Thursday marks the end of U.S. strike missions in Libya. In a press conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that armed Predator drones have been approved for use in Libya. They flew for the first time on Thursday, but “the weather wasn’t good enough, so we had to bring them back,” Cartwright said.
Recall Gates told Congress three weeks ago that the U.S. strike role would end once NATO took command of the war. U.S. pilots continued to bomb targets to enforce the no-fly zone, but left the hard work of attacking Gadhafi’s ground forces to NATO pilots. The arrival of the Predators — two combat air patrols, Cartwright said, so probably five drones — reverses all that.
Cartwright justified the move by saying the drones are “uniquely suited” for attacking dug-in forces in “urban areas,” where Gadhafi’s loyalists are. The Predators fly lower than gunships like the AC-130 or attack planes like the A-10. Their sensor and camera suites give them better visibility than human pilots have, reducing the risk of collateral damage. And they can fly for 24 hours at a time, providing “extended persistence.” It’s quite a contrast to the archaic weapons used by Libyan rebels.
Gates played down the idea that the arrival of the drones represented a return to a U.S. combat role — or, worse, mission creep. He said they provided merely a “modest contribution” to the strike mission, which remains led by U.S. allies.