WASHINGTON – Even as President Barack Obama assured a war-weary public that American forces would play only a supporting role in a no-fly zone over Libya, there was no avoiding a prominent opening assignment: Only the United States had the resources to degrade Moammar Gadhafi’s air defenses, a key to seizing control of Libyan airspace.
Fighter jets from France, the United Kingdom and Arab allies may ultimately assume the daily job of patrolling Libya’s skies, but it was largely a U.S. operation in Saturday’s opening volley that launched more than 110 Tomahawk missiles at Gadhafi’s surface-to-air missile sites and radar detectors.
Faced with the prospect of a massive humanitarian disaster at Gadhafi’s hands, Obama found himself in the uncomfortable position he has spent weeks trying to avoid: that of world policeman.
Determined to gather international support before acting, Obama got the consensus he sought with support for the no-fly zone from the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League, and the U.S. missile strike came after France first sent warplanes to try to turn back Gadhafi’s forces.
But to clear the air defenses, the U.S. had to take the lead.
When it comes to jamming radar that detects inbound jet fighters and launching an overwhelming barrage of missiles to knock out radar towers and anti-aircraft guns, “we’re the only ones that can do that,” said Lawrence J. Korb, former assistant secretary for logistics under President Ronald Reagan and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
“That’s what happens when everybody is cutting their defense, we are going to have to provide the majority of the resources,” said Korb, adding that it was an important U.S. public relations move to have French planes make the initial foray into Libyan airspace and have the British also fire missiles.
The U.S. goal is to get its work done “in days, not weeks,” so that coalition forces can handle the majority of the air patrols, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive diplomacy.
The Libyan air defense system uses older Soviet technology “much like what Iraq had built,” said Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, “but still good capability.”