed, I will have to write about it some day. For now though, the lessons learnt in World War Two still apply. And the rules for fighting in Libya are thus: Only mobile (motorized) ground forces are useful, ranged weapons rule, and air power rules. (By motorized I mean that troops with trucks or some other means to get around besides walking.) In other words, Libya is the perfect battleground for modern heavily equipped troops as opposed to mountainous or jungle lands where lightly armed guerrillas can have the upper hand.
Lets see how this came about. Look at the map above. That’s Libya. It’s a little smaller than Mexico or about twice the size of Texas. The terrain is also shown on the map above. IE it’s one big flat desert where vehicles can drive just about anywhere, but are completely exposed because there’s no cover. And as the map shows, the only things worth having are along the coast. So vehicles rule because moving by foot is just too damn slow when people with vehicles can just drive anywhere. And since it’s all open ground, the troops with the longer ranged weapons have an advantage. Air power rules over all because there’s no places to hide except in the cities. So fighting in World War Two went back and forth east to west in Libya several times. Now it should be noted that in World War Two if one had the manpower, time, and land mines it was possible to set up extensive fortified lines. Neither side has that luxury in the current fighting, so fortified lines aren’t a consideration.
So on the map above, the rebels hold the brown cities to the east, Qaddafi’s forces hold the green cities to the west. Misrata being the exception, it’s been besieged by Qaddafi’s forces for over a week now. At first, after his initial setbacks, Qaddafi’s tanks and motorized forces advanced rapidly to the east, reaching the gates of Benghazi, the heart of the uprising. The rebel forces were mobile, but they lacked the heavy weapons that Qaddafi’s troops had. Unlike stupid Hollywood war movies (which is to say, all Hollywood war movies,) untrained lightly armed troops fare very very poorly against anything resembling a professional army in an open fight. So Qaddafi’s forces kicked butt, and likely would have stormed Benghazi and that would have been that.
Then however, the USA intervened (I’m not even going to pretend there was anything “international” about this intervention) and quickly dominated the skies over Libya. And quickly destroyed the equipment of Qaddafi’s mobile forces. Their tanks, trucks, and artillery were sitting ducks. Reduced to foot soldiers, fleeing is pretty much Qaddafi’s troops only option. And as I type, hastily organized rebel mobile forces are now once again advancing rapidly westward towards Tripoli, where Qaddafi is holed up. Basically pickup trucks and SUVs filled with fighters and small weapons.
What happens now? I don’t see Qaddafi has any option but to retreat to Tripoli and dig in. As I explained, there’s no such thing as natural defensive lines in Libya, no rivers or mountain passes to defend. And his troops don’t have the time to build any sort of fortified line. So I would expect that in a week or so, Qaddafi will once again be back in Tripoli with rebels in control of most of the country. And that’s where it get interesting again, because Tripoli is a large city and troops dug into a large city have some considerable advantages. They are no longer at the mercy of air power or ranged weapons, so if Qaddafi is going to make a last stand, the streets of Tripoli are it.
Assuming Qaddafi’s forces remain loyal and defend Tripoli, what happens then? Well, if civilian life and damage wasn’t a problem, the rebels could simply shell and bomb the city until it surrenders. However, the rebels likely do not have the heavy artillery or warplanes to accomplish that. So the USA can either give them the weapons to do so, or bomb it themselves. Both sound like unlikely prospects to me, in fact the idea that the Libyan rebels would decide to bombard Tripoli into submission sounds dubious to me. And even Obama is not clueless enough to order US planes to bomb Tripoli flat. I hope. OK, bombing is out, the second alternative is starving the city into submission. That could take months or years, and isn’t guaranteed to work. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to state that the rebels are unlikely to either bombard or starve Tripoli into submission.
So what’s left? Storming the city. IE rebels charge into the city with small weapons and fight with Qaddafi’s troops. And likely without much by way of USA air support. That’s because providing air support to troops fighting in city streets pretty much means getting up close and personal with jets and especially helicopter gunships. And that puts them in range small arms, and losses would be inevitable. Again, I think it’s safe to say that Obama won’t want a repeat of Black Hawk Down, so USA close air support is out of the question. Yes, if Qaddafi’s troops dig into Tripoli the rebels will have no choice but to charge into Tripoli. Where they will be ambushed and slaughtered in droves by Qaddafi’s professional soldiers.
In other words, there may not be a happy ending here. The rebel’s best bet is that Qaddafi’s forces will be so demoralized that they will flee rather than fight. Qaddafi and a few hundred loyalists might hole up somewhere and fight to the bitter end, but even a rag tag rebel army could deal with that. If Qaddafi has enough loyalist soldiers to defend the city, the Battle of Tripoli could be an ugly thing indeed. My current thinking is that if this war isn’t over in a week, it could drag on for months or years.
Good luck Libyan rebels, may your aim be true, your sense of justice great, and your desire for vengeance small.
(I’ve made a good faith effort to use the above images legally, the top image is Public Domain or close enough. The second image is a low resolution, grey scale reproduction of a Reuters image, and the third dates from World War Two and is in the Public Domain. The map of Libya is pretty basic, the size of the circles represents the population of the cities. The second image is Libya rebels with makeshift mobile forces, hey, it works as long as they don’t run into tanks or such. The third is a German long range 88mm anti-tank gun from World War Two. I chose it to illustrate the advantage long range weapons have in desert warfare. Note the 40 plus rings painted on the barrel, those are kill rings, each one represents a tank destroyed by that gun.)