A Predator UAV firing a Hellfire missile during a weapons test. The U.S. has authorized the use of armed drones in Libya, providing a modest increase in support to anti-Qadhafi rebels (U.S. Air Force photo).
Earlier today, the Obama Administration unveiled its latest, incremental move in the Libya conflict. According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the U.S. will soon begin using armed Predator drones again pro-Qadhafi forces. Until now, UAVs have been limited to a surveillance role, in support of NATO operations in Libya.
The move came as rebel forces continue to lose ground to the Libyan dictator. The insurgents have also complained that NATO isn't doing enough to protect civilians in the city of Misrata, the scene of heavy fighting in recent days. Addition of the armed Predators, carrying Hellfire missiles, will (at least in theory) allow NATO to identify government armored forces and artillery positions, and target them more quickly.
But the move left many military analysts scratching their heads. Bringing in a few missile-firing UAVs won't add much to the NATO arsenal. Hellfires are fine for taking out a terrorist hideout in Afghanistan, or vehicle carrying Al Qaida operatives in Yemen. But if you want to eliminate a tank company or a small formation of tube artillery, you'll need more Predators, or some follow-on airstrikes from fixed-wing aircraft.
And there's the rub. While there's been a lot of talk about France and Great Britain flying more attack missions over Libya, there has been no significant increase in their combat sorties. Meanwhile, the U.S. has refused to send its most capable CAS platforms (the A-10 "Warthog" and the AC-130 "Spectre" gunship) back into the fight. Qadhafi is reportedly resupplying and repositioning his forces under the cover of darkness, with relative impunity (did we mention that the U.S. has been pushing its NATO allies to improve their night-strike capabilities for more than a decade).
Some have described the armed Predator deployment as an act of desperation, but it looks more like a carefully calculated move. Originally, President Obama wanted no part of the war, but he was forced into action by advisers like Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and Susan Rice. At that point, it looked like the rebels might actually win, so many in the administration saw an opportunity for a quick foreign policy success.You know what happened next. Qadhafi and his military forces regrouped and the rebels folded like a cheap suit. Western military action was necessary to "prevent a massacre." We're not sure if that was a reference to Libyan civilians, or the death of NATO's remaining credibility in the matter. Since then, the fighting has continued, with Qadhafi's forces slowing gaining ground in Misrata, the rebels' last remaining stronghold in western Libya.
Without the introduction of more NATO military power--including manned, U.S. attack aircraft--Misrata will likely fall in the coming weeks. But Mr. Obama has calculated (correctly, we're afraid) that most Americans aren't paying attention and really don't care what happens in Libya. Sending in the drones is little more than a sop to the rebels and our NATO partners. When the drones prove insufficient, the Obama team will start cobbling together some sort of exit plan, fully aware that no one will hold them accountable for the upcoming debacle.