Operations in Libya - Defence Committee Contents

5  Implications for future operations

136. During our inquiry we discussed with witnesses the lessons that could be learned for future operations, not just in the context of the UK's contribution but also for the future of NATO and the UN. In evidence we heard that both NATO and the UK were committed to holding 'lessons learned' exercises for the Libyan operation. Other countries such as France are also carrying out similar exercises.[158]

NATO Lessons Learned Exercise

137. Prior to the end of operations, at his monthly press conference on 5 September 2011, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary-General, said that NATO could start learning the first lessons from the operation:

    Most of those lessons are positive. [...] First, the crisis shows NATO's flexibility. Nobody saw it coming. But NATO decided to act within 6 days. We set up the operation. And we adjusted it when we needed to.

    Second, it shows NATO's openness. We were joined by partners old and new. From the Middle East and Northern Europe. We agreed what needed to be done. We agreed how to do it. And we did it. Because our partners know us, they trust us, and they are ready to work with us.

    Third, it shows NATO's strength. This was the first Alliance operation where European Allies and Canada took the lead. And the Alliance got the job done. European Allies and Canada led the effort. But this mission could not have been done without capabilities which only the United States can offer. For example: drones, intelligence and refuelling aircraft. Let me put it bluntly: those capabilities are vital for all of us. More Allies should be willing to obtain them.

    That is a real challenge. And we will have to find the solutions at the next NATO Summit in Chicago.[159]

138. We pursued the lessons that NATO could learn from the operation at our evidence session with UK Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council and the UK Military Representative to NATO. Air Marshal Harper, UK Military Representative to NATO, outlined how the NATO's formal lessons learned process would be carried out:

    The lessons-learned process itself will be conducted by the joint alliance lessons-learned centre in Portugal, which is an Allied Command Transformation organisation. I am confident that it will indeed tackle every single part of the system in drawing together its conclusions. I know that the SACEUR, Admiral Stavridis, and the SACT, General Abrial, are keen that there should be an efficient and swift process, so that we do not lose momentum in learning these lessons and applying their results.[160]

139. We have already mentioned the speed with which NATO reacted to developments in Libya and to the interaction with non-NATO states (see paragraphs 74 and 81). Another positive lesson identified by Mariot Leslie, UK Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, was "the value of minimising civilian casualties and the positive effect that that had on the politics of the operation, both inside and outside the Council". She added that although the conflict was ongoing [at the time of the evidence session] there might also be lessons for NATO from the way in which the conflict ended.[161]

140. Mariot Leslie and Air Marshal Harper agreed that the capability gaps highlighted by the operation and the over-reliance on the US for particular capabilities were areas for concern that NATO had to address. Air Marshal Harper said:

    On the perhaps negative side, Libya has highlighted capability gaps. The gap in our ability to project a mission at this sort of range in these circumstances can only be filled at the moment by those capabilities held by the United States. As we described earlier, there are steps in place to try to address those gaps, and they are being given the right sort of priority.[162]

141. Other witnesses' views of the success of the mission suggested that the operation raised additional challenges for NATO which needed to be addressed. In their interim report on Libya, the Royal United Service Institute noted that the operation in Libya "reflected a number of new and sometimes novel, political and military elements",[163] and:

    The relationship between the United States and its other NATO partners is unlikely to remain unaffected by this crisis. Ambiguity over the command arrangements, the extensive back-up support that US assets had to provide, and the overt political splits in the alliance, even while it was acting as the military arm of the United Nations in enforcing Resolution 1973, saw NATO acting in a way it had never done before. [...]

    If future NATO operations are likely to be as ambiguous and vulnerable as this one; success in this case principally dependent on the determination of France and Britain to act militarily, then bilateral and trilateral defence relations between the key European players may loom much larger in the future than their commitment to NATO, as such.[164]

142. Professor M J Williams, Visiting Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, was critical of the NATO alliance:

    [...] The Americans ostensibly 'handed off' the Libya mission to Europe, but they remained deeply involved. [...] NATO is at the very least a two-tiered alliance. Any pretense that the Alliance is based on mutual solidarity is rubbish. Libya reinforced a division evident since the late 1990s. The UK must consider the impact of a multi-tiered NATO on future policy. [...][165]

143. Some aspects of NATO's involvement in operations in Libya were particularly positive, especially the involvement at an early stage of non-NATO nations. However, we also note concerns expressed to us that the US "handed off" the operation to European allies and that NATO is a divided Alliance. We consider that the US decision not to lead the engagement in Libya was positively beneficial, in that it forced European members of NATO to face their own responsibilities, and shone a light on the gaps in European capabilities—gaps which we consider it essential to be plugged. Experiences from operations in Libya have revealed challenges for the political and military future of NATO, including the requirement to develop new ways of working especially if the US does not participate in operations and there is further involvement of non-NATO countries. These challenges must be considered as a matter of urgency.

