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Operation Odyssey Dawn - C o r p o r a t I o n

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Operation Odyssey Dawn

Two days after U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 passed, a coalition of countries 

took immediate action to enforce it. On March 19, President Sarkozy hosted a high-

level meeting in Paris intended to demonstrate the breadth of the political coalition 

backing the intervention. Qaddafi had not pulled back his forces. As the meeting in 

Paris closed, Sarkozy stepped out to announce that two French fighters had struck 

regime forces outside Benghazi, initiating the intervention.



Within a few hours, the United States fired over a hundred Tomahawk land-

attack cruise missiles (TLAMs) at central nodes of Qaddafi’s air defense system along 

the Libyan coast. The Royal Navy also participated in these initial TLAM strikes, 

though on a much smaller scale.


 With Libya’s air defenses crippled, the coalition 

proceeded to fly multiple air strikes against other regime targets in Libya, including 

some B-2 bomber sorties launched from bases in the continental United States. Within  

72 hours, the no-fly zone was established (see Figure 2.3). Ultimately, twelve countries 

would participate in this operation, but the United States flew the vast majority of 

strike sorties.



The initial operations took place amid some degree of debate about what com-

mand and control arrangements should be. As one senior official recounted, “The 

whole thing ramped up so quickly I don’t think anybody saw the speed [with which] 

the two UNSCRs passed. Everybody was expecting a couple of nations in the Security 

Council to block it . . . That took everybody by surprise.”


 Only a week before, the 

expectation in the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had been that any operations 

would be largely humanitarian in nature. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had 

been given the lead role, with support from U.S. European Command (EUCOM), 

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and other combatant commands. The passage 

of UNSCR 1973, with its civilian-protection mission, however, raised the question of 

whether EUCOM should be the supported command, given that the operation now 

had much greater kinetic requirements and that many of the forces necessary would 


Radio France Internationale (Paris), “French Fighter Jets Fly over Country,” March 19, 2011.


Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) (OASD PA), “DOD News Briefing with Vice 

Admiral Gortney from the Pentagon on Libya Operation Odyssey Dawn,” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department 

of Defense, March 19, 2011. 


OASD (PA), “DOD News Briefing with Vice Adm. Gortney,” March 28, 2011. 


Interview with senior U.S. official, July 9, 2012. 

22    Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

be generated from or would transit through Europe. In the end, however, AFRICOM 

retained the lead role, establishing Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn. Operational com-

mand fell to Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, while AFRICOM’s commander, General 

Carter Ham, had overall strategic command.


While this arrangement answered who would lead U.S. operations, confusion 

remained about who would be in charge of overall coalition operations. The French 

had originally sought a joint Franco-British operation, and for the first few days of the 

campaign the French military continued to insist that the partners’ operations were 

simply concurrent, while AFRICOM claimed that it was the overall lead. Other allies, 

comfortable with U.S. leadership, already were transferring command of their forces to 

the U.S. 17th Air Force under AFRICOM, as Denmark did on March 19.


 Within a 


Joe Quartararo, Michael Rovenolt, and Randy White, “Libya’s Operation Odyssey Dawn,” Prism, Vol. 3, 

No. 2, March 2012, pp. 141–156.


“Norway Insists on Acting Under US Command in Libya,” Agence France-Presse, March 22, 2011. 

Figure 2.3

Operation Odyssey Dawn Initial Strikes and No-Fly Zone



No-fly zone as of March 24, 2011

Initial strikes

Strikes on March 20, 2011

Strategic and Political Overview of the Intervention    23

few days, command relationships between the U.S., British, Italian, and French opera-

tions were sorted out, and by March 25, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, 

Norway, Spain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all had joined the operation.

Follow-up strikes in the next few days continued to target Libya’s air defenses 

while striking regime C2 targets in Tripoli and elsewhere, and addressing the most 

immediate regime threats to civilians in Benghazi and Misrata. By midweek, the United 

States added A-10 “Warthogs” and AC-130 Spectre gunships to further enhance coali-

tion capabilities against regime forces on the ground.


 Gradually, however, the newer 

members of the coalition were flying more of the sorties, and the United States made a 

conscious effort to transition from a lead to a supporting role in military operations. As 

Vice Admiral Gortney explained in a March 28 briefing on operations, “U.S. military 

participation in this operation is, as we have said all along, changing to one primarily 

of support.”


