Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that armed U.S. Predator drones have begun flying missions over Libya. It’s a small bump in U.S. military capability in hopes of blunting the expanding political problem caused by Muammar Gaddafi’s continued attacks on civilians despite a U.N. resolution calling for their protection. The Predators’ goal: to seek out and destroy forces loyal to Gaddafi that are threatening civilians in that country. They join U.S. F-16CJs and EA-18s that have been flying missions over Libya since the U.S. gave up command of the operation Mar. 31.
Tellingly, Gates didn’t mention their deployment in his opening statement to reporters, but waited to reveal it in response to the first question he got, which ended with: “Is the Libyan regime using cluster bombs?”
Plainly questions like that are generating political pressure for Washington to do more as civilians continue to be pounded by Gaddafi’s forces. Consequently, Gates announced the U.S. is doing marginally more, as of Thursday. “The President has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those,” Gates said. “And in fact he has approved the use of armed Predators, and I think that today may in fact have been their first mission.” Obama has approved flying a pair of the drones in Libyan skies at any one time, giving allied air forces a “modest contribution” in firepower, Gates said.
Of course, the armed Predators are subject to the same challenges that face manned aircraft, as Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, noted. “The first flights did launch today but the weather wasn’t good enough,” he said, “so they had to come back,” apparently without firing any of their Hellfire missiles.