UK Lessons Learned Exercise

144. In a statement to the House of Commons on 5 September 2011, the Prime Minister announced that Sir Peter Ricketts, the National Security Adviser, would lead a lessons learned exercise in respect of operations in Libya:

    Of course, after any such conflict and an intense period of military, Government and humanitarian activity, it is right to learn the lessons. Sir Peter Ricketts, my national security adviser, will be leading a lessons-learned exercise on how the Whitehall machine operated and what lessons we can learn. That should include the operation of the oil cell, which I think did a very good job of trying to help deny oil to the regime and to make sure that the rebels, who were not getting oil products, got them.[166]

145. In their evidence to us, the UK's Permanent Representatives to the UN and North Atlantic Council and the UK Military Representative to NATO told us that they expected to be consulted as part of the review.[167] The National Security Adviser's review was published on 1 December 2011 and covered the period of military action in Libya (19 March to 31 October 2011) and some of the key events in the lead up to military action.[168] The review focused on "how the central co-ordination mechanisms worked through the crisis" and covered seven key functions:

  • Strategic direction/decision making
  • Operational co-ordination and implementation
  • Humanitarian response
  • Stabilisation planning
  • Co-ordination with Allies
  • Informing Parliament
  • Strategic communications[169]

146. The review concluded that "overall the central co-ordination mechanisms worked well" and highlighted 14 specific areas.[170] However the review also stated that the "campaign highlighted a number of lessons for handling future conflicts, including:

  • initial delays and other problems with the consular evacuation from Libya, which are reflected in the Review of Consular Evacuation Procedures[171] which the FCO published on 4 July. The first priority in any crisis is likely to be effecting the safe extraction of those UK nationals who want to leave, as early as possible. The FCO is taking forward the recommendations identified in its Review;
  • integrating better economic analysis and policy more prominently at the early stages of conflict planning;
  • establishing a clear cross-Government process on UNSCRs, led by a senior FCO official, to maximise the effectiveness of sanctions and evaluate options while retaining the flexibility necessary in fast-moving international negotiations;
  • the UK should ensure that it obtains key command positions in those parts of a reformed NATO Command Structure that are most likely to be relevant to the conduct of future operations;
  • being ready to review long-standing policies, such as recognition of States not Governments, even where deeply engrained;
  • bringing the Strategic Communication Steering Group (SCSG) into the Cabinet Office to support the newly-formed NSC communications team;
  • the importance of establishing a clear operating rhythm as quickly as possible to balance the frequency of meetings against the need for sufficient time to implement Ministerial decisions; and
  • briefing situation reports to Ministers more efficiently through e.g. a single dedicated oral briefer supported by a single integrated written update".[172]

147. We commend the Government for commissioning a lessons learned exercise undertaken by the National Security Adviser. We request a list of all those consulted as part of this exercise. We note that the review stated that "overall the central co-ordination mechanisms worked well". However we also note that the review highlighted a number of lessons for handling future conflicts. In response to our Report, the Government should set out the steps to be taken and timescales involved to resolve these concerns. We look forward to hearing how the Government proposes to "ensure that it obtains key command positions in those parts of a reformed NATO Command Structure that are most likely to be relevant to the conduct of future operations", including clarification of which key command positions.

148. We note that the National Security Adviser's review stated that individual departments would conduct their own lessons learned exercises. The MoD should clarify the remit, format and schedule of the reviews it has carried out or will be undertaking and we expect to see the reports. We request a briefing from the MoD's Defence Operational Capability on the lessons learned from the Libya operation.

149. We pressed the Minister on whether the lessons learned exercise would include a calculation of the costs of the operation and an assessment of the cost effectiveness and value for money of the assets deployed during the operation, including comparisons with those of NATO allies. He responded:

    It is a perfectly legitimate question and, as part of the lessons-learned exercise, we will most certainly be scrutinising questions of cost. On the particular point that you are making, where you suggest it would be a valid comparison to look at the costs of sorties made by the RAF against those made by other nations, such a comparison would only be valid if you were comparing like with like.[173]

150. We commend the Minister for the Armed Forces' commitment to include the costs of the operation in the lessons learned process. This should include an assessment of cost effectiveness and value for money of the assets deployed. We note his comment that cost comparisons with allies on different types of operations are only valid if comparing like with like (including the difficulty of the operation), but recommend that where possible these comparisons should be undertaken.

