President Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drones to take out targets in Libya, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.
The U.S. military will fly a maximum of two Predators over Libya at any given time, providing a “modest contribution” to the international effort there, Gates said.
“I think this is a very limited additional role on our part, but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO,” he said. “I don’t think there’s mission creep at all.”
The military has previously used Predators in Libya for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. But arming the pilotless aircraft marks a new mission for the United States, which has stressed repeatedly that it is now in a support role.
Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, said that the Predators, which can fly low without putting a pilot in danger, will give the military better visibility of hidden targets. The nature of the fight has changed, with Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces far more inclined to hide from NATO aircraft than they were at the beginning of the campaign, Cartwright said.
Meanwhile, the precision of the drones will help to cut down on collateral damage, particularly in crowded urban areas. Gates described them as providing a capability that even the U.S. military's low-flying A-10 Thunderbolt and AC-130 gunship could not provide.