As NATO takes over, a Canadian air force general will command most of the Libyan air war but not the nastiest bits - bombing ground targets and attacking Moammar Gadhafi's tanks - reflecting an ongoing split in the alliance.
Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard will initially run only the no-fly zone over Libya. An Italian admiral will command the multinational naval blockade offshore. The punishing and controversial bombing runs and air-to-ground strafing will remain under U.S. command until NATO establishes rules of engagement acceptable to reluctant alliance nations such as Germany and Turkey.
"Don't expect a kinder, gentler mission just because he's Canadian," says a senior Canadian officer who is familiar with Gen. Bouchard's previous role as deputy commander of NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canadian continental air defence pact.
"Choosing Bouchard makes a lot of sense - he has high credibility with the American leadership," the officer added, speaking on condition that he not be further identified.
Short, stocky, balding and in his mid-50s, Gen. Bouchard hails from Chicoutimi, Que. A career military helicopter pilot, a role often regarded as less glamorous and promotable than the "top guns" who fly fighters, he rose to hold senior appointments, including command of Canadian air force operations. The Libya assignment will be his first combat command.
"Among the senior military officers I've known over all my years he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met," said James Fergusson, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, who has known Gen. Bouchard since he was a student. "It's a difficult position. Part officer, part politician. … You have to manage the interests of a variety of disparate countries."
President Barack Obama, seeking to play down America's leading role in the aerial onslaught on Libya following a UN Security Council mandate to impose a no-fly zone, has pushed hard to hand over command to NATO.
Shifting ground attacks and bombing runs to NATO's command and control will take "a few more days," Mr. Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday.
The remnants of Col. Gadhafi's mostly unflyable Soviet-era MiG warplanes have been destroyed on the ground, and enforcing the no-fly zone has involved no aerial combat since the limited war was launched last week. Nations have lined up to contribute to the naval blockade - currently being established - confident that no shooting will be expected.
But the civilian-protection aspect of the war, which some see as little more than a fig leaf to allow Western powers to provide air support for the anti-Gadhafi rebels, is far more dangerous and involves targeting and killing tank crews and other ground forces. For attacks inside urban areas - such as embattled Misurata - helicopter gunships rather than fighter aircraft may be needed.
U.S., British, Canadian and French warplanes conducting air-to-ground strikes will remain under the command of U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear. In military jargon he is "double-hatted" - serving as commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe as well as joint task force commander for NATO's southern command in Naples. Gen. Bouchard serves as his deputy in the latter role, and handing day-to-day running of the war to the Canadian will take Adm. Locklear out of the limelight.
At a foreign ministers meeting in London next Tuesday, NATO and non-NATO countries - included Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - are expected to try again to thrash out the political oversight for the Libyan war. Germany, the only NATO country on the UN Security Council that refused to back the military intervention, could still block NATO operational control of the ground attacks.
Mr. Obama has no qualms, his spokesman said, with U.S. forces taking orders from a foreign general, in this case a Canadian. Defence Minister Peter MacKay, meanwhile, said Canadian command of the Libyan war "puts the shine on our country."
"Bouchard is a formidable leader, with tremendous character and ability and experience," Mr. MacKay said.
In the clearest statement yet of the war's aims from a senior Harper government minister, Mr. MacKay said the war will hasten a Libya without Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled for 41 years.
"As a result of the actions of the coalition and now NATO, [Libya's future]… either includes the departure or the imminent demise of Gadhafi," Mr. MacKay said.
With reports from Daniel LeBlanc and Sonia Verma