Thursday, April 7, 2011

AC-130s & A-10s Still Available To NATO, But Stalemate Looms

The U.S. is providing NATO quick access AC-130's with powerful precision-firing canons, but the close-in air support is so far not enough to defeat Moammar Gadhafi's troops who hide near mosques and schools, the top U.S. commander told a congressional panel today.

A-10 tank-busters are also available to NATO, but they have to be requested in a process that takes about a day to get the low-flying jets into action, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. U.S. planes fly 15 percent of NATO missions since handing off the command to NATO.

"The AC-130, as a very precise and specialized capability, remain available. They were not available when I began, just because of the transit time to get those aircraft into theater. And they are available," Ham said.

"The A-10s, similarly, were not available when I began -- when U.S. AFRICOM began the operation; became available, and with good effect. And they are available, but NATO must request the A-10 availability," he said.

Ham had praise for NATO's handling of Libya since taking command, but acknowledged that the chance of stalemate between rebels and Gadhafi's forces is higher now than when AFRICOM was running the warfare. Changing tactics by Gadhafi's forces have made it more difficult for NATO to strike and has contributed to friendly fire casualties, including a report today of four more rebel deaths from air strikes.

"What has changed dramatically has been the tactics applied by the regime forces where they have shifted from their traditional use of conventional armored equipment which was easily identifiable as regime forces and therefore easily targeted. They now operate largely on civilian vehicles. And when those vehicles are intermixed with the opposition forces, it's increasingly difficult to discern which is which," Ham detailed.

"Secondly, we have seen an increased tactic by the regime forces to put their military vehicles adjacent to civilian aspects -- so mosques, schools, hospitals, civilian areas which would result in significant civilian casualties through the strike of those assets. So I would say and then a third factor... would be frankly just the weather. We went through a period of a few days significantly impeded the ability to collect and to strike," he explained.

NATO has been a punching bag by political and military rebel leaders, as well as defectors from the Gadhafi government.

“It was good when military action was being led by the U.S., U.K. and France, but since NATO took over, it is a mess, and there is no real will to liberate Libya from the hardships Qaddafi troops are putting the Libyan people in,” former Libyan Energy Minister Omar Fathi bin Shatwan told Bloomberg. The ex-Gadhafi oil minister, who fled to Malta on a fishing boat April 1, said the situation in Misrata is dire for the rebels and civilians.

Ham said he still is not ready to arm those distraught rebels with superior arms that could end up in the hands of anti-Western militants.

"Not without a better understanding of exactly who the opposition force is," Ham said of arming the rebels. "My recommendation would be we should know more about who they are before we make any determination to arm them."

The AFRICOM commander still opposes putting U.S. troops on the ground, but admitted an international ground force may be needed to intervene, even if Gadhafi leaves.

"I think that is certainly one potential outcome of this, an international force of some composition intervening between the regime and the opposition forces," Ham said.

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