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.
The tougher and more risky mission to halt Gaddafi’s ground troops from attacking into key Libyan cities has quickly overshadowed the less challenging task of stopping the Libyan dictator from launching his aircraft to attack rebels. The ground attack mission also opened up some rifts between coalition partners in NATO and Arab nations, who were reluctant to support attacks that could produce civilian casualties. And it has led some U.S. lawmakers to charge that the Obama administration launched the U.S. military into the middle of a complex ground fight between rebels and loyalist forces without a clear exit strategy.
A senior NATO diplomat emphasized that alliance planning, beginning in late February, focused primarily on providing humanitarian support, enforcing an arms embargo and establishing a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi from using his aircraft to attack his own people.
Meanwhile, the U.S., Britain and France were making their own preparations for stopping a ground assault by Libyan forces. There was little support within Obama’s national security team for a mission that revolved solely around a no-fly zone seen as likely to do too little to protect civilians against Gaddafi’s forces on the ground.
Some administration officials, with memories of enforcing no-fly zones over Bosnia while civilians were being exterminated on the ground, argued the United States should not even participate in such a limited operation. In the Pentagon, there was concern about plunging U.S. forces into a Libya without a clear goal, and there was also worry that chaos would ensue if Gaddafi fell too quickly and the loosely organized, tribally divided rebels tried to govern the country.
By March 12, the Arab League had formally backed imposition of a no-fly zone, following a similar move by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of several of the United States’ closest Arab allies.
Events on the ground finally drove the U.S. and its allies toward a broader intervention, aimed at the interdiction and destruction of Gaddafi’s advancing ground forces. Until the week of March 13, the rebels seemed to be making progress. Then Gaddafi unleashed his military, taking towns the opposition had won and heading toward the de facto rebel capital in Benghazi.
Pushed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U. N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the administration took control of a British-French draft resolution for a no-fly zone that had been languishing at the U.N., worked with them to strengthen it and began making the case to the rest of the Security Council that stronger action was needed. The resolution passed on March 17, authorizing the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian areas under threat.
In effect, Gaddafi’s decision to launch a major ground push on the rebel held city of Benghazi compelled the U.S. to back a broader mission against his ground forces, administration officials said. On March 18, Obama insisted that Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on rebel-held Benghazi and pull back from the contested cities of Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiya so that electricity, gas and humanitarian aid could flow into the areas.
As the major allied players in the alliance gathered for a conference in Paris the following day, French jets were launched over rebel-held Benghazi. The sudden move on the part of the French forces was needed to drive back a last-minute armored thrust by Gaddafi’s forces on the rebel capital.
“In an ideal world, we would sit down with a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘Let’s get rid of Gaddafi.’ That’s not the way it unfolded,” said the Western diplomat.