Conclusion: a successful operation?

151. When we asked Nick Harvey MP, Minister for the Armed Forces, for his assessment of the operation, he said:

    I think by any objective measure, the operation as a whole and UK involvement in it should be judged a success. [...]

    We have played a leading role on the military, diplomatic and humanitarian fronts. Militarily, we flew a fifth of all the air strikes, launched more than 50 helicopter missions from HMS Ocean and helped to enforce the maritime embargo and ensured that the sea lanes were free from threats to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered, which was particularly relevant in Benghazi and Misrata. I think that by all measurements it has been a success for the UK and a success for NATO. It has demonstrated our expeditionary air, maritime and amphibious capabilities and we have shown our Armed Forces in the way we wanted to project them—as flexible, adaptable and able to sustain operations and routine defence commitments worldwide, using allies and allied basing facilities where appropriate.[174]

152. When asked what had not gone so well, he responded:

    We do not think from this that anything went conspicuously badly... It has certainly been the case throughout that we have been quite stretched as an alliance in terms of the intelligence picture with which we were working. There have been challenges in terms of air-to-air refuelling, for example, but in all instances, we have managed, working with allies, to deploy different bits of different nations' capability to make it work. I think that there is no conspicuous failure that we are chastising ourselves about, but it would be surprising if a lessons learned exercise did not distil for the future some practices that could improve another time.[175]

153. Commodore Steven Jermy, a recently retired naval officer, was more critical in his assessment of the mission:

    Events, and Her Majesty's Government's actions in Libya suggest that the UK has still not recovered its ability to think and act strategically in pursuit of the national interest. Although, at the time of writing, the campaign appears to have taken a more positive turn, this may be temporary, and very possibly more to do with good luck than with good strategy. Luck—good and bad—very often plays an important role in operations and war, and we should naturally be prepared to ride good luck. But equally, we should also work to understand how to improve our strategy-making and, thus, our overall strategic performance.[176]

154. Professor M J Williams, Visiting Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, was also concerned that the operation had shown that the UK and other European allies remained dependent on the United States at a time when that country was changing its foreign policy and defence focus, that UK resources had been stretched by the operation and that the UK had been lucky that the operation had ended when it did.[177]

155. We note the concerns of witnesses regarding the operation, but believe that the mission in Libya should be regarded as a success. NATO and other nations acting under the authority of the United Nations have ensured the safety of Libyan civilians who would otherwise have been at risk of being killed by pro-Gaddafi forces.

156. UK Armed Forces have contributed significantly to the successful conclusion of the operation. UK Service personnel have yet again performed their duties in a professional and dedicated manner. The capabilities deployed by NATO and the UK performed well, minimising civilian deaths and collateral damage. However the mission has also highlighted challenges and issues that need to be addressed and taken forward by the United Nations, NATO and the UK Government. The mission in Libya was successful in discharging the UN mandate. The real test is whether the success of this mission was a one-off or whether the lessons it has highlighted mean that future such missions can be successfully undertaken, whilst maintaining the UK's capability to protect its interests elsewhere.

158   Qq 191-194 & Q 197 Back

159   NATO Secretary General Monthly press briefing, 5 September 2011. Available at: www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/opinions_77640.htm  Back

160   Q 194 Back

161   Q 191 Back

162   Q 194 Back

163   Royal United Services Institute Interim Campaign Report, Accidental Heroes, Britain, France and the Libya Operation, September 2011, p1 Back

164   Ibid, p 13 Back

165   Ev w5 Back

166   HC Deb 5 September 2011, col 29; further information on the exercise was given at HC Deb, 12 September 2011, cols 983-4W Back

167   Qq 121 & 191 Back

168   Libya Crisis: National Security Adviser's Review of Central Co-ordination and Lessons Learned, 1 December 2011. Available at: www.number10.gov.uk/news/report-on-libya/  Back

169   Libya Crisis: National Security Adviser's Review of Central Co-ordination and Lessons Learned, 1 December 2011, p 5. Available at: www.number10.gov.uk/news/report-on-libya/ Back

170   Ibid, p 3-4 Back

171   Available at: www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/consular-evacuation-review  Back

172   Libya Crisis: National Security Adviser's Review of Central Co-ordination and Lessons Learned, 1 December 2011, p 4. Available at: www.number10.gov.uk/news/report-on-libya/ Back

173   Q 290 Back

174   Q 196 Back

175   Q 197 Back

176   Ev w1 Back

177   Ev w4-5 Back

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Prepared 8 February 2012