FactCheck: Is Britain Nato’s top gun in Libya?
“…the United Kingdom and France with, at times, the indispensible support of the United States, and then the support of many other allies, acted decisively in March to rescue this situation (in Libya)”
Foreign Secretary William Hague, 1 September 2011
Britain “won’t be left behind” in the grab for Libyan oil contracts, William Hague said today, as world leaders flocked to Paris to plot out the new Libya.
And why should we? Rumours are rife that Libya’s new government plans to hand the French the keys to 35 per cent of the country’s oil. And we’ve done just as much to help Libya as the French, haven’t we?
Certainly, we’re ahead of the Chinese and the Russians – who both opposed Nato’s air strike, but who both turned up in Paris today. The latter of which had only recognised Libya’s new government this morning.
But how do Britain’s efforts stack up against other Nato countries? FactCheck investigates.
Nato aircraft have clocked up a total of 21,090 sorties (missions) in Libya since March 31.
The majority of these were “non-strike” sorties, for example enforcing the no-fly zone or helping with reconnaissance.
And of these, the US was easily the biggest contributor – latest Pentagon figures show American sorties accounted for a quarter of the total.
But the Americans flew far less strike sorties. These are missions that engage an enemy target (though they don’t necessarily involve dropping bombs or firing missiles).
Just eight of Nato’s 28 members were prepared to attack, and these eight totted up 7,920 strike sorties (though one – Norway – withdrew last month).
Nato doesn’t give a breakdown of which countries did what, so the best we have to go on are the figures quoted by the NATO-affiliated foreign policy think-tank Atlantic Council.
Here’s the Council’s list of the most recent number of strike sorties to the number of total strike sorties:
France: 33 per cent
US: 16 per cent
Denmark: 11 per cent
Britain: 10 per cent
Canada: 10 per cent
Italy: 10 per cent
Norway: 10 per cent
Britain’s figure of 10 per cent puts its number of strike sorties at a third of France’s and on a par with every other European country.
As Nato’s largest contributor overall, the US attacks show President Obama’s attempts to keep American forces in the background worked to some extent – and is perhaps what Mr Hague meant when he said that “at times” US support was indispensible.
Yet the Pentagon figures show 101 drone strikes – and as the director-general of RUSI, Professor Michael Clarke, points out: “Very few allied attack missions were flown without a US electronic warfare aircraft above them acting as a guardian angel”.
“The European allies were hardly ‘going it alone’ in this operation”, he added. Plus, other European members were extremely reluctant to engage. Turkish and Spanish aircraft were banned from attack missions, Poland didn’t deploy any forces and Germany refused to get involved.
While the UK’s contribution is unconfirmed by the Ministry of Defence, the Atlantic Council sources a Guardian article, which gleaned the stats – 700 UK strike sorties by August 15 – from a British defence official. The MoD would only give FactCheck the general Nato numbers mentioned above.
We also know that the French provided the only aircraft carrier, and Europe’s biggest warship, the Charles de Gaulle (pictured). And the French deployed around twelve attack helicopters to the UK’s five.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy stuck his neck out on Libya; providing double the strike support of the Americans and three times as much as the British.
While Mr Hague was reluctant to share the limelight beyond the entente cordiale to other European countries, let alone beyond, Sarkozy praised the Nato alliance as “an indispensable tool”.
“For the first time since 1949 NATO was put at the service of a coalition led by two determined European countries, France and Great Britain,” Mr. Sarkozy said yesterday. Libya, he said, had proved “a strong contrast” to past European weakness.
Monsieur, you’re really spoiling us.
The UK has been credited as France’s wingman in Libya, but the Atlantic Council’s figures suggest our contribution is on a par with Italy, Canada, Denmark and Norway, which pulled out a month ago.
*Update 2nd September: In an interview with Radio 4 David Cameron claimed the UK conducted 20 per cent of all Nato strike sorties in Libya. He said: “Britain performed 1,600 of those, so around a fifth of strike sorties and I think that is punching, as it were, at our weight or even above our weight.” The MoD confirmed the numbers to FactCheck and revealed that the UK has conducted 12 per cent of all sorties overall.
By Emma Thelwell
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