WASHINGTON - Despite widespread praise in Western capitals for NATO’s leadership of the air campaign in Libya, a confidential NATO assessment paints a sobering portrait of the alliance’s ability to conduct such campaigns without significant support from the United States.
The report concluded that the allies struggled to share crucial target information, lacked specialized planners and analysts, and overly relied on the United States for reconnaissance and refueling aircraft.
The findings undercut the idea that the intervention was a model operation and that NATO could effectively conduct a more complicated campaign in Syria without relying disproportionately on the US military. Even with US help in Libya, NATO had only about 40 percent of the aircraft needed to intercept electronic communications, a shortage that hindered the operation’s effectiveness, the report said.
Mounting an operation in Syria would pose a greater challenge than the seven-month campaign that drove Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy from power, US officials said. Syria has a more capable military as well as a formidable array of sophisticated Russian-made air defenses that Pentagon officials say would take weeks of airstrikes to destroy.
Also, the Syrian opposition is more disjointed and dispersed than Libya’s, making allied efforts to coordinate with the rebels more difficult, a senior NATO official said.
“If anything were to be envisaged over Syria, even in purely hypothetical terms, it would also rely heavily on US capabilities,’’ said one senior European diplomat who reviewed the 37-page NATO report, which was completed in late February.
The report, whose findings and recommendations are expected to be endorsed by NATO ministers at a meeting in Brussels this week, is consistent with preliminary assessments that European and Canadian planes carried out the bulk of the combat flights to protect Libyan civilians, while the United States provided military support that was essential to accomplish the mission.
But the report and more than 300 pages of supporting documents, copies of which were obtained by the New York Times, offer telling new details about shortcomings in planning, staffing, and conducting the combat mission, as well as how commanders improvised to adjust.
The report also spotlights an important issue for the alliance that dates to the Balkan wars of the 1990s: that the United States has emerged “by default’’ as the NATO specialist in providing precision-guided munitions - which made up virtually all the of 7,700 bombs and missiles dropped or fired on Libya - and a vast majority of specialized aircraft that conduct aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, or ISR in military parlance.
“NATO remains overly reliant on a single ally to provide ISR collection capabilities that are essential to the commander,’’ the report said.
In this criticism, however, several US and other allied officials said they saw a silver lining. The NATO report played a large role in helping the alliance agree in February to acquire its own dedicated air-to-ground surveillance system to track and target hostile ground forces, the officials said.
The assessment also helped spur a French-led initiative backed by the Obama administration to set up a hub for allied surveillance aircraft at an Italian air base in Sicily. This concept is modeled after a similar approach NATO has developed in Afghanistan, and it is expected to be approved by allied leaders at a NATO summit meeting in Chicago next month.