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 over control of the operation to NATO on April 4.
It also is the first time that drones will be used for airstrikes since the conflict began on March 19, although they have routinely been flying surveillance missions, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Thursday.
He said the U.S. 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 that the U.S. 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 U.S., said Obama, 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 U.S. can uniquely contribute.
"I think this is a very limited additional role on our part, but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO," said Gates. "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 Thursday but the aircraft – armed with Hellfire missiles – turned back due to poor weather conditions without firing any of its munitions, Cartwright said.
Gates, who publicly expressed skepticism about getting involved militarily in Libya before Obama endorsed the limited intervention, said "the real work" of overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi will have to be done by the Libyans themselves.
While he acknowledged the conflict "is likely to take a while," Gates also said the ongoing sanctions, arms embargo and NATO-led offensive have weakened Gadhafi's military and eaten away at his supplies and cash. Over the long term, Gates said, that will hurt the regime's ability to strike back at oppositions forces, if they rise up again in other cities.
At the same time, however, Gates said the administration's decision to provide $25 million in nonlethal military assistance to the rebels did not signal a deeper U.S. commitment to anti-Gadhafi forces whose makeup, objectives and motives are still not fully understood in Washington.
The aid, he said, is not high-end military equipment but rather a hodge-podge of things like uniforms and canteens.
"I'm not worried about our canteen technology falling into the wrong hands," he joked.
Asked how long he believes it will take the NATO-led air campaign to succeed, Gates replied, "The honest answer to that is, nobody knows."
In other comments, Gates did not rule out major military program cuts to meet Obama's goal to slash another $400 billion from the country's national security spending over the next 12 years. But he laid out some programs he believes are vital, including the new Air Force refueling tanker and the replacement of some Navy ships.
"The worst of all possible worlds, in my view, is to give the entire Department of Defense a haircut – basically (saying) everybody is going to cut X percent," Gates said, adding that he's had one meeting with staff on the issue.
Instead, he said the Pentagon must lay out options and the risks involved if particular cuts are made and how they would affect military missions.
He added that he does not know how much of the cut the Pentagon will be expected to take.