Air Force vet discusses no-fly zone risks

Libyan rebels fire anti-aircraft rocket
Opposition Rebel fighters try to shoot a SM 7 anti-aircraft rocket at a Libyan air force jet loyal to Libyan Muammar Qaddafi in Brega March 3, 2011.
SIPA

While the fighting in Libya continues, the U.S. is searching for options that would both force embattled leader Muammar Qaddafi to quit, and that the rest of the world can agree on.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the CBS News' "The Early Show" that the U.S. will not go it alone on this decision, either.

"We believe it's important that this not be an American or a NATO or a European effort. It needs to be an international one. And there is still a lot of opposition," Clinton said.

The most dramatic option under serious consideration is to establish a no-fly zone that would put an end to the bombing runs conducted by Qaddafi's air force. However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that would require air strikes against Libya, most likely cruise missiles fired from ships off shore.

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"A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses," Gates said.

CBS News correspondent David Martin reports there are military veterans out there who agree with Gates' assessment.

"This is not risk-free. in fact, this is very high risk," said Air Force veteran David Deptula.

Now retired, Deptula ran a no fly zone over Iraq with a force of 50 planes and 1,600 people.

"With that number of people and aircraft, we operated inside Iraqi air space about 6 hours a day, 3 to 4 times a week," Deptula said.

Iraqi aircraft rarely challenged the zone but there was still a danger to American pilots.

"There were many times that we would fly that we would get shot at by air defenses," Deptula said.

No planes were ever lost, but 26 people died when two U.S. helicopters were mistakenly shot down by an American jet over the no-fly zone. Because they fly close to the ground, helicopters are harder to identify on radar than jets, and helicopters are an important part of Qaddafi's arsenal.

"I think that probably their greatest threat are their helicopter-type forces," said Gen. James Amos, Marine Corps commandant.

There are other ways to shackle Qaddafi's forces. The U.N. has already ordered an arms embargo and naval ships could be used to enforce it, but even a leak-proof embargo takes time to work.

Any decision to intervene appears to be days away. As for the fighting, it has entered what one official called "The stalemate phase."

The rebels do have shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles. They just need to figure out how to use them. Once they do that, they can start shooting down Qaddafi's planes on their own.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.