WASHINGTON – Even as other nations begin taking a larger role in the international air assault mission in Libya, the Pentagon is considering adding Air Force gunships and other attack aircraft that are better suited for tangling with Libyan ground forces in contested urban areas like Misrata, a senior Pentagon official said Friday.
Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney told a Pentagon news conference that for the second consecutive day, all air missions to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya were flown by non-U.S. aircraft, and U.S. planes conducted about half the missions attacking Libyan air defenses, missile sites and ground forces. Qatar became the first Arab nation to join the effort, flying F-16s in support of the no-fly zone.
"The division of labor between the U.S. and our partners has largely evened out," Gortney said.
With the Obama administration eager to take a back seat, it remained unclear when NATO would assume command of the no-fly patrols. Also unclear was when — and even if — the U.S. military's Africa Command would hand off to NATO the lead role in attacking Libyan ground targets.
President Barack Obama spoke with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders about Libya on Friday afternoon amid criticism that he's failed to adequately consult with Capitol Hill on the U.S. military goals there.
Political pressure on Obama to spell out his Libya policy mounted Friday as a prominent Democrat expressed reservations about the wisdom of continuing the military mission.
"I know the president carefully weighed all the options before taking this emergency action but now that our military has prevented an immediate disaster, I have very serious concerns about what this intervention means for our country in the coming weeks," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said. "Our military, and our budget, are stretched thin fighting two wars already, and I want to avoid getting into another conflict with unknown costs and consequences."
Obama intends to update the country in the "very near future," press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. Obama was traveling in Latin America last weekend when he authorized the U.S.-led attacks on Moammar Gadhafi's defenses. Obama has not spoken out on the fighting since returning on Wednesday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been traveling abroad this week, also was quiet on Libya Friday.
The U.S. commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army Gen. Carter Ham, told The Associated Press, "We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya," but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. "We'd be killing the very people that we're charged with protecting."
Instead, the focus is on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Gadhafi's forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas like Misrata, Ham said in a telephone interview from his U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Ham said the U.S. expects NATO will take command of the no-fly zone mission on Sunday, with a Canadian three-star general, Charles Bouchard, in charge. Bouchard would report to an American admiral, Samuel Locklear, in Locklear's role as commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command Naples, Ham said.
If NATO also decides to take on a wider mission broadly defined by the United Nations Security Council as protecting Libyan civilians from their own government — a mission that is currently carried out under U.S. command — then Bouchard might command that effort, too, Ham said.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says the Obama administration needs to do more to explain how the mission in Libya "is consistent with U.S. policy goals." The spokesman, Brendan Buck, made the comment Friday after the speaker participated in a conference call with Obama and congressional leaders.
In announcing on Thursday that NATO had agreed to take on the no-fly zone mission, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the campaign was evolving in line with Obama's plan to limit U.S. involvement.
"We're already seeing a significant reduction in the number of U.S. planes involved in operations as the number of planes from other countries increases in numbers," she said.
Gortney, however, said there has been no reduction in the number of American planes participating. In fact, he said the Pentagon was considering bringing in side-firing AC-130 gunships, helicopters and armed drone aircraft that could challenge Libyan ground forces that threaten civilians in cities like Misrata. The U.S. has avoided attacking in cities thus far out of fear that civilians could be killed or injured. AC-130 gunships, which operate at night at low altitude, can attack with unusual precision.
Gortney is staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Ham said in the AP interview that he would not discuss specific U.S. weaponry that might be used in the future. "But that is the challenge: How do you more precisely target these regime forces without causing civilian casualties? So more precise weapons systems is what we are looking for."
NATO's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, is expected to meet again on Sunday to revisit whether the alliance will take command of the rest of the Libya operation, including the protection of civilians.
Asked about the condition of Gadhafi's armed forces after a week of U.S. and coalition bombing, Gortney said their communications had been degraded, yet they remain a dangerous threat. In the contested city of Ajdabiya, for example, attacks against pro-Gadhafi forces were producing limited results.
"We assess that our strikes on regime forces around the city have had an effect, but the regime is still able and still determined to reinforce their positions there," Gortney said.
As the transition to NATO command and control of the military operation proceeds, the administration has still not made a decision about recognizing the Benghazi-based Libyan opposition council as the legitimate government of the country. The U.S. closed its embassy in Tripoli in February but has not broken diplomatic relations with the Gadhafi regime.
Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who has been reaching out to opposition figures, said the administration was still not entirely certain about the identities and intentions of the transitional council, although he said they had made positive statements about their goals and plans to respect human rights.
"I think they're off to a good start," he told reporters at the State Department. "That's not to say that we know everything about them; we don't. We have to be very careful about who might be included in the future and how they go about forming a government, if in fact they have that opportunity."
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek, Matthew Lee, Donna Cassata and Richard Lardner contributed to this report.
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