WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is considering sending more Predator drones and other surveillance planes to bolster the NATO air war in Libya, and has reopened a debate over whether to give weapons to the rebels seeking to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, a senior Defense Department official said.
NATO commanders asked for the sophisticated surveillance aircraft after concluding that they were running out of military targets in Libya after four months of bombing and missile strikes against Gadhafi’s military forces and command facilities, U.S. and NATO officials said.
The Pentagon’s willingness to consider strengthening the NATO force in Libya is an apparent shift since Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta took over the Pentagon this month.
Panetta has emphasized that winning the war in Libya is one of his top priorities. His predecessor, Robert M. Gates, urged European allies to do more and stressed that the U.S. military was overstretched.
NATO commanders are especially eager to obtain more Predator drones, which can remain aloft for 12 hours or longer, sending live video and other intelligence data back to targeting analysts on the ground, a senior NATO officer said. The Predator drones can carry two air-to-ground missiles.
“It’s getting more difficult to find stuff to blow up,” said a senior NATO officer, noting that Gadhafi’s forces are increasingly using civilian facilities to carry out military operations. “Predators really enable you to study things and to develop a picture of what is going on.”
The Pentagon sent NATO several Predators two months ago. Additional drones would permit expanded surveillance of facilities from which the alliance suspects Gadhafi and his inner circle are directing attacks, the officials said.
“We are looking at all the possibilities” for sending drones and other surveillance aircraft, said the senior Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decision has been made.
The official said sending more Predator drones would require transferring them from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, and counterterrorism operations elsewhere, and that some U.S. officials and senior commanders don’t want to do that.