Maybe. And maybe no.
HMS Brocklesby has had the honor of carrying out the first wartime mine clearing operation from Iraq 2003, as NATO minesweepers were called in to clean the access to the Gulf of Sirte after Gaddafi's FACs were spotted dropping mines on the route for Misrata. The UK mine specialists have thus had to intervene in a live, war scenario, for the first time after they lead the efforts to clean the route to the iraqi port of Umm Qasr in 2003.
The minesweepers found two moored mines on the seabed, intended to detonate on encountering passing ships in the approaches to Misrata harbour, plus evidence that a third had broken from its mooring and was floating free in the sea. The hunt is still on for that dangerous explosive; while the other two mines were blown up to keep open the channels to the port, which is under siege from pro-Gaddafi forces for several weeks and has been the focal point of some of the most bitter fighting in the civil war.
The mining has followed earlier artillery attacks over the port area of the town, with the shelling coming very close to two ships intent on unloading humanitarian material.
Is the focus on the port of Misrata actually targeted at ships loaded with food and medicines? Possibly, knowing Gaddafi.
But the real aim might be to make the port unsuitable for use by UK Royal Marines after the press cheerfully revealed to the world that the 40 Commando battalion, embarked on HMS Albion, Cardigan Bay, Mounts Bay and HMS Ocean, and with RFA Fort Rosalie carrying stores, RFA Wave Knight with fuel and with HMS Sutherland providing escort, had anticipated the schedule of the Exercise Cougar 2011 by two weeks in order to take position as a stand-by response force. It has been reported that 40 Commando has been reinforced with further personnel, for a total of 800 soldiers, and Ocean carries also Apache helicopters: a first for a training exercise such as Cougar. During Taurus 2009, which was an even more ambitious yearly amphibious exercise, Apache were not part of the show.
Another sign of the "Ready now!" nature of the mission...?
Interestingly, to quote myself, the Royal Marines are giving once more demonstration of their high deployability - and of their highly demanding harmony guidelines - by possibly heading into a new war not even six full months after their return from an Afghan tour: 40 Commando was part of the force deployed on Herrick XII, in fact. The rest of the 3 Commando Brigade (30 Commando Information Exploitation Group, 42 and 45 Commando RM, 29 Commando Royal Artillery Regiment) have just deployed to Afghanistan to lead Herrick XIV instead, taking over in late april from the 16 Air Assault Brigade.
Back to Libya, the idea, unfortunately not secret at all, is to land (if that the UN provides a resolution calling for it) troops to secure Misrata and ensure that the population and rebels in it are relieved from the by now endless weeks of fighting, with the town being under siege from the very first days of the civil war.
In other words, the idea is apparently to replicate the intervention of Italy's own Marines and forces into Lebanon, under UN mandate, in August 2006, the operation that started the enduring UNIFIL2 multinational peacekeeping in Lebanon. That, too, was an amphibious operation. That, too, was dangerous, as it was about inserting a force capable to clean up Lebanon after the furious israeli bombardments and put a stop to the harsh fighting between Hezbollah and Israel's IDF.
The landing in Lebanon in 2006 (operation "Leonte") was nearly "warlike" in execution, but it involved no real fighting, as the war had already been stopped by diplomacy, even if the situation was still tense. And there were no mines on the seabed, even if Israeli warships still continued to keep Lebanon under siege from the sea.
A landing operation in Misrata promises to be more dangerous and complex... especially because Gaddafi seems to expect it, and is taking his moves to try and make such a move impossible, while the thinking behind such an intervention seems to be (imprudently) that Gaddafi would not dare directly attacking western forces on the ground, thus making Misrata a safe haven protected by the Royal Marines. This is possible, but then again, even more possible is that things go the other way around, and that's why the landing would be warlike and why it is not being pursued yet. The risk of putting 40 Commando ashore with artillery and rockets shelling the beach-head and tanks advancing against them is obviously not something that can be undervalued, especially since most air support is hundreds of miles away (save for the Apaches on HMS Ocean), pretty much denying a constant, timely support from above when the call was to be launched.
There is time, anyway: the Cougar task force will be in the Med, at high readiness, for at least 6 months, which could be stretched even further.
In the coming days, i'll write an article about the 2006 intervention of Italy in Lebanon, try to see the points of contact between the two situations, and of course take a look at the challenges of a similar approach in Misrata.
And to remind everyone that amphibious power projection is here to stay, and facts prove it.