Why Obama agreed to unleash Predator drones on Qaddafi forces

President Obama has approved the use of Predator drones in Libya. The drones represent a 'unique' capability that NATO needed in an increasingly urban war, Pentagon officials say.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan on Jan. 31, 2010. The US has approved the use of Predator drones against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Thursday that President Obama has approved the use of Predator drones against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

The decision points to a clear need in the evolving conflict. Predator drones have proven their value in Iraq and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for carrying out targeted strikes. In Libya, the war has increasingly moved into urban areas like Misurata, with media reports suggesting Libyan government forces are using unmarked vehicles and dressing like civilians.

NATO forces, which are leading the international coalition against Mr. Qaddafi, do not have armed drones. That gap in NATO's capabilities is further evidence of the indispensable role that the US alone can fulfill in armed humanitarian interventions.

The NATO-led coalition has also struggled in neutralizing Qaddafi assets like tanks and rocket launchers, for example. The US – with its AC-130 and A-10 Warthog aircraft – has assets suited to the task but has held them back. The decision to send Predators into the Libyan theater represents an acknowledgment by the Obama administration that particular elements of the US arsenal could be critical to any chance of success against Qaddafi.

“The president has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those,” Mr. Gates said at a news conference Thursday.

Also speaking at the briefing, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright said Predators are better suited to discerning between Libyan forces and civilians than AC-130s or A-10s, given their array of surveillance equipment.

Qaddafi's forces "nestle up in crowded areas," making it "very difficult to identify friend from foe," he said.

The need in Libya is urgent, with the situation in the rebel-held western city of Misurata particularly dire. Tim Hetherington, the codirector of “Restrepo,” the Oscar-nominated documentary film about the war in Afghanistan, was killed in Misurata Wednesday. Human Rights Watch said Monday that hospital morgues in the city had recorded 265 deaths since April 15.

But US aid to Libyan rebels announced this week was exclusively nonlethal in nature – $25 million in tents, boots, and medical supplies, for example. And three European allies leading the NATO effort – Britain, France, and Italy – have announced plans to dispatch military advisers to aid the rebels.

Those plans, however, would only bear fruit over a period of months, Anthony Cordesman, a military and strategic security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the Monitor Wednesday.

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