Within a week, Odyssey Dawn had succeeded in stopping the advance of regime 

forces on Benghazi and allowed the rebels space to move westward, retaking the town 

of Ajdabiyah and advancing on the town of Brega. With Benghazi secure, the rebels 

had a stronghold and safe haven from which to operate for the rest of the war. There, 

they could train their forces and liaise with international actors, significantly strength-

ening their chances of success against the better-equipped Qaddafi regime. In the west, 

only the port city of Misrata was managing to hold off Qaddafi’s forces. It was under 

brutal siege, and with Qaddafi’s forces in flight from Benghazi, the coalition began to 

focus on its relief. 

These important accomplishments set the stage for the successful NATO opera-

tion that followed and the ultimate victory of the rebels over the regime. Much conster-

nation remained, however, over the exact objectives of military operations. President 

Obama had clearly called for Qaddafi’s departure prior to UNSCR 1973, but that 

resolution and the Defense Secretary’s warning order (WARNORD) implied that the 

objective of military operations was civilian protection.


 It was not inconceivable in 

theory for the military operation to focus on civilian protection and the diplomatic 

and political effort to focus on ousting Qaddafi. But in practice, the distinction was 

difficult to sustain. In fact, as several commentators pointed out at the time, multiple 

outcomes were possible, and the preference of U.S. and allied officials was unclear. It 

may be that they themselves were unsure. As one prominent foreign-policy observer 

wrote in the Washington Post, “The administration has launched the United States into 

battle with no clear vision of what a successful and stable outcome looks like.”



OASD (PA), “DOD News Briefing with Vice Adm. Gortney,” March 28, 2011. 


OASD (PA), “DOD News Briefing with Vice Adm. Gortney,” March 28, 2011.


Multiple interviews. See also, Quartararo, Rovenolt, and White, “Libya’s Operation Odyssey Dawn.”


Gideon Rose, “Tell Me How This One Ends,” Washington Post, March 27, 2011, p. B1.

24    Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

At least three outcomes (not including failure) were imaginable. The first would 

be a quick collapse of Libyan support for Qaddafi, forcing him from power. Although 

some leaders—Sarkozy, for example—might have hoped for this outcome, it was soon 

clear that it would not happen. The second possibility was a partition of Libya between 

a “free” east and a Qaddafi-ruled west. The third was the rebels’ armed overthrow of 

the regime, as actually occurred. Leaders obviously wanted to avoid stating publicly 

that regime change was an objective of the military operation for diplomatic reasons, 

but within allied governments, debate lingered over how the scenario would play out.



In general, because the operation had come on so quickly, thinking about end states 

had received some, but perhaps not enough, attention.

President Obama had declared early on that the American role would be limited, 

and that after initial operations of roughly a week, the United States would pull back 

into an overwatch role and provide only those unique assets required to allow its allies 

to continue the operation.


 As Odyssey Dawn was under way, therefore, intense dis-

cussions occurred in allied capitals about what would follow.

Transition to NATO Command

The United States determined soon after UNSCR 1973 that NATO was its preferred 

structure for continuing the military action against Qaddafi. Using the Alliance would 

give the United States significant influence, even after it pulled back its strike aircraft. 

Moreover, important voices in the U.S. government—including the U.S. ambassador 

to NATO, Ivo Daalder—believed strongly that NATO was the only organization that 

could provide the command-and-control facilities required by a broad-based coali-

tion operation of this kind. Of no less importance, NATO’s established relationships 

with the other partners—both from Europe and from the Middle East—would greatly 

facilitate success in coordinating the efforts of such a broad coalition.


 Finally, this 

comparatively low-difficulty intervention against a much-reviled despot could help 

NATO’s reputation, and success might even serve as something of a balm for the 

wounds the Alliance had suffered in Afghanistan and over Iraq. As one senior U.S. 

official put it, “There is no such thing as an opportune war, but it was a very opportune 

time for a war in NATO.”


 NATO Secretary General Rasmussen, a former Danish 

prime minister, also was eager for an opportunity to get back into the limelight and 


Interview with senior U.S. official, January 24, 2011.


See Christopher S. Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 70. 


Interview with senior U.S. official, December 16, 2011.


Interview with senior U.S. official, July 9, 2012. 

Strategic and Political Overview of the Intervention    25

worked to ensure that all the components of the operation were brought under NATO 



The British government agreed with the United States’ position that NATO was 

the appropriate organization through which to pursue the operation, as did many of 

the smaller countries participating in the strikes. Germany indicated a willingness to 

tolerate a NATO action, provided it was not asked to participate. Even Turkey, which 

initially had strong objections to the intervention, was willing to go along with NATO, 

if only because its position within the Alliance afforded it the possibility of greater con-

trol over NATO operations.


