WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's decision to use unmanned Predator drones in Libya widened what had become very limited U.S. participation in the air war, but the aircraft credited with taking out terrorist leaders in western Pakistan probably won't prove decisive against Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
Sending just two remotely piloted Predators, each with two Hellfire missiles designed to pierce armor, over Libya 24 hours a day is far from a game-changing addition to an air campaign that features an array of high-flying French, British and other European jets bombing Libyan ground targets and enforcing a no-fly zone.
The small scale of this Predator deployment suggests that drones, while effective, have a downside. The weapon has become a detested symbol of U.S. military might in Pakistan, where their use is tolerated by the U.S.-backed government but widely criticized by Pakistanis. Afghan President Hamid Karzai sometimes has decried the use of U.S. drones, which he blames for civilian deaths.
Their use in Libya is really only a half-step back into the fight. Bigger U.S. bombers and other firepower remain idle.
Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the reasons are as much diplomatic as military.
"A big part of what's going on is our British and French allies want to get out of what looks to be a stalemate that they now own, so they are busy pressuring us to escalate, and we don't want to escalate," he said. "One of the things the Predators do is they give you something that allows you to say to the British and the French, `We're doing more,' but doesn't get us a lot more committed."
Biddle called the addition of two Predators a "marginal" gain for NATO that won't give the alliance the upper hand or stop Gadhafi's attacks on civilians.
"But it helps solve the immediate issue of responding to pressure from allies," Biddle said.
Britain and France were among the first to push for international military intervention in Libya. The Obama administration later was persuaded to go along.
Using the Predator at all in Libya shows how air power has evolved in recent years.
Piloted aircraft such as the F-15 Strike Eagle and the B-52 bomber that long have been the backbone of the Air Force carry more powerful and larger numbers of bombs and missiles. But the Predator has the advantage of flexible response to hard-to-track targets, including vehicles whose occupants can be identified on a Predator's camera.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week that the Predator can, for example, strike a vehicle parked near an ammunition depot with such precision that there is less risk of the ammunition exploding and creating unintended casualties.
"So it brings some capabilities to the NATO commander that they didn't have before," Cartwright said.
After a Pentagon meeting Tuesday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, British Defense Minister Liam Fox thanked the administration for providing armed Predators. Fox said at a news conference with Gates that drones had increased NATO's ability to strike with precision in urban areas and with less risk of civilian casualties.
"There is little doubt across the alliance that this key contribution has proven to be immense value protecting civilians in Misrata," Fox said. Misrata is the rebel-city in the Gadhafi stronghold of western Libya that has come under siege by his forces for two months.
The first Predator strike in Libya was Apr. 23, and as of Friday they had made a total of six attacks, mainly against surface-to-air missile systems, according to the Pentagon.
The Predator drone is equipped with cameras that feed live video to ground commanders and others as it hovers over a target.
When the Predator is configured for attack, two Hellfire anti-tank missiles are strapped to the drone. It is operated remotely by an Air Force a pilot and camera operator working at consoles at an air base in Nevada. The absence of a pilot in the cockpit eliminates the human risk, and the pilot's access to live video transmissions means he or she can fire missiles at targets that appear suddenly.
At the outset of the air campaign in Libya on March 19, the U.S. took the lead role. It launched dozens of long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles from Navy ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. Air Force planes, including B-2 bombers flying round trip from their base in Missouri, participated in airstrikes aimed largely at disabling Libya's air defenses radars and missiles.
But Obama said from the start that the U.S. would quickly transition to a back-seat role. It was on April 4, two days later than scheduled, when NATO assumed full command of the air campaign and the U.S. stopped flying offensive strike missions.
The U.S. continued in a support role with aerial refueling missions and planes used for surveillance and to intercept Libyan communications. It has continued to fly electronic warfare planes that jam Libyan radars and on several occasions have attacked air defense sites.
When Gates announced last Thursday that Predators, which had been flying unarmed surveillance missions over Libya, were being outfitted with missiles to join in NATO airstrikes against pro-regime forces, he denied this amounted to "mission creep," the gradual enlarging of the goals of American military involvement.
Gates said the Predators add "a very limited capability."