U.S. sends A-10, AC-130 ground attack planes to Libya

The U.S. military dramatically stepped up its assault on Libyan government ground forces this weekend, launching its first attacks with AC-130 flying gunships and A-10 attack aircraft, which are designed to strike enemy ground troops and supply convoys, according to senior U.S. military officials.

Their use, during several days of heavy fighting in which the momentum seemed to swing in favor of the rebels, demonstrated how allied military forces have been drawn deeper into the chaotic fight in Libya. A mission that initially seemed to revolve around establishing a no-fly zone has become focused on halting advances by ground forces in and around Libya’s key coastal cities.

The AC-130s, which fly low and slow over the battlefield and are typically more vulnerable to enemy fire than fast-moving fighter jets, were deployed only after a week of sustained coalition attacks on Libyan government air defenses and radar. Armed with heavy machine guns and cannons that rake the ground, they allow strikes on dug-in Libyan ground forces and convoys in closer proximity to civilians.

Their use in Libya could be “a significant game changer,” said a senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.

Military officials consider AC-130s and A-10s well suited to attacks in built-up areas, although they pose more risk for pilots and their lethality has been criticized as indiscriminate in past wars. The gunships, developed from a Hercules C-130 transport plane for use in Vietnam, have been used in virtually every U.S. military combat operation since then, including Grenada, Panama, Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

AC-130s were used to great effect during both of the U.S. attacks into Fallujah, an al-Qaeda stronghold in the early days of the Iraq war. In Afghanistan, the military considers them a particularly effective weapon against dug-in militants and commanders have frequently complained that they are in too short supply.

In Libya, “we are determined to step up the mission, to attack his tanks and [troop] columns every day until he withdraws,” a French official said of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and the forces loyal to him.

The AC-130s, which are flying from a base in Italy, were requested by Gen. Carter Ham, the senior American general overseeing the battle, and are likely to continue flying over Libya in the coming days as allied forces attempt to increase the pressure on Gaddafi’s ground forces. Their use highlights the coalition desire to press for a swift end to the ground fighting, which appears to have swung tentatively in favor of the opposition forces.

In response to the rebel advance Gaddafi’s ground troops appear to be digging in and moving tanks into the cities of Zintan and Sirte.

“The longer it lasts the more danger of civilian casualties,” said a Western diplomat whose country is involved in the attacks. He warned that one errant missile strike against a hospital or a house full of children could have a deeply polarizing effect on the already fragile alliance of NATO and Arab nations.