The Pentagon dispatched a pair of armed Predator drones to the skies over Libya on Thursday, a modest escalation of the U.S. military effort there highlighting the Obama administration’s continued reluctance to assume more of a leading role in the campaign to oust Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, offered the administration’s most comprehensive description to date of its battlefield aims in Libya. Gates said the United States hoped the ongoing airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces would weaken the Libyan military enough that insurgents in broader swaths of the country would feel comfortable rising up against the Qaddafi regime. Washington and its allies want Qaddafi out of power, but only if he is removed by the Libyans themselves, Gates said.
“Regime change imposed from the outside, as we have seen in Iraq and in the Balkans, is incredibly difficult,” Gates said. “It works best, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, when it is done from within.”
Gates said the U.S. was “trying to provide enough space” for the Libyan rebels to expand their armed campaign against Qaddafi. He said Washington supported the recent moves by Britain and France to send military advisers to eastern Libya to work with the rebels there, but he stressed that the Pentagon had no plans to deploy any American ground forces to the country. “There is no wiggle room on that,” he said.
Instead, Gates said the U.S.—which no longer has many aircraft taking part in the strikes on Qaddafi’s forces—would begin operating armed drones inside Libya. Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the robotic drones could fly lower to the ground than any manned aircraft, allowing Western commanders to target Qaddafi loyalists operating in urban areas or near weapons depots with less risk of collateral damage. They should also help commanders hit Qaddafi forces operating out of unmarked civilian cars and trucks, which conventional manned aircraft, flying much higher, have been having a difficult time tracking.
Predator drones are the signature weapon of the global war on terror, with the military and the CIA using them to strike militants in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The remotely-piloted craft can fly for 24 hours at a time, giving commanders round-the-clock views of the battlefield. The drones took off for the first time on Thursday, but Cartwright said they were grounded because of bad weather. The robotic craft would likely begin hunting for targets on Friday, military officials said.
Still, the joint appearance by Gates and Cartwright was more notable for what wasn’t announced than for the steps the two men ultimately outlined. The fighting inside Libya has devolved into an uneasy stalemate in recent days, with insurgents holding onto much of eastern Libya and Qaddafi solidifying his control of the western half of the country. That has led key U.S. allies like France and England to sharply expand their aid to Libya’s insurgents in the hope of tilting the country’s military balance in their favor.
The two European powers, backed by Italy, are sending dozens of troops to eastern Libya to help train the rebel forces and improve their tactical coordination with NATO. Britain is giving the insurgents communications gear and other equipment, while French leaders say they’re considering providing weaponry and ammunition to the rebels. The moves have stepped up the pressure on the Obama administration to follow suit, but Washington is so far refusing to do much more than jam Libyan communications, mount the occasional airstrike, and provide the rebels with non-lethal equipment like body armor and tents.
“I’m not worried about our canteen technology falling into the wrong hands,” Gates joked.
Gates also offered a blunt defense of the administration’s cautious approach to Libya, noting that the U.S. was “the most stretched militarily” of all of the NATO powers. He said the size and number of those military operations meant Washington was simply unable to lead the effort to oust Qaddafi, particularly since Libya was not a “vital interest” of the U.S.
Still, he argued that the gradual degradation of Qaddafi’s military power would eventually persuade insurgents in western Libya to join the rebels already operating against Qaddafi in the eastern part of the country.
“The question is, if you weaken his military enough, and they rise up again, are they in a position then to expel the Libyan government from their town or their area,” Gates said.
Echoing comments from many of his NATO counterparts, Gates added that there was no quick solution to the Libyan crisis and acknowledged that the military campaign against Qaddafi’s forces—and the escalating economic sanctions against his regime—were unlikely to force the strongman out of power anytime soon. The Defense chief, who is preparing to step down this summer, said the Libyan war might still be raging after he leaves office.
“The worry will be my successor’s,” he said.