British Tornado and Typhoon ground attack aircraft are expected to fly to bases in the Mediterranean as Britain, France and the US step upmilitary pressure on Colonel Gaddafi despite his announcement of a ceasefire.
The UK is also expected to set up a joint command centre with the US and France to co-ordinate operations that will be supported by a number of other countries, including Canada and Denmark. In further evidence of mounting determination to confront Gaddafi, ambassadors from Nato's 28 member countries are due to meet to lend added support to the UN-backed plans for a no-fly zone.
Nato also emphasised humanitarian operations, but suggestions that ground troops from Britain and other countries could be deployed inLibya were dismissed last night.
"The absolute priority is to enforce the no-fly zone, and to secure maritime supply routes," said a defence source. "Nothing else is in the mix at this stage."
Nato secretary general Anders Rasmussen said the UN resolution sent "a strong and clear message from the entire international community" to the Gaddafi regime to stop his "systematic violence against the people of Libya immediately".
To this end, an array of other British military assets, including reconnaissance aircraft and air-refuelling tankers, will be deployed to bases in the Mediterranean. Military commanders in the UK have called the entire effort Operation Ellamy.
Though the MoD never talks about special forces operations, it is understood that SAS and SBS soldiers are already on the ground in Libya, providing information on likely first targets for any bombing raids. They could include airfields, supply routes and Libya's anti-aircraft defence batteries. "Any operations will be highly targeted to ensure that civilian casualties are avoided," said the source.
It became clear that the complexity of co-ordinating joint operations with so many countries would stymie any immediate plans for air strikes to help the rebels. One strategic priority was to find a way of binding in Arab help for any attacks, even though this is likely only to be at a logistical and support level.
The prime minister told the Commons that British Tornado and Typhoon aircraft were within hours of being deployed. However, Whitehall sources later admitted that no planes had left the UK, and nor were they likely to until the weekend.
The day began with no clarity over the command structure for any operations – and whether they would be led or supported by Nato. These details were being frantically developed in the hours after the UN resolution was passed. General Sir David Richards, chief of the defence staff, worked through Thursday night trying to secure agreement over who would do what and when, before attending the Cabinet meeting in Downing Street.
He has been liaising closely with Air Marshall Sir Stuart Peach, chief of joint operations, who is based at the permanent joint headquarters of the three services in Northwood, to the north-west of London.The most likely scenario is that British fighters will be stationed at the British sovereign base at Akrotiri in Cyprus, where the RAF already has E3-D long-range air surveillance aircraft that are monitoring Libyan airspace.
Nato is also operating 24-hour surveillance of Libya with Awacs reconnaissance aircraft based in Germany. British fighters may also be stationed at the Nato airbase at Sigonella in Sicily – Canada is sending six fighters there.
"Once the decision has been taken about where they go, it won't take the aircraft long to get there," said the source.
The Royal Navy still has two ships in international waters off Libya – the frigates HMS Cumberland and HMS Westminster. There are no plans to increase the number at this stage.
However, the navy is working up a response force task group, which will include up to six different support and warships. That may be deployed in the weeks to come, sources said.
The US already has a strong naval presence in the Mediterranean: a battle group of five vessels led by the ageing aircraft carrier USS Enterprise includes the nuclear-powered submarine USS Providence and the destroyer USS Mason, which both entered via the Suez canal last Saturday from the Red Sea.
The USS Kearsarge is also in the area with a contingent of US marines on board while the USS Mason, a guided missile destroyer, was in port in Haifa, northern Israel on Wednesday.
"Surveillance will be 60% of the strategy if the plan is to dissuade Libyan aircraft from taking off," said Professor Trevor Taylor, head of the centre for defence management and leadership at Cranfield University. "And ground surveillance will be much more important still if the Libyans start using armoured vehicles because that will multiply the number of targets."
Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, added: "Symbolically it's very important to include an Arab element in any attacks.
"Logistically they cannot provide very much, but it is important as a way of countering the accusation that this is an intervention which is colonialist and imperialist in nature."
Diplomats have said Arab countries that could participate in possible strikes might include Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The Arab League Agency from another era
Hillary Clinton claims it was the Arab League's recent statement on Libya that persuaded her the time was right to back military action in the country – the implication being that, unlike the invasion of Iraq in 2003, western intervention against Gaddafi has been legitimised by regional support.
But do the 22 delegates who make up the league – almost exclusively ageing, male and appointed by autocratic governments that enjoy mixed support at best from their people – really represent 360 million Arabs, at a time when power relations in the Middle East are being radically reshaped?
When the League of Arab States was founded in 1945, King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, the then Saudi ruler, grandly declared that it would "enshrine the fondest hopes of the Arab people". But today the high walls and carefully manicured gardens of the League's Cairo headquarters feels like an anachronism, especially when contrasted with the grassroots energy that exploded around the corner in Tahrir Square as Egyptians toppled their president. Many are asking whether an institution originally designed to make the lives of British diplomats easier (they preferred dealing with a single Arab agency rather than multiple heads of state), and dominated through the decades by conservative political elites, has any role to play in articulating a unified voice of the Arab people on to to the world stage.
At present all 22 Arab countries (alongside the four observer nations of Brazil, India, Venezuela and Eritrea) send one delegate each to the League. In the aftermath of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, their individual delegates from each nation stayed in place – shifting their allegiances overnight from a government of dictatorship to a government of the people, with no personnel change deemed necessary.
The Libyan delegation has entered more murky waters; at the start of the crisis, Tripoli's permanent ambassador to the League, Abdel Moneim al-Huny, tendered his resignation in protest at his leader's "massacres", and then promptly announced he had been reappointed by the people's government in Benghazi to represent the Libyan population inside the League. Meanwhile, the Gaddafi regime appointed its own new representative, leaving the institution's secretary general Amr Moussa with an HR headache. For now, neither of the rival delegates can attend Arab League meetings because Libya's membership has been suspended, the first such action in the League's history, although behind the scenes unofficial dialogue is being maintained with both men.
The rest of the Arab world areis left with delegates appointed by their own undemocratic regimes, – who appear happy to deploy deploying the language of humanitarian concern in the case of Libya, but are noticeably quieter on brutal crackdowns against protesters in the Gulf and elsewhere. The League's Chief of Staff, Hisham Youssef, believes that the winds of change blowing through this part of the world will strengthen his institution, not undermine it. "We're moving in a direction that will hopefully lead to a more democratic region, and that in turn means a more democratic and representative Arab League," he told the Guardian. Whether he's right remains to be seen.