ROME — Europe's leadersare carefully weighing the chances of pulling off an unusual military operation: Bombing small boats before they're loaded up with fishermen or illegal migrants.
What sounds like a hypothetical war college exercise has instead become a pressing political problem ever since one of the boats in question — operated by Libyan human traffickers — capsized in the Mediterranean, drowning more than 700 migrants.
The April 18 tragedy prompted calls around Europe's capitals to stop the traffickers, who last year sent 170,000 migrants escaping war and poverty from Libya to Italy in search of a new life in Europe.
With old fishing boats often capsizing thanks to the weight of their human cargo, and old zodiac dinghies often deflating at sea, the number of migrants drowning this year alone has now topped 1,600, fast approaching the 3,400 who died on the route last year.
Amid public outcry, the European Union offered a hastily drawn up 10-point plan involving a reinforcement of search-and-rescue operations at sea, but also "A systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers."
That was followed up by an emergency meeting of EU leaders on April 23, which agreed to consider ways to put the smugglers out of business. Or, as UK Prime Minister David Cameron put it, "smash the gangs," while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi talked about plans to "capture and destroy the boats."
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said, "We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather," adding, "the plans for military intervention are there."
Italian defense sources said Italian drones are already monitoring people smugglers who act undisturbed in Libya, which has collapsed into tribal feuding and lawlessness since the NATO bombing in 2011 helped oust Moammar Gadhafi.
Britain and France said they planned to seek a UN Security Council resolution to take action in Libyan territorial waters, while EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visited the UN on April 28 to gauge support.
Observers said bombing boats would depend on hitting them after they were acquired by traffickers from local fishermen in Libya and before they were packed with migrants — a risky mission.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon quickly raised objections. During a visit to the Vatican on April 28, he warned the idea was "not appropriate."
"Fishing is an important source of income [in Libya]," he said. "If you destroy boats, you may end up affecting the general economic capacity of people."
Ban said there is "no alternative" to negotiating a political truce in Libya that would restore law and order and allow a clamp down on traffickers.
But retired Gen. Leonardo Tricarico, a former head of the Italian Air Force, strongly backed military strikes, and said hitting the boats with UAV-launched munitions would be "simple."
"The Israelis have a good record in cluttered urban environments against targets that know how to hide," he said. "You would need excellent intelligence in Libya, which Italy has."
Italy's intelligence network in Libya derives from its oil interests in the country and traditional trade links.
Although Italy operates only surveillance UAVs, Tricarico said the Italian Air Force trained pilots to operate armed drones and could borrow US machines for the mission.
To avoid collateral damage, he recommended using precision-guided, inert munitions, that would put a hole in a boat with pinpoint accuracy, but not explode.
But another former Italian military commander took the opposite view, arguing that taking out traffickers' boats is unworkable.
"However you define this, it is an act of force in a territory which is not your own," said retired Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, the former head of the Italian military general staff and now vice president and security and defense analyst with the IAI.
"Furthermore, to use precision-guided munitions in a civilian environment, you need someone on the ground, which is unthinkable. Then there is the question of human shields. Additionally, I do not think the US would lend its UAVs for the operation."
Camporini said the only solution is the restoration of effective government in Libya. "But that is unlikely and becoming ever more unlikely as factions continue to fight along tribal lines and a second Somalia comes into being in Libya," he said.
Camporini retired from the top job in the Italian military in 2011, just before the NATO bombing campaign against Gadhafi, which was launched when the Libyan leader took on Arab Spring-type forces in the country.
"Although militarily effective, the air campaign was politically stupid," he said. "Politicians seized on it to further their own agendas. I recall when French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told a meeting in Paris that his aircraft had already taken off to bomb Libya. It was an unacceptable fait accompli, the consequences of which we are experiencing now."