WASHINGTON – The French and Italians have sent their aircraft carriers home. The British have withdrawn their spy plane. Canada is pulling out air crews. The Danes are running out of bombs. And the Norwegians have dropped out entirely.
As their Libyan rebel allies finally are showing progress on the battlefield, members of the NATO alliance are scraping and scrounging these days to keep the five-month air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi’s government aloft long enough to make it to the finish line.
The strains are adding pressure for NATO to negotiate an end to the war, even if Gadhafi doesn’t leave the country as the Obama administration has long been demanding. And the effects of cost fatigue are mounting despite the fact that the rebels have advanced far enough to engage in fierce battles in two coastal cities on either side of the capital, Tripoli, on Friday.
With all the governments struggling to cut budgets, member countries are scrambling for savings, and in some cases begging or borrowing aircraft and munitions. Some are considering taking a “pause” in their participation.
“These pressures are real; they’re building. You can be sure we don’t want this to go on a day longer than it has to,” said a senior NATO official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
British, French and American officials now say Gadhafi could stay in Libya after giving up power if the rebels advancing on Tripoli agree. But this formulation poses a risk, U.S. officials acknowledge, because of the possibility he will continue to exert a strong influence on a future government.
“They changed the definition of winning – they moved the goal posts,” said Jorge Benitez, who studies NATO at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit public policy group in Washington. The shift shows that “they feel they’ve got to end this as soon as possible.”
For now, NATO officials say they will stay the course, noting that the number of airstrikes against Gadhafi’s military forces and command facilities has not diminished – in part because the British, French and Americans are picking up the slack.
When Norway withdrew its four F-16 fighter planes this month, for example, the British added four Tornado fighters to cover the gap.
But Britain, which plans to slice 7.5 percent from its defense budget, was forced to withdraw one of its aging Nimrod spy planes from the flight line in May and send it to the scrap heap.
Critics called it a humiliation for Britain, especially when it was disclosed that the Defense Ministry was borrowing a U.S. P-3 Orion surveillance plane to help protect its warships off Libya.
France has flown about one-third of the 7,397 strike sorties so far, more than any other country. But this month it sidelined the largest ship in the war, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, for maintenance and to save money.
French officials said the carrier will be out of action for “several months,” meaning it probably is gone for good.
The Italians, facing a financial crisis, last month swapped their carrier, the 1,000-sailor Garibaldi, for a smaller ship to cut costs.
With Italy determined to cut spending on the Libya war by half in the coming months, some NATO officials fear that it might close or limit use of its air bases, which carry a crucial share of the Libyan air war traffic.
That would force NATO to fly more war planes from bases in Greece, which is in even worse financial condition.
Canada’s government disclosed in June that it would trim costs by withdrawing crews assigned to the NATO Airborne Warning and Control System plane, now in heavy use over Libya.
Danish officials last week agreed to keep its four F-16s in the war until at least Oct. 1. But the Danes, who have flown more than 10 percent of the sorties, have reached out to other countries for help with aircraft, munitions and financing, NATO officials say.
The Pentagon has chiefly provided surveillance, intelligence-gathering, air refueling and other logistical support rather than conducting manned combat missions since the air war began in March.
But the Pentagon has added Predator drones, refueling planes and attack aircraft designed to suppress fire from anti-aircraft batteries and other air defenses. The U.S. also has helped replenish other countries’ inventories of “smart” bombs and other munitions, say NATO officials.
Benitez, from the Atlantic Council, said the Pentagon’s growing use of drones and strikes against air defense units means that the Pentagon is now the second-largest player in the air war, racking up 16 percent of strike sorties.
NATO officials have requested more help from several member countries now playing little or no role, a group that includes Spain, Germany and Poland.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization members will decide next month whether to extend the Libya mission for three more months. With the U.S., France and Britain all publicly committed to continuing the campaign indefinitely, an extension appears likely.
But the senior NATO official said that the growing pressures leave open the possibility that one of the countries will try to block the extension, which can only be adopted by unanimous vote.