Do We Care Less About Air Strikes When Pilots Are in the Cockpit? The Droneless Air War in Libya

By Robert Chesney
Thursday, September 1, 2016, 10:19 AM

Are you paying attention to Operation Odyssey Lightning, the U.S. air campaign underway for a full month now in Libya? Not many people are, which is interesting considering that we are approaching 100 airstrikes there in four weeks.


Support Lawfare so we can continue bringing you articles like this one.

Why so little attention? Part of it is that Trump coverage is eating up so much media space. Part of it is that, after fifteen years, stories of this kind just aren't grabbing the public's attention as easily. And part of it is that the strikes seem primarily if not exclusively to involve scenarios at or near what is passing for a "front line" between ISIL forces in Sirte and US-backed forces trying to drive them out. But I wonder if part of the neglect also stems from the fact that we are using manned aircraft and helicopters rather than drones; it's hard to fit the Libya story into the familiar drone-mania framing, after all.

At any rate, here's a brief primer on the US air campaign in Libya (which began on August 1st): The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, off Libyan shores. The Marines are using Harriers and Super Cobras--yes, with actual Marines in the cockpit--to carry out airstrikes against targets of opportunity around the ISIL stronghold at Sirte, in support of the US-backed local forces attempting to drive ISIL out. There have been at least 92 such strikes over the past four weeks. You can keep up (at a very high level of generality) with the strikes through the periodic summaries that AFRICOM posts here, and through the occasional videos here. A report yesterday indicated that the President has decided to extend Wasp's mission an additional month at least, as the fighting around Sirte (and potential successor fighting) continues.

As for the legal framework: From an international law perspective, the situation is straightforward: these armed attacks are carried out at the invitation of Libya's Government of National Accord. From a domestic law perspective, the argument seems to hang in the first-instance on the now-familiar claim that the 2001 AUMF extends to ISIL. The interesting twist the Odyssey Lightning presents, of course, is the extension of that authority to Libya and the manifestation of ISIL present there. Given that the 01 AUMF has always been construed by the government to have no geographic boundaries vis-a-vis al Qaeda--that is, given that the constraining mechanism is supposed to turn on whether a group is sufficiently tied to AQ and also engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners--this is not particularly surprising.