Christian Le Mière: Such advisers have been used before – but had to fight

Military liaison teams advise the Afghan army on tactics, logistics and intelligence and participate in fighting
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The Independent Online

The announcement of the commitment of a military liaison advisory team by William Hague to Libya is the latest sign of UK support for the anti-Gaddafi transitional government in Libya.

The UK team is likely to comprise a small number of military officers, with no more than 15 personnel. It is unclear whether the advisory team will entirely be made up of army officers or whether it will include air force and naval officers also. Given the land focus of the conflict thus far, it seems likely that army personnel will form the bulk of the UK personnel, particularly as there is a large Nato flotilla off the coast of Libya and coalition aerial assets continue to exert air dominance.

Such advisory teams are not a new concept; they have been used in conflict and peacetime by a variety of nations. The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, for instance, created Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams to advise Afghan army units on intelligence, communications, logistics and tactics. However, OMLTs are far more involved in action than the British forces are likely to be: they often participate in fighting and provide support in engagements, calling in air strikes and indirect fire.

Mr Hague has denied any role for the UK team in conflict or directly training the anti- Gaddafi rebels for fighting. Instead it will advise the National Transitional Council on how to improve their military organisational structure, communications and logistics. This would, he stated, allow them to better distribute humanitarian aid and deliver medical assistance.

However, such advice will also facilitate their military operations by aiding the rebels in their overall communications and logistics – a key failing in the rebellion thus far, which has been disorganised and lacking in communications infrastructure, which to some extent helps explain the topsy-turvy nature of the fighting until now.

This aspect will not be lost on British diplomats, and seems very relevant given the continued degradation of command and control within the pro-Gaddafi forces. The Ministry of Defence highlighted how Nato air and missile strikes over the past two nights had targeted command-and-control facilities in Libya that "had been identified as playing a key role in the co-ordination of the movement of Colonel [Gaddafi's] forces". As Gaddafi's command and control slowly deteriorates, therefore, the UK is hoping its advisory team will be able to make the rebels a more organised force capable of holding their own against the loyalist forces.

The advisory team will also inform the UK Government about the current course and likely trajectory of the conflict. A small diplomatic liaison team, headed by the UK's ambassador to Italy Christopher Prentice, is already in Benghazi, but a military team will allow direct interaction with the anti-Gaddafi rebels. This will aid the UK assessments of the rebels' capabilities, provide regular intelligence about the conflict and allow the British Government to consider what other support might be helpful in ensuring a successful conclusion to the revolt.

Christian Le Mière is a research fellow for the Defence and Military Analysis Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies