Enter the drone: Gaddafi has reason to be afraid
Crispin Black: One mistake and Gaddafi could be taken out by a missile ‘fired’ from the Nevada desert
It may not be over by Christmas but it should, with luck, be different this time. Here's why. There is one crucial ace in the pack that Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, the previous targets of no-fly zones, did not have to face on any large scale Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles: in plain language, hunter killer drones.
The United States fields two types the smaller and lighter Predator and the truly awesome Reaper with a 66ft wingspan and a payload of 14 Hellfire missiles or laser-guided bombs. It can stay in the air for 14 hours at a stretch.
It¹s about half the size of a Second World War Lancaster but its smart weapons pack several times the punch. To carry out the Dambusters raid in 1943, Wing Commander Guy Gibson would have needed only three of these extraordinary machines.
The drones are flown remotely, usually from Creech Air Force base a few miles outside Las Vegas. The 'pilots' who control them have been honing their skills with strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It¹s not just the technical specs that are impressive. These machines are the cutting edge of a whole intelligence system think flying iPod or Kindle. Backing them up them are a battery of intelligence-gathering sensors across the world that Bletchley Park could only dream of.
It¹s not yet clear what part the RAF will play in enforcing UN Resolution 1973 - though there are early reports from Italy of British planes being armed with missiles - but GCHQ's listening stations in Cyprus and Gibraltar will be invaluable.
The combination of near real-time target intelligence and Reaper's 14-hour 'loiter time' means that there is a good chance of killing Gaddafi himself and/or his sons early in the campaign if President Obama wants to.
In 1987, Gaddafi managed to hide in the desert from Ronald Reagan's warplanes. But this time it's going to be much more difficult to avoid detection by state-of-the-art allied intelligence systems.
If he gives himself away - the modern equivalent of a cigarette lit by a weary sailor on an Atlantic convoy with a U-Boat in pursuit - and if there is a Predator within 100 miles, it can attack within minutes. No take-off required. No briefing. No pre-mission bacon and eggs for the crews it just attacks.
The pilot from his armchair in the Nevada desert can guide a missile or a 500lb bomb through a tent flap in the Libyan desert.
One note of caution, though. Gaddafi will do everything he can to frustrate the no-fly regime. His bogus ceasefire - witness this morning's reported bombardment of Benghazi - is just the beginning of the procedural wrangles. Expect also some gruesome improvisation designed to weaken the allies' resolve.
Father and sons have the taunting and cunning mindset of serial killers and they seem to enjoy it. Human shields, hostages and some stuff we haven't yet thought of: you name it they will try it. They have already threatened to bring down civilian airliners (again).
But there are signs that Gaddafi's inner circle is feeling the pressure. His radio broadcast on Thursday night promising 'no mercy' for the people of Benghazi will rank as one of the great 'own goals' of the season.
Just as the UN Security Council was dithering into its second day of negotiations, his ravings were so bloodcurdling that even the Chinese Communist Party, perpetrators of the Tiananmen Square massacre, thought it over the top, withholding their veto.
Effective cunning needs sound judgment. Despite at least one PhD between them, it looks as though the Gaddafi family have lost the plot. ·
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