  France, however, disagreed. The French have a long and complicated history with 

NATO, but under President Sarkozy, France had taken important steps back toward 

the Alliance, most notably by announcing in 2008 that it would rejoin the NATO 

integrated military structure following a 42-year absence. But now, the French argued 

that a coalition of the willing was more suitable than a NATO operation. They hoped 

this would allow the broad-based political grouping they had gathered in Paris on 

March 19 to become a guiding political body for military operations, circumventing 

the Alliance altogether. At the same time, they sought to minimize the influence of 

countries such as Turkey that were reticent about the operation.


As a result, even as the Franco-British-U.S. coalition struck Qaddafi’s forces, 

French, British and U.S. diplomats were wrangling in Brussels over whether opera-

tions would be brought under NATO command. Within a few days, however, French 

officials agreed to allow the less demanding maritime arms embargo operation to come 

under NATO command. Shortly thereafter, they also agreed to allow no-fly zone oper-

ations to be brought into NATO. Only after a four-way conference call between the 

French, British, Turks, and Americans, however, was Secretary Clinton able to broker 

a deal between France and Turkey, and France agreed to allow the entire Libyan opera-

tion mission to come under NATO command.


  The United States soon began to reduce its role in the strike missions. NATO 

operations still would rely heavily on a mostly U.S.-provided logistical and ISR back-

bone, but U.S. strike aircraft would be pulled back and strategic and operational com-

mand and control would be transferred from AFRICOM to NATO on March 31. 


Interview with member of the NATO International Staff, February 6, 2012.


Interview with senior U.S. official, February 6, 2012.


Jean-Pierre Stroobants, “L’alliance atlantique 


tale ses divisions à bruxelles sur la gestion de la crise  

libyenne,” Le Monde, March 23, 2011; Jean-Pierre Stroobants, “Libye: Batailles diplomatiques en coulisses,” Le  Monde, March 24, 2011, p. 1; Ian Traynor, “Turkey and France Clash over Libya Air Campaign,” The Guardian, 

March 24, 2011.


Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung, “Coalition Nears Agreement on Transition for Operations in Libya,” 

Washington Post, March 23, 2011. 

26    Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

The speed with which NATO developed and agreed on its operational plans for 

what became Operation Unified Protector was unprecedented for the Alliance. NATO 

developed and agreed upon four operational plans much more quickly after the out-

break of violence than it had in preparing for its interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. 

These plans comprised a maritime embargo, a no-fly zone, a civilian-protection mis-

sion, and a humanitarian mission. (Of the four, only the humanitarian mission plan 

would not be activated.


) In part, this rapid response was possible because prudent 

planning already had started in the run-up to the U.N. resolutions, and because NATO 

could benefit from plans previously developed within AFRICOM and EUCOM. But 

to say that this pace was an indication of underlying Alliance unity—as some NATO 

and U.S. officials would later suggest—tends to obscure the fact that operational plan-

ning also moved rapidly in part because several countries, notably Germany, absented 

themselves from the process altogether due to their fundamental disagreement with 

the entire operation. (See Table 2.1 for a comparison of OOP and OUP command 


Operation Unified Protector

When OUP began, the preceding coalition operations had prepared the ground for it. 

Most of the same countries participating in Odyssey Dawn also participated in Unified 

Protector. The major shift was the reduced operational role of the United States. Bul-

garia, Romania, Turkey, and Greece were now added to the coalition as providers of 

naval assets. Qatar, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates continued flying alongside 


Interview with senior U.S. official, July 9, 2012.

Table 2.1

Comparison of Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector Command Relationships

Operation Odyssey Dawn

Operation Unified Protector


UNSCR 1970 & 1973

UNSCR 1970 & 1973



NATO Alliance


National governments

North Atlantic Council

Supported command


Joint Force Command Naples


General Carter F. Ham, USA

Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, USN

JTF commander

Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, USN

Lieutenant-General Charles 

Bouchard, RCAF


Major General Margaret Woodward, 


Lieutenant General Ralph J. Jodice 



617th AOC, Ramstein AB, GER

CFAC, Poggio Renatico, ITA

NOTE: For OOD, only U.S. command arrangements shown. 

CFACC=Combined Forces Air Component Commander

Strategic and Political Overview of the Intervention    27

the coalition’s NATO members, and Jordan joined the coalition.


