Media reports indicate that the U.S has been maintaining two outposts in the Libyan cities of Misurata and Benghazi. The outposts are staffed with 25 special operators tasked with finding groups amenable to fighting with the Libyan unity government. These troops are referred to as “contact teams,” as their primary mission has been networking with different factions and building an intelligence picture of the situation inside the country.
The current mission in Libya is a preliminary. These 25 troops are nowhere near enough to fight a campaign against the Islamic State in Libya and it is unlikely these operators have seen combat. ISIS has around 6000 fighters in Libya and controls several major cities along the countries populated coastline. If anything, the current outposts and deployment look more like a scouting mission in preparation for a larger offensive.
A larger offensive is likely as other U.S actions are also pointing towards a deepening American involvement in the war torn nation.
Just a few days ago, U.S officials have just called to to ending the arms embargo on Libya. Such an action would open the door to sending American weapons to the forces of vetted militias, factions or the new Unity government.If the embargo were also to be formally lifted by the U.N Security council it could open the doors to allied support for arming the Libyan government or militias.
Allied armaments would also mean more allied troops. If Obama is planning to equip the new Libyan unity government with weapons, the Libyans will need western trainers to teach them how to use these weapons.They will also need American and allied cargo planes to transport the weapons into the country and continued shipments of ammunition and spare parts. All of this will require troops on the ground and a.
Airpower is another area that will require U.S and European ground troops. While NATO has plenty of aircraft to bomb ISIS in Libya,they will need forward air controllers to tell the warplanes where to drop their bombs.
In Iraq and Syria many of the airstrikes are tactical in nature. The strikes geared towards supporting advancing Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Without these controllers on the ground in Libya, allied airpower will be unable to coordinate with Libyan forces. If Obama is planning to take the (somewhat) successful Iraqi model over to Libya then special operators will be needed to guide the air campaign.
Because of Libya’s proximity to Europe, warplanes may not initially need to be based in Libya itself. Of course, this may not remain true for long. Depending on how the campaign goes, aircraft and artillery may be moved into Libya to provide additional support like they have been in Iraq. Such deployments would involve regular units like the 200 Marines based in Makmour.
When all is said and done the American presence in Libya could be substantial. While numbers are hard to come by,the BBC has reported that current plans call for up to 6000 allied troops in Libya, slightly larger than the total number of American troops in Iraq and Syria. What ratio of these operators will be American is up in air, but it will certainly be well in excess of the 25 prowling around there now.