LONDON - The Libyan air campaign has highlighted critical shortages in NATO capabilities across ISTAR, command and control, and secure communications, including a "mind-boggling" inability to pass information among allies, according to the U.S. Air Force's commander in Europe.
"To conduct air operations, we need the right tools, and speaking as the NATO air component commander, I have to tell you we have some critical shortfalls," Gen. Mark Welsh told an audience of top air force officers and industry executives in London on July 14.
"We need more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability, and we need it now. We need to improve our dynamic targeting and our overall intelligence capability and capacity," he told the Royal United Services Institute air power conference.
Although he didn't say so, most of Welsh's remarks were aimed at his European allies. Much of the ISTAR effort against the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is being provided by the U.S. supported by the British.
Continental European NATO members were certainly the target of a stinging attack by British Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who, speaking at the conference the previous day, said some NATO members wanted the insurance of the alliance without paying the premiums.
"Far too many in Europe get a free ride. The contribution of some is pathetic," Fox said.
The U.S. commander listed command and control and secure communications as not being up to scratch or sufficiently robust.
"Quite frankly, not being able to pass information between allies in this day and age of technology is mind-boggling," Welsh said.
To round out the litany of capability problems, he said NATO nations must resolve the issue of logistic support and weapon availability during extended operations, as well as address shortfalls in tactical airlift.
Welsh said the capability shortfalls in the Libyan campaign led by Britain and France were occurring in what is a small conflict.
"Libya is a relatively small air operation. Under the NATO definition, it doesn't even qualify as a small joint operation," he said.
Welsh said it was easy to identify where NATO was coming up short but much more difficult to prioritize and address the problems, particularly with economies struggling and defense budgets declining across most of the alliance.
What is clear, though, is that with budgets tightening, NATO members had to stick together to resolve the capability issues.
"None of us can afford to go it alone. NATO once again is a partnership of necessity," he told the audience.
The key question to consider, he said, is that if NATO members believe coalition warfare is the future, why are we not preparing for it?
There had been some successes, such as the NATO Joint Terminal Air Controller Program and the Strategic Airlift Consortium, but he said Europe could do more to help itself.
A European Air Transport command could help with tactical airlift shortage; something similar might be done with intelligence capabilities.
"Maybe we could see a European targeting center or regional analysis center. There will be plenty of opportunity to share the burden on ballistic missile defense," Welsh said.