WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A wary U.S. military, stretched thin by almost a decade of war, hardly wanted to be the face of another coalition strike on another Arab nation.
But just hours after U.S. warships and submarines launched a massive volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libya, the big question at the Pentagon was not whether the United States was effectively in the lead but when it might hand over the reins to an ally.
Yes, French warplanes made the first, initial strikes in Libya. Indeed, British forces also were involved and a British submarine joined the United States in launching cruise missiles at the Libyan coast.
But the Pentagon acknowledged the strike on Libya — the biggest military intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 invasion of Iraq — was being spearheaded initially by the United States.
“We are on the leading edge of coalition operations, where the United States, under General (Carter) Ham in Africa Command, is in charge. He’s in command of this at this point,” said Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the U.S. military’s Joint Staff.
But Gortney cautioned that “in the coming days we intend to transition it to a coalition command.” So far the coalition also includes Britain, Italy, France and Canada. Qatar said it will participate and other Arab allies are expected to join.
Mission creep in Libya is not an option for the United States. It faces a tough fight in Afghanistan, is still winding down in Iraq and is engaged in a massive relief mission in earthquake-hit Japan. Arab nations in North Africa and the Gulf face unprecedented unrest.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in his comments from Brazil, stressed the U.S. military’s focus on the “front-end” of the mission to protect Libyan civilians and allow for the creation of a no-fly zone to stop Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from killing civilians while trying to put down a rebellion.
But that no-fly zone, Obama said, “will be led by our international partners.” No U.S. ground troops will go into Libya.
U.S. officials say the initial leadership role made sense given the unique capabilities of the world’s most advanced military to neutralize Gaddafi’s air defenses. Those capabilities have kept the danger at arms length so far, launching targeted strikes from ships in the Mediterranean.
Some of the Tomahawk missiles used in Saturday’s strike were far more advanced than necessary to evade Gadaffi’s defenses, including the ability to “loiter” in the air before being instructed to their final target. That capability was not utilized in the strike on Libya.
“In this particular mission we used (the new missiles) just as one of the older Tomahawks,” Gortney said.
Soon the U.S. military aims to send in advanced drone aircraft — the Global Hawk — to provide some of the battlefield imaging commanders are accustomed to.
Retired Army Lieutenant General James Dubik, a former top U.S. commander in Iraq, is skeptical of the mission but acknowledged the United States had some abilities crucial for the fight.
“We have some unique (surveillance and intelligence-gathering) capabilities and some unique anti-radar capabilities and of course we are the lead nation in the world with respect to Tomahawk missiles,” he said.
Still, Dubik asked whether a no-fly zone would be sufficient to really protect civilians. What about Gaddafi’s militias — a question asked by many in Washington.
“I understand the moral desire, the moral legitimacy, but I’m unconvinced at this point that the strategic aim can be actually achieved with the means selected (a no-fly zone),” he said.