To the surprise of many, the topic of Benghazi--and what might have been done to save the four Americans who died there--never really surfaced in last night's Presidential debate. GOP challenger Mitt Romney apparently made the decision to take the high road and avoid a slug-fest over the issue.
And that's unfortunate, because the decision-making that accompanied the debacle in Beghanzi deserves some sort of public airing. Almost two months after the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, President Obama has never explained what he knew of the attack, and his actions that followed. That irony hung over Monday's debate, and answers to those questions will be postponed until after the election, when some congressional committee or blue-ribbon panel releases their report, months or years down the road.
Meanwhile, there are new concerns over what was--and wasn't done--during those desperate hours in Benghazi. CBS News aired a segment over the weekend on military options that might have been available during the attack on the consulate. Readers will note that the segment ran on the network's Saturday morning news show, one of its lowest-rated programs. From Sharyl Atkisson's report:
But it was too late to help the Americans in Benghazi. The ambassador and three others were dead.
News about Predator surveillance of the battle had been making the rounds for several days before the CBS segment aired. But information about "other" reconnaissance aircraft is rather intesting; to our knowledge, Ms. Atkisson's report is the first to confirm that other U.S.aircraft were monitoring the battle.
As to which aircraft, there are a number of options. American reconnaissance aircraft routinely patrol the Mediterranean, including Air Force RC-135 and Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft. In the EUCOM theater, RC-135s operate from RAF Mildenhall in the UK, while EP-3s have long been based at Souda Bay, Crete. Scrambled from those locations, an EP-3 or RC-135 could have been off the Libyan coast in two or three hours, providing additional coverage of communications between terrorist elements involved in the attack. However, it is unlikely these assets were sitting alert, and any reporting from these platforms likely came from previously scheduled missions that coincided with the consulate attack.
Other recon possibilities include U-2 aircraft and Global Hawk UAVs. U-2 pilots have been flying over Libya--off and on--for decades. In years past, U-2s on Mediterranean missions have operated from Lajes Field in the Azores and an RAF base on Crete. Given the amount of time required to prep a U-2 pilot (and jet) for a mission, any coverage by that platform would have involved an aircraft already slated for a Libyan mission, or re-routed from other tasking in the region. As for the Global Hawk, it can remain over a target, at high altitude, for more than 24 hours, relaying information to ground stations in the U.S. and Europe.
Whatever platforms were overhead, they added to the overall surveillance picture emanating from Benghazi. As we've noted previously, there was no shortage of information available to decision-makers in Washington, DC (and elsewhere). Command nodes at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department--along with various military headquarters--had access to the information, which included urgent SIGINT reporting, relayed by the National Security Agency (NSA), from airborne and ground-based listening posts focused on the Middle East.
According to Fox News military analyst (Ret) Colonel David Hunt, we also had a steady stream of information from inside the consulate, thanks to an open microphone in the radio room. Members of the consulate staff provided a virtual play-by-play of the assault, which continued even after terrorists stormed the compound. Urgent radio traffic from Benghazi was monitored continuously at the State Department and likely available at the White House and Pentagon as well. That information, along with FLASH/CRITIC messages from NSA, provided early details of what was going on inside the diplomatic compound--and what terrorists involved in the attack were saying. And when the Predator arrived, there was a continuous video stream as well--also available to decision-makers in Washington, including the Commander-in-Chief.
Simply stated, Mr. Obama and his national security team had a pretty good idea of what was going on at the consulate in Benghazi, and the arrival of each reconnaissance asset provided more details. So, given the relatively high degree of granularity, what were our military options, and why was no action taken?
The first challenge was targeting, and the whereabouts of American personnel. Clearly, no one wanted to launch cruise missiles into Benghazi or send manned aircraft to bomb targets as long as our diplomatic personnel and the former Navy SEALs couldn't be accounted for. But as time wore on, it became apparent that all were dead, and fratricide was no longer a concern. Why not launch a counter-strike?
The first question is what do you hit, and what are the available assets? There is obvious reluctance to launch aircraft into an environment where the bad guys can't be clearly identified; in Iraq and Afghanistan, attacks against U.S. interests often attracted large groups of civilian on-lookers. Without being able to separate by-standers from the bad guys, attack aircraft, gunships and even armed drones will stay out of the fray. Clearly, no one in Washington wanted a collateral damage incident on top of the embassy disaster.
There's also the matter of getting assets to Benghazi in a timely manner. AC-130U gunships were reportedly stationed at NAS Sigonella (on Sicily); with its on-board weaponry, "Spectre" can deliver a devastating volume of fire against ground targets with precision accuracy, and remain overhead for extended periods (in a favorable air defense environment. The distance from Sigonella to Benghazi is about 420 miles, about two hours' flying time for an AC-130. But once again, it takes time to get an aircraft and crew prepped and briefed for such a mission, particularly if they weren't sitting alert at the time.
The same holds true for U.S. Air Force F-16s from Aviano AB in northern Italy. The distance from that base to Benghazi is just over 1,000 miles, a little under two hours' flight time for the Vipers (this assumes sub-sonic flight, to conserve fuel. Still, it would take several hours to round up the crews, brief them for the mission, prep the aircraft and launch the mission. And, unless the mission planning team at Aviano had good imagery of the compound--with mensurated coordinates--there was a higher probability that the precision weapons dropped by the F-16s would miss. It's also worth remembering that the F-16 flight would require tanker support, necessitating coordination of more support elements.
This is not to say the U.S. was without options. The assault on the consulate dragged on for roughly seven hours, and two of the Americans (most likely, the former SEALs) were still alive six hours into the firefight. As other observers have noted, we managed to get an unarmed Predator overhead for the final phases of the battle, and other recon platforms were also on-scene. The relatively long tead time between the start of the attack and its final throes (seemingly) provided enough time for some sort of kinetic option.
And our options weren't limited to the AC-130s out of Sigonella or the F-16s from Aviano. It would be interesting to know the location of our nearest carrier battle group on September 11, 2012, for a couple of reasons. First, carriers maintain F/A-18s on alert around the clock, and it's easier to convert them to an attack role (and get them off the deck) instead of rounding up F-16 crews at Aviano. A carrier group over the central Med would also have the ability to maintain a continuous air presence over Benghazi, facilitating rescue, recovery and reinforcement operations.
But no one will say if a carrier group was in the area that night. And even if it wasn't, there were other naval assets available. We refer to surface vessels armed with cruise missiles, capable of reaching Libya from a range of over 1,000 miles. Like air-dropped precision weapons, TLAMs need precise intel for maximum effectiveness. But the U.S. already had an extensive TLAM targeting base for Libya, the product of our air campaign against Qadhafi a year before. With that information--and the system's rapid re-targeting capabilities--a cruise missile laydown could have been launched against the terrorists in the latter stages of the consulate attack.
According to media accounts, "various" military actions were considered and rejected, leaving the Americans in Benghazi on their own. In retrospect, there were no "optimum" actions for the situation in Benghazi, but the U.S. was not without options. Of course, it became more difficult to reach a consensus after the Commander-in-Chief went to bed, before the battle was over.