Predators for Libya action fit diplomatic, military bill
WASHINGTON PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s decision to use unmanned Predator drones in Libya widened what had become very limited US participation in the air war, but the aircraft credited with taking out terrorist leaders in western Pakistan probably won’t prove decisive against Moamer Qadhafi’s forces.
Sending just two remotely piloted Predators, each with two Hellfire missiles designed to pierce armour, 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 nofly zone.
The small scale of this Predator deployment suggests that drones, while effective, have a downside.
The weapon has become a detested symbol of US military might in Pakistan, where their use is tolerated by the US-backed government but widely criticised by Pakistanis.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai sometimes has decried the use of US drones, which he blames for civilian deaths.
Their use in Libya is really only a half-step back into the fight.
Bigger US 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 Qadhafi’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 General 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.