WASHINGTON -- The new phase of the war in Libya, a kind of armed aerial peacekeeping, puts a heavy responsibility on U.S. and allied air crews whose simple-sounding mission -- to protect civilians -- could easily turn deadly and disastrous.
While the military strategy likely seems clear in the White House Situation Room, analysts said, it may be difficult or impossible to execute flawlessly while avoiding unintended consequences.
Amid the chaos in Libya, with armed civilians and ragtag government forces clustering on city street corners or careening down desert roads in civilian SUVs, trying to distinguish Gaddafi hardliners from rebels and armed opposition civilians from refugees can be nightmarishly difficult for a pilot at night, barreling along at 500 knots 20,000 feet over a city with his finger on the trigger.
Pilots have been issued very restrictive rules of engagement and instructed to make "conservative'' decisions, a senior defense official told The Huffington Post. "We just cannot afford to take the chance of striking the kind of people we are there to protect,'' the official said.
The military is seeking to avoid parallels with the American experience in Afghanistan, where, despite sophisticated technology, tight restrictions on bombing and well-trained pilots, U.S. and allied air strikes continue to kill civilians. In the most infamous recent incident, nine boys were mistakenly killed by helicopter fire March 2 in Kunar Province, igniting a storm of anti-American protest from the civilian populace.
U.S. and allied pilots in Afghanistan have managed to significantly decrease civilian casualties caused by air strikes, which now make up a tiny portion of all civilian battle deaths -- 171 of a total of 2,777 civilians killed last year, according to a United Nations report.
But that proportional reduction is in large part because total civilian casualties skyrocketed last year, and while the U.N. estimates don't support this view, Americans are blamed for civilian deaths far more than the Taliban.
In Libya, the U.S.-led coalition has effectively shut down Gaddafi's military. None of his aircraft have flown since Saturday, his ships have returned to or stayed in port, his air defense radars are silent and dark. Libyan armored columns are reported moving slowly south away from Benghazi, the last major rebel stronghold. U.S. officials say the remnants of the regime's forces around Benghazi have "little will or capability'' to go on the attack.
Now begins a period of waiting as Gaddafi and his forces jockey for power -- and survival -- with a disorganized armed opposition and a mass popular movement demanding his removal and democratic reforms. Overhead, heavily armed warplanes circle.
Military officials acknowledge that the task is more difficult than in Afghanistan, where American aircraft almost always operate in close coordination with troops on the ground who can provide eyes-on intelligence. There are no U.S. "boots on the ground'' in Libya, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the senior coalition commander, said Monday.
"The biggest dilemma of modern warfare is sorting out combatants from civilians,'' said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank. "In old days, people wore uniforms and there were conventions about how you wage war. Now, none of that prevails. And one or two mistakes in targeting can undermine an entire war effort.''
One complicating factor: Libyan army units and the rebels often use the same ancient Russian vehicles and weapons. But the rebels looted arms stockpiles in eastern Libya, which contained even shoddier, older equipment, while the relatively newer weapons were reserved for Gaddafi's most loyal units in the west. That gives sharp-eyed pilots a clue to help discern rebels from Gaddafi loyalists.
But U.S. officials admit that their instructions to the American and European pilots flying over Libya sound deceptively easy. "We protect civilians,'' Ham told Pentagon reporters Tuesday.
Ham also acknowledged, however, that pilots may have in defining who are the "civilians.'' If Gaddafi's forces fire on a group of rebels and the rebel group includes some armed civilians, does the pilot overhead open fire, or not? Should a pilot bomb an anti-Gaddafi unit attacking regime holdouts if civilians are about to be harmed? Does "protecting civilians'' include protecting them from rebel gunfire? Even if the pilot can tell one from the other?
"It's not a clear distinction,'' Ham admitted under a barrage of questions from reporters. Sometimes, he sighed, these policies are "better in the briefing room than in the cockpit of an aircraft.''
Even so, the F-15E and F-16 fighters that make up the bulk of the U.S. aircraft over Libya do carry sophisticated sensors that can help, including the Lantirn and Sniper pods, which carry video and infrared sensors that provide a close-up, day-night view of the ground comparable to that of a Predator drone.
An F-15E pilot in Afghanistan told The Huffington Post that although insurgents had learned to hide when they heard the sound of jets, his onboard sensors were so good, he could see an insurgent's hands clutching the tree trunk behind which he was hiding.
The pods are designed mostly to identify distinctive types of weapons, however. "When it comes to hand-to-hand fighting, I'm not sure how much mileage you get from them,'' Thompson said.