Saturday, March 19, 2011

U.S.-led coalition begins attacks on Libya's air defense systems

By Kevin Baron
Stars and Stripes
Published: March 19, 2011

WASHINGTON – A U.S.-led coalition of warships, submarines and aircraft has begun strikes aimed at key elements of Libya's integrated air defense systems along the Mediterranean coast, to be followed by the enforcement of a no-fly zone over northern Libya, supported by at least 25 ships, the Pentagon revealed Saturday.

"This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought," President Barack Obama said. "But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."

U.S. and British ships and submarines fired more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles impacting more than 20 air defense systems and facilities in what are the first strikes of Operation Odyssey Dawn, according to Vice Admiral William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff.

The U.S. had not performed any airstrikes as of Saturday evening, he said, and no U.S. aircraft had flown over Libya. Damage assessments were being conducted to determine whether initial missile strikes hit their targets.

"This is just the first phase of what will likely be a multiphased military operation," Gortney said in a briefing, adding the U.S. would not go beyond the "well-defined goal" of protecting Libyan citizens.

Obama reiterated on Saturday that no U.S. ground troops would enter Libya.

According to plans presented to reporters at the Pentagon, the missiles were directed at the western shores around Tripoli and Misratah at targets the Pentagon expects could contest the no-fly zone and endanger coalition pilots. Potential targets included surface-to-air missiles, as well as early warning radar and communications sites.

The operation could also attack Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's ground forces. Gortney would not say whether Gadhafi himself would be targeted.

The coalition did not target Benghazi, where rebels are fighting desperately to control the city, instead aiming for "critical nodes" concentrated in Tripoli. Once the no-fly zone starts, more targets are identified just south of Benghazi, near Burayqah and Adabiya.

The operation has two goals: prevent further attacks on opposition forces and degrade Gadhafi's ability to contest the no-fly zone. U.S. forces bring unique capabilities, Gortney said, including cruise missiles, command-and-control elements, and electronic warfare system, though the latter was not used in the initial wave.

It started just hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with officials from 21 nations at a summit in Paris. Earlier Saturday, French war planes attacked Libyan positions around Benghazi, where Gadhafi had continued to pound rebel forces despite calling for a cease-fire.

"We have seen no real effort on the part of the Gadhafi forces to abide by a cease-fire," Clinton said at a news conference.

President Barack Obama on Friday approved the use of U.S. military force in what he said would be a limited mission to carry out a United Nations Security Council mandate.

For weeks, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had provided Obama with "a range of options" but refused to join calls for a no-fly zone, instead offering sober assessments of what a no-fly zone would take to maintain. Last week, NATO defense ministers agreed they would only intervene with the support of Arab nations and a legal mandate from the United Nations. Shortly after, the Arab League called for the no-fly zone.

"We should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday afternoon, calling it a "just cause."

For now, the operation is under the command of U.S. Africa Commander Gen. Carter Ham, who was sworn to that post just last week, while U.S. Adm. Sam Locklear is commanding a joint task force from aboard the USS Mount Whitney.

It includes 11 U.S. vessels, including the amphibious ships USS Kearsage and USS Ponce, submarines USS Scranton, USS Florida, and USS Providence, as well as Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Stout and USS Barry. Additionally, three supply ships, 11 Italian ships, and one ship each from Britain, France, and Italy comprise the effort.

Eventually, the Pentagon plans to hand command control over to another country in the coalition, but no time was given. The official said the coalition includes Britain, France, Italy, Canada and other unnamed countries, including Arab ones, that would reveal their participation on their own.

Gates delayed his planned Saturday departure for Russia to monitor events from Washington, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen was in the Pentagon.


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