 At the start of OUP, 

14 NATO nations were participating, along with the four non-NATO partners.



Figure 2.4.) Only six of the NATO states, however, were conducting air-to-ground 

strike missions.


  A combined joint task force (CJTF) was established at Joint Forces Command 

in Naples, Italy. Admiral Locklear’s deputy, Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles 

Bouchard, took over command. This kept Locklear officially within the chain of com-

mand, but freed him to focus on the other ongoing operations with which Joint Force 


Elizabeth Quintana, “The War from the Air,” in Johnson and Mueen, 2012. 


Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis, “NATO’s Victory in Libya,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2012.


Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Norway, and the United Kingdom; Italian aircraft initially flew defense 

suppression but not strike missions.

Figure 2.4

Principal Operating Bases for Operation Unified Protector

NOTE: Ship icons do not represent actual patrol locations. Aircraft deployed to each base are listed

in Appendix B.   



28    Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

Command (JFC) Naples was engaged (including Kosovo, which appeared to be at risk 

of a flareup), and allowed the United States to step back from the public diplomacy of 

the operation.


 Bouchard reported to Admiral James Stavridis, who was dual-hatted 

as the commander of U.S. European Command and as NATO’s Supreme Allied Com-

mander. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) exercised overarching political control of 

the operation. Control of air operations shifted from the CAOC at Ramstein Air Base 

(AB), Germany, to the CAOC at Poggio Renatico, Italy, under the command of U.S. 

Air Force (USAF) Lieutenant General Ralph J. Jodice II. 

In the 1999 Kosovo air campaign (Operation Allied Force), allied governments 

had the opportunity to scrutinize target lists, a practice that led to much criticism 

from military leadership both during and after the war. (France in 1999 had been one 

of the countries most adamant about the need for this scrutiny, but it was exactly this 

problem that the French sought to avoid.) In subsequent years, efforts were made to 

devolve authority from the NAC to the military commands, and in the case of Unified  

Protector, the effort to avoid excessive deliberation over targets was further reinforced 

by the establishment of an internal “striker group” that called most of the shots in 

the NAC. Although all decisions were formally made “at 28” by all members of the  

Alliance—whether or not they were participating in the operation—most of these 

decisions were in effect “precooked” by the eight members that actually were partici-

pating in strikes as part of the civilian-protection mission: the United States, France, 

Britain, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and Italy. In the event, the meddling 

for which political leaders often had been criticized in Operation Allied Force was 

avoided in Libya.


The NATO operation got off to a difficult start, however. At the outset, the rebels 

had managed to push several hundred kilometers west from Benghazi as Qaddafi’s 

forces retreated under the shock of coalition airstrikes, but as NATO took over, they 

started retreating eastward. Within a few days they were nearly pushed from Ajdabi-

yah, the last town before the rebel stronghold. NATO strikes on Qaddafi’s forces at the 

nearby town of Brega bought them a reprieve, and they managed to halt the regime 

advance. NATO would carry out repeated airstrikes against Qaddafi’s positions, but it 

would be several months before the rebels would retake any ground. The line of con-

frontation in the east therefore remained fixed. 

After three weeks of NATO operations, little progress was evident. Both NATO 

and the rebels were suffering from a number of constraints. The rebel forces themselves 

lacked equipment as well as military experience. This greatly hindered their ability to 

take advantage of opportunities that NATO strikes provided. Only as they gained 

capabilities and experience would their ability to take and hold ground increase.


Interview with senior U.S. official, July 9, 2012.


Interview with French official, February 7, 2012; interview with UK official, February 7, 2012.

Strategic and Political Overview of the Intervention    29

Meanwhile, the Alliance was suffering from shortfalls of tankers and especially 

ISR. Of the thousands of Alliance member-owned fighter aircraft, fewer than one 

hundred were participating in the mission. Yet, according to U.S. officials, limited ISR 

capacity was the principal constraint on operations, especially when it came to targe-

teers with the skills to support offensive air operations. As OUP began, the United 

States and other NATO members were forced to surge hundreds of staff from EUCOM 

and elsewhere to fill gaps in the CAOC in Poggio Renatico.


  It is possible that the support staff requirements for the operation were not fully 

appreciated in some allied capitals when the initial commitments to the operation were 

made. It took about a week to get the necessary equipment and staff to the CAOC, and 

another two weeks before all of the kinks were worked out and the allied ISR effort was 

well integrated. As one senior officer involved in the effort explained, “By the begin-

ning of May, General Jodice had all the necessary tools at his disposal: a good ATO [air 

tasking order] cycle in place that got all the national targeting packages coordinated, 

put into NATO, and fed out to the different strike nations.”


Another important operational change that took place alongside the transition 

from coalition to NATO operation was a shift in emphasis from static to dynamic 

targeting. Most of the targets in the early days of Operation Odyssey Dawn were fixed 

targets such as surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, major C2 facilities, and weapon stor-

age bunkers. As these targets were destroyed, the focus of the air campaign increasingly 

came to rest on dynamic targets identified during the sorties themselves. 

Frustrated with the progress on the ground, French and British leaders were 

already pushing their NATO counterparts for more force contributions by mid-April.



In Germany’s case, support for the intervention actually grew over time, and eventually 

would include an offer of post-conflict police trainers as well as significant amounts 

of financial aid for the new Libyan government. Having abstained from the Security 

Council vote, however, the Germans would not consider a military contribution. 

Poland’s absence from the fight was also noteworthy, since the Poles had a sizable 

force of F-16s, but Warsaw argued that their training was insufficient for the task—an 

argument that most other nations thought was cover for not wanting to participate. 

The Polish opt-out was less irksome to U.S. officials than the German abstention, even 

if it was still regarded as unfortunate. Given Poland’s participation in the International 

Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, it is possible—though by no means 

certain—that the United States’ decision to step back from strike operations may have 

lessened the pressure on Poland to contribute to OUP, insofar as it was misinterpreted 

as a sign of lesser U.S. interest in the overall mission. 


Multiple interviews.


Interview with senior U.S. official, July 9, 2012.


National Public Radio (NPR), “NATO Allies Question Their Role in Libya,” NPR, April 16, 2011. 

30    Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

Some of the other NATO members that did not participate, however, such as the 

Baltic states, simply lacked capabilities needed to contribute to a modern air war. As a 

result, U.S. officials would later argue that most of the states that could have partici-

pated in the operation did so.


 The fact was that across Europe, the operation came 

at a time when the European financial crisis was severely straining defense budgets. 

Because NATO operates on a costs-lie-where-they-fall basis, any spending on Libya 

operations would further reduce funds available for the participating militaries, reduc-

ing existing training and potentially threatening procurement programs. This—as 

much as the politics of the operation—clearly played a role in several countries’ deci-

sions to stand on the sidelines. 

Most military officials also blamed the stalemate on an overall lack of clarity 

about strategic end states. The U.S. president had called for Qaddafi’s ouster prior to 

UNSCR 1973, as had his British and French counterparts. Yet the U.N. mandate only 

called for operations to protect civilians. To complicate matters, in a speech at the 

National Defense University on March 28, President Obama had clearly said regime 

change was not an objective of the operation.


 As a result, no small amount of con-

fusion arose about the intervention’s actual strategic goals, and this made operational 

planning more difficult.

The reality, of course, was that the ambiguity in strategic end states was a natu-

ral consequence of both the speed with which the operation was undertaken and the 

breadth of the coalition that had been brought together to support it. After all, the 

Arab League had called for a no-fly zone, not the civilian protection mission, and 

had actually wobbled in its support for the operation in the immediate aftermath of  

UNSCR 1973. A more specific set of objectives—such as calling for Qaddafi’s ouster—

would have been impossible to get through the U.N. Security Council and likely would 

have made it much more difficult for some Arab states to support the operation.

A meeting of the NATO foreign ministers in mid-April helped clarify the issue, 

and eventually, the striker group also decided that Qaddafi’s forces were fair game any-

where in Libya as long as attacks against civilians were occurring somewhere because 

those attacks posed an intrinsic threat to the Libyan populace.


 NATO thus pursued 

a two-pronged strategy at the start of its operations, targeting Qaddafi’s command and 

control and lines of supply while also striking directly at forces that were attacking 

the civilian populace. The focus was accordingly on Qaddafi’s forces in Brega, his C2 

nodes in and around Tripoli—including the headquarters of Qaddafi’s 32nd Brigade, 

which was responsible for many of the attacks—and the regime forces shelling the port 

city of Misrata.


Interview with senior U.S. official, January 24, 2012; interview with senior U.S. official, February 7, 2012.


The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on 

Libya,” Washington, D.C., March 28, 2011.


Interviews with NATO officials, February 7, 2011.

Strategic and Political Overview of the Intervention    31

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