Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Boots on the Ground?

An Air Force A-10 launches a Maverick missile. The Pentagon has confirmed that A-10s, along with AC-130 gunships, are now flying combat missions over Libya. Their presence suggests that U.S. "kinetic" operations will continue for some time, and these platforms may be working with American or NATO ground controllers (USAF photo).

During his various public pronouncements on Libya, President Obama has tried to assure leery Americans that our military involvement will be limited, and aimed at preventing a humanitarian disaster. He offered similar words last night, in a prime-time speech delivered at the National Defense University. As the AP reports:

"We have intervened to stop a massacre," Obama said.

Ten days into a conflict many Americans say they do not understand, Obama laid out a moral imperative for intervening against a murderous tyrant, and doing so without the lengthy international dithering that allowed so much blood to be spilled in Bosnia. His address at the National Defense University echoed campaign rhetoric about restoring U.S. moral pride of place after squandering it in Iraq.

"Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world's many challenges," Obama said. "But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act."

Gadhafi's forces have been largely pinned down and unable to mount a massacre since the first hours of the war, while U.S. and NATO warplanes have become an unacknowledged aerial arm of the rebels. Obama said the United States will help the opposition, an oblique reference to the rebels.

And remarkably enough, the wire service seems unimpressed with Mr. Obama's justification. The danger of a massacre in Benghazi largely evaporated with NATO fighter jets entered the fray, blasting Gadhafi's armored columns and effectively grounding his air force.

Meanwhile, Libyan rebels promptly went on the offensive and are now advancing westward towards Sirte, Gadhafi's home town. That begs a rather obvious question: what happens when the insurgents reach that city and (presumably) begin tracking down Gadhafi loyalists? Given the humanitarian "nature" of our mission, is the U.S. prepared to stop the potential slaughter of civilians in Sirte and other regime strongholds? It's rather remarkable that such questions are being asked not just by Mr. Obama's political opponents, but even by the AP, which has long been a cheerleader for administration policies.

Then, there's the matter of our ties to the Libyan rebels, who have their own, disturbing connections to Al Qaida. Senior U.S. military officials have told Congress (and the public) that there is no direct coordination between our forces and the Libyan opposition. But this item caught our eye, underscoring the gap between administration rhetoric and the reality on the ground. And don't take our word for it; in her analysis of the president's speech, AP National Security writer Anne Gearan said Mr. Obama's description "doesn't match" the conflict we're in.

You see, it's more than a matter of semantics. True, President Obama never mentioned the Libyan rebels by name, or even used the "w" word (war) in describing our military campaign. Looking at some of the American assets now entering the fight, it's clear the Commander-in-Chief has signed off on a much more active role for our military forces, utilizing the "unique capabilities" cited in his address.

While that phrase is aimed at conjuring up images of support aircraft--like the RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT aircraft, or long-range UAVs like Global Hawk--the U.S. is also contributing platforms aimed at eliminating Gadhafi's ability to resist. On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that A-10 attack aircraft and AC-130 gunships have entered the fray, putting even more firepower on the side of the rebels.

Even military novices know that the A-10 is the premier tank-busting aircraft in the world. With its heavy weaponry and ability to loiter in the target area, a handful of A-10s can make short work of Gadhafi's armored forces, particularly with his air defenses all-but-eliminated.

The AC-130 is a precision platform that operates almost exclusively at night. Armed with a 25mm chain gun, a 40 mm cannon and a 105 mm howitzer, the "Spectre" can provide devastating fire against targets in close proximity to friendly troops. Gunship tactics call for neutralization of a target in two minutes--or less--offering some idea of just how effective the aircraft can be. In Iraq, the AC-130 became a star in urban operations, providing withering fire on point targets, with minimum damage to nearby buildings or other facilities.

It's also worth noting that A-10s and AC-130s are most effective when working with ground spotters--someone to direct them onto the target and provide immediate feedback on the results. While Warthog pilots and gunship crews are certainly capable of identifying (and engaging) targets on their own, introduction of these assets raises questions about who might be working with them on the ground (we'll assume that none of the Libyan rebels are qualified in tactical air control). To be sure, there are a variety of assets that could be directing the airstrikes, including U.S. and British special forces; CIA paramilitary personnel, and even NATO tactical air control parties (TACPs).

To be fair, much of the current fighting is taking place in the open desert. In that environment, the A-10s and AC-130s can operate with a fair degree of independence. Just create kill boxes and tell the rebels to stay outside those areas; anything inside the box that looks like a military target gets whacked. It's literally that simple.

Still, there are potential dangers with that sort of operation, as we discovered in Kosovo. In one highly-publicized incident, NATO aircraft engaged what was believed to be a Serbian military convoy. It turned out to be a column of refugees. Without direction from the ground, it's sometimes impossible to separate the "good guys" from the "bad guys" (and we use those terms advisedly in describing combatants in the Balkans).

So far, air operations in Libya have been remarkably free of claims of collateral damage, despite the fluid tactical environment. In fact, the only case of "friendly fire" came during the rescue of a downed F-15 crew in the early hours of NATO air operations. A Marine Corps CV-22 Osprey, dispatched to rescue the airmen, opened fire on Libyan villagers who were also trying to provide assistance. The absence of friendly fire or collateral damage reports since then suggests that our pilots are getting help from the ground, most likely in the form of special forces teams.

The presence of those A-10s and AC-130s (and the possible deployment of special ops personnel) suggests the U.S. will use its unique capabilities to completely defeat Gadhafi's forces, even when the rebels move into Tripoli. There's nothing wrong with that; afterall, Mr. Obama has said publicly that the Libyan dictator "must go." It's his job to set policy.

Still, it would be nice if the Commander-in-Chief would describe his operation in realistic and honest terms. The "massacre" of Libyan rebels that prompted our intervention is no longer a serious possibility. And despite claims about turning the "kinetic operation" over to our NATO partners, it's very clear the U.S. is up to its eyeballs in the fighting, and we won't leave the battle anytime soon.

Fact is, the coalition needs our "unique capabilities" to fight this war (even if the White House runs away from that term), and those may include individuals providing a "nine-line" brief to A-10 pilots and AC-130 crews. Whatever happened to transparency--you know, that quality that was supposed to be a cornerstone of the Obama Administration?

Any bets as to when we'll finally admit there are American boots on the ground in Libya? We're guessing by week's end, barring some sort of preemptive leak.


ADDENDUM: Need more proof that Libya may devolve into a "long, hard slog?" Consider this recent dispatch from the AP's Ryan Lucas, with rebel forces near Ras Lanouf. Pro-Gadhafi forces hammered the insurgents in that area today, minus the protection of NATO aircover. Without the support of A-10s, F-15Es, F-16s, Tornados, Rafales et al., the rebels are little more than a rag-tag force--a fact not lost on the Libyan dictator. Look for some sort of "mass casualty" collateral damage incident in the coming days, to weaken NATO resolve, force a possible pause in the bombing, and give his own forces an opportunity to regain more territory.

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