- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

LONDON (AP) — A “no-fly zone” over Libya likely would have a limited impact on Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s offensives against rebel forces and civilians, military experts said Tuesday as pressure appeared to be intensifying for restrictions.

Launching its annual report on international military might, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the use of jets by Gadhafi loyalists appeared to pose less of a threat than the deployment of attack helicopters, which can get around flight prohibitions because they are far harder to detect.

The report also warned that defense budget cuts in the West over the past year had accelerated a shift in military powers toward emerging countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Retired British Army Brig. Ben Barry told reporters that a protracted conflict likely would see opposition forces increasingly able to match the capability of loyalists.

Much of Libya‘s regular army still under Col. Gadhafi’s control is poorly equipped, lacks a coherent command structure and is probably suffering from waning morale, he said.

“The longer this goes on, the greater the chances of the rebels increasing their combat capability and the more chance there is for sanctions to bite,” Mr. Barry said.

Mr. Barry said that though there are better-equipped elite forces around Tripoli, they didn’t appear to have the capability to contain protests in the capital and simultaneously join offensives elsewhere.

“Using these troops outside of Tripoli could loosen his grip there,” Mr. Barry told reporters.

The institute estimated that as of November, Libya had 76,000 active troops and 40,000 militia fighter available as a reserve force. Many of those forces were based in eastern Libya and sided with the opposition, with elite troops and parts of the air force allied with loyalists closer to Tripoli, Mr.  Barry said.

Military aerospace analyst Douglas Barrie said that Col. Gadhafi has about 300 combat aircraft but that far fewer are likely to be operational and the leader appeared increasingly reliant on around 35 attack helicopters.

Because they are far smaller and slower moving than jets, it means traditional methods used to enforce a no-fly zone could fail to catch them, he said. Some radar can struggle to distinguish between a helicopter and a fast-moving car or truck, for instance.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Mr. Gates has suggested a no-fly zone would require an attack on Libya‘s air defenses. Mr. Barrie said that would not necessarily be required and that Col. Gadhafi’s regime was poorly equipped in any case. “It’s not a risk-free proposition, but the Soviet-era kit that the Libyans are equipped with is not state of the art,” Mr. Barrie said.

The United States and NATO allies on Monday increased the number of surveillance flights over Libya, while Britain and France said they also had begun drafting a U.N. resolution that could establish a no-fly zone.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said diplomats were working on possible flight restrictions, but he stressed that no decision had been made yet to introduce it at the U.N. Security Council.

The institute’s annual report said that last year Britain made an 8 percent cut to its annual 37 billion pound ($59 billion) defense budget over four years and launched an alliance with France aimed at pooling some nuclear resources and equipment.

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