Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Support Mission

Since NATO took control of the Libya operation in late March, the Obama Administration has insisted has U.S. forces are playing a supporting role, focused on such capabilities as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and aerial refueling. Comments from the White House suggested that American pilots were no longer flying strike missions against the Qaddafi regime.

But apparently, that description of our support mission wasn't quite accurate (what a surprise). Turns out that U.S. fighters have flown hundreds of missions over Libya since the hand-off to NATO. Many of those sorties have been conducted by Navy EA-18 "Growlers" and F-16CJs, which provide suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD).

As anyone with a cursory knowledge of air ops will tell you, SEAD involves much more than stand-off jamming; assets like the Growler and the F-16CJ are embedded into most strike packages operating in hostile airspace, and those platforms employ ordnance (usually anti-radiation missiles) against ground-based air defenses.

More from Air Force Times:

Air Force and Navy aircraft are still flying hundreds of strike missions over Libya despite the Obama administration’s claim that American forces are playing only a limited support role in the NATO operation.

An Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that since NATO’s Operation Unified Protector (OUP) took over from the American-led Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 31, the U.S. military has flown hundreds of strike sorties. Previously, Washington had claimed that it was mostly providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and tanker support to NATO forces operating over Libya.

“U.S. aircraft continue to fly support [ISR and refueling] missions, as well as strike sorties under NATO tasking,” AFRICOM spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple said in an emailed statement. “As of today, and since 31 March, the U.S. has flown a total of 3,475 sorties in support of OUP. Of those, 801 were strike sorties, 132 of which actually dropped ordnance.

Obviously, that doesn't exactly square with the administration's carefully crafted images of a support role. The comments of the President (and senior officials) suggested that our air mission was largely limited to the in-flight refueling of other NATO aircraft, along with intel support from platforms like the RC-135 Rivet Joint and Predator drones.

Lumping SEAD support in the same category is bit more difficult. True, aircraft like the EA-18 and the F-16CJ can perform some of their duties in a stand-off role, but they typically operate as part of a strike package, often leading the charge into hostile airspace and firing anti-radiation missiles to suppress or destroy enemy air defenses. Sounds like a combat mission to us.

And, the administration's narrative took another hit before the disclosure about our SEAD aircraft. Earlier this month, both the Washington Post and The New York Times reported that military members were receiving imminent danger pay for duties performed in Libyan airspace, or the waters off that nation's coastline. Perhaps someone should ask if the Growler and CJ pilots are receiving hostile fire pay for their flights over Libya, since their targets sometimes shoot back.

Presidents and their military commanders are entitled to a certain degree of discretion in conducting operations, but the taxpayers (and Congress) also deserve a fair measure of transparency. That quality has been notably absent in Mr. Obama's explanation of our objectives in Libya, and how our armed forces are carrying out their mission. All the more reason for Congress to demand answers--and for the administration to come clean, once and for all.
ADDENDUM: It's worth noting that our combat missions in Libya may go beyond SEAD. Air Force Times reports that F-15E Strike Eagle crews at this year's Paris Air Show refused to discuss their activities in Libya, saying they couldn't talk about current operations. You don't need to be an air power expert to know that the Strike Eagle isn't a true SEAD platform. But it's very useful in dropping precision weapons--like those employed against Qadaffi's compound. We're not saying that American warplanes have been flying missions that targeted the Libyan leader. But don't discount that possibility, either.


TOF said...

But, but, the USA is part of NATO. We're just supporting NATO.

Ed Rasimus said...

Do you mean to imply that the administration was less than truthful about their characterization of the involvement?

Seriously, the revelations are not surprising. Would confirm emphatically, your comment that SEAD is NOT a stand-off mission. Jamming might be but suppression is a nose-to-nose operation. Finding the emitters and then getting within HARM range is always going to require exposure. It is the essence of Weaseling.

tfhr said...

Ed Rasimus,

Your Vietnam era Weasel reference is sadly lost on the the current day practitioners in Washington DC, where weaseling is the art of redefining words so they can lie through their teeth while smiling for the camera.

I'd be fine with the US actively seeking to put ordinance on Ghaddfi - if for no other reason that he should be put to death for murdering Americans in terrorist attacks. He is an enemy of America - he has attacked or civilians and our military in the past. Not responding to that gives others an entirely different set of options when calculating the risks of engaging in terrorism as a state sponsor over the long term.

To be fair, it would be a relief for me to kill that syphilis addled freak just to be able to stop having to find a "best" version of his freaking name to type - as I will often see multiple versions entered in the same justifications, estimates, and reports of every kind. If we could just agree on a day that he was put to death, I'd get over the spelling.

Find him, kill him, stop apologizing for killing bad guys and screw weasel worded policy pronouncements from administration insiders and their allies!