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During the fighting this week in Libya, government forces have attacked rebels in the eastern part of the country with aircraft. The rebels have asked the international community to consider possible military action. The most widely discussed option is a no-fly zone that would keep Libyan military aircraft out of the skies. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, no-fly zones have been enforced before, but they are a military and diplomatic challenge.
TOM BOWMAN: Retired Navy Captain Tom Parker knows a few things about no-fly zones. He took part in one, flying a Hawkeye surveillance plane over the Balkans back in the mid-1990s to prevent Serbian forces from targeting civilians. And he says it might work in Libya.
Captain TOM PARKER (Retired, U.S. Navy): It limits the freedom of action of Colonel Gadhafi and his government. And also it puts enormous pressure on him, because now you've got Big Brother there breathing over his shoulders, garlic breath on his neck.
BOWMAN: But Captain Parker says breathing down Gadhafi's neck would require large numbers of American aircraft - from fighter jets to surveillance planes. There's a U.S. aircraft carrier in the region with dozens of warplanes - but not enough crew for 24-hour operations.
Capt. PARKER: The big limiting factor is the flight deck crew. If you're doing full-time round-the-clock operations, they'll run out of gas. That is, they'll get physically exhausted and it becomes unsafe after about a day.
Lieutenant General DAVE DEPTULA (Retired, U.S. Air Force): This is not a simple operation.
BOWMAN: That's retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula. He was the principal attack planner for the 1991 Gulf War. A few years later, he flew an F-15 fighter over Iraq, enforcing a no-fly zone. General Deptula says before the United States deploys warplanes, it needs to get backing from other nations, at the U.N., for example. And, Deptula says, the Obama administration must answer a basic question. What are you trying to do?
Gen. DEPTULA: Do you want to enforce a humanitarian effort? Do you want to assist the rebels in overthrowing Gadhafi? Do you want to instigate regime change on your own?
BOWMAN: Then there are practical military considerations. Gadhafi's radar and missile threat would have to be eliminated before putting American pilots in the skies over Libya.
That reality prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to chide those calling for a no-fly zone. Here he is testifying on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): There's a lot of frankly loose talk about some of these military options, and let's just call a spade a spade.
BOWMAN: Gates told lawmakers that a no-fly zone is essentially an American invasion from the sky.
Sec. GATES: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down.
BOWMAN: Another issue: a large number of Air Force refueling tankers would be needed so warplanes could gas up in the sky and continue their mission. Again, Captain Tom Parker, who now teaches at the Naval War College.
Capt. PARKER: If you're going to be flying fighter aircraft down, you're going to need lots of tanker assets to fly from Italy down to the vicinity of Libya.
BOWMAN: But refueling tankers are a key tool in Afghanistan. Secretary Gates worries that a long operation in Libya could hurt the Afghanistan mission.
Sec. GATES: If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan, for the Persian Gulf? Those are some of the effects that we have to think about. We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.
BOWMAN: But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says questions about the difficulty of setting up a no-fly zone have been heard before - 15 years ago in the Balkans.
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. Department of State): Eventually it was determined that it was in the interests of the peace and stability of the region, etc.
BOWMAN: Still, Secretary Clinton said the United States is a long way from deciding what to do.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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