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Will Gadhafi’s Forces Make Easier Targets Now?

by John Reed on April 26, 2011

If Libyan rebels continue to hold on the center of the besieged city of Misurata, one of the major questions surrounding the battle will be, can NATO jets more easily pummel Gadhafi’s forces now that they have withdrawn to the city’s outskirts where they may be preparing to bombard the city with heavy weapons.

last week, we saw the United States introduce armed Predator drones into the conflict. Pentagon officials said the drones were brought in to hunt down Gadhafi’s forces that were dug in close to civilians in the cities and using civilian vehicles to get around. Over the weekend the drones drew first blood, taking out a loyalist rocket launcher. Here’s Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the joint chiefs, saying last week why the drones are needed:

What they will bring that is unique to the — to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on particularly targets now that have started to dig themselves in into defensive positions.  They’re uniquely suited for areas — urban areas where you can get low collateral damage.  And so we’re trying to manage that collateral damage obviously, but that’s the best platform to do that with; their extended persistence on the target — they’re out there for a full day working the targets.

Added Cartwright:

The character of the fight has changed also.  I mean, the introduction of the air and the capability that NATO’s brought — things that are out in the open, know that they’re going to probably perish if a NATO bird sees them.

So you’re seeing a much more dispersed fight, people that are digging in or nestling up against crowded areas, where collateral damage is.

The other issue out there that we’re trying to struggle with is the — now you have the intermixing of the lines, so to speak.  So it’s very difficult to pick friend from foe.  So a vehicle like the Predator that can get down lower and can get IDs better helps us.

This destroyed tank, which may have been one of Ghadhafi’s that tried to hide from air strikes by partially hiding under the loading bays of Misurata’s downtown fruit market, was allegedly hit by a NATO strike. It could very well be the work of a Predator armed with a Hellfire anti-tank missile. If this is the case, it’s exactly why NATO needed the drones; Gadhafi’s forces were digging in super close to civilians. Still, it’s too early to see how much of a decisive factor the assist by the drones, or NATO writ large, played in helping the rebels drive Gadhafi’s troops from Misurata.

So, if Ghadafi’s troops are under pressure from drones and rebels inside the city, will they now become sitting ducks for NATO’s manned jets as they try to hammer Misurata into submission with heavy weapons from afar? Or, as countless observers have said, will NATO’s air campaign be unable to tip the balance in favor of the disorganized rebels, despite increased efforts to hammer the regime from the air?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

STemplar April 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I'm sure the drones will help. The persistence allows a greater ability to engage targets of opportunity, but it's not a strategic game changer. It allows NATO to be marginally more effective tactically but it isn't the key to a winning strategy. Neither frankly is being able to hit a few more vehicles on the outskirts of the city.

I was more encouraged by the bombing of Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli. That of course should have happened right from the start. Taking the head of the leadership and their ability along with willingness to continue is the key to forcing a settlement. However, it's tough to say if it is