WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has approved the use of armed drones in Libya, authorizing U.S. airstrikes on ground forces for the first time since America turned control of the operation over to NATO on April 4.
It is the first time that drones will be used for airstrikes since the conflict began on March 19. They have routinely been flying surveillance missions, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at a Pentagon briefing yesterday.
He said the United States will provide up to two 24-hour combat air patrols each day by the unmanned Predators.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the drones can help counteract the pro-Gadhafi forces' tactic of traveling in civilian vehicles that make it difficult to distinguish them from rebel forces.
"What they will bring that is unique to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on targets that have started to dig themselves into defensive positions," Cartwright said. "They are uniquely suited for urban areas." He added, "It's very difficult to pick friend from foe. So a vehicle like the Predator that can get down lower and can get IDs better helps us."
Gates rejected the notion that the approval of drone strikes means the United States will slowly get pulled back into a more active combat role, despite Obama's promise to merely provide support for NATO.
U.S. forces played a lead role in the early days of the conflict, launching an onslaught of cruise missiles and bombs on Gadhafi's surface-to-air missiles sites and advancing regime troops.
But with American forces stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the humanitarian operations in Japan, the Pentagon turned the mission over to NATO, saying it would only do limited airstrikes to take out air defenses. The United States, Obama said, would no longer do airstrikes to protect the civilian population.
Gates said that bringing in the Predators will give NATO a critical capability that the United States can uniquely contribute.
"I think this is a very limited additional role on our part, but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO," Gates said. "And if we can make a modest contribution with these armed Predators, we'll do it . . . I don't think any of us sees that as mission creep." He said Obama has been clear that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground and that the main strike role would belong to the allies.
The first Predator mission since Obama's go-ahead was flown yesterday but the aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles, turned back because of poor weather conditions without firing any of its munitions, Cartwright said.