The extent to which Britain's military is to be drawn into another conflict was a matter of heated debate last night as jets were being deployed to the Mediterranean in preparation for possible air strikes against the Libyan regime.
With Colonel Muammar Gaddafi declaring a ceasefire, it remained unclear how the British, French, Arab and US coalition would adopt its wide remit to use "all necessary measures" to protect civilians "under threat". Experts estimated that eight to 12 Typhoon (Eurofighter) and six to 12 Tornado GR4 jets would be deployed to a base in Italy or Cyprus along with air-to-air refuelling capacity. A Joint Force Air Component headquarters has already been set up at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
Nimrod surveillance aircraft – along with US air force Awacs (airborne warning and control system) – as well as the frigates HMS Cumberland and HMS Westminster are in the area while naval destroyers could also be deployed. Other options include deploying a hunter-killer submarine with Tomahawk cruise missiles or an Invincible-class helicopter carrier to insert or extract any special forces' missions. Experts, however, insisted there was no appetite for a major ground operation.
Resolution 1973 provides the broadest powers for interventions since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and legal experts said the exclusion of "a foreign occupation force of any form" would not necessarily preclude a ground presence that did not intend to remain.
While Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman refused to rule out the use of land forces, Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said: "There is absolutely no appetite from Britain, France and the US."
"We have really learnt our lesson (in Iraq and Afghanistan). We have learned our lesson so well that this intervention almost didn't happen," he added, pointing out that the essential co-operation of the Arab nations would shatter if civilian casualties mounted.
"If you lose the Arab states you essentially pull out the rug on which this has been built. Holding a coalition like this together can be a nightmare. What if in a month's time people say they've had enough and it's just Britain and France on their own?" The most likely option, sources said, was that special forces would be sent in to pinpoint targets or provide recovery teams in case of downed pilots.
Former senior officers said it was too early to judge the extent and breadth of Operation Ellamy, the Ministry of Defence code name for the mission, and how much of the burden Britain would shoulder given the amount of resources committed in Afghanistan. But the decision to play a key role in the joint mission to enforce a military no-fly zone amply demonstrated the shortfalls in the cuts brought about by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), others complained.
Professor Anthony Glees, director of security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham, added: "My understanding is that at least one US aircraft carrier will be involved. What people are saying is that when this actually happens, it will be the US who shoulders most of the burden. The British contribution can only be limited on a military level."
Former Royal Navy Commander Nigel MacCartan-Ward, the most senior Sea Harrier commander in the Falklands, said: "Establishing a no-fly zone to take out ground weapons systems and tanks is exactly the right thing to do. Like everyone else at home, I would not want another Iraq or Afghanistan. We will not be putting troops on the ground. This is the ideal solution."
However, he said the decision amply illustrated the folly of the SDSR, which opted to decommission the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and scrap the Harrier jump jets. "This would have been a golden opportunity to have Harriers and Ark Royal off the coast of Libya. This could have been done two or three weeks ago," he said.
Mr Joshi said the coalition forces could hold back and wait to see how the ceasefire offered yesterday by the Libyan regime plays out and whether Gaddafi would react violently to an emboldened opposition. "A UN Security Council resolution is an unbelievably elastic thing. It excludes occupying forces and arming the rebels. However, these things are simple to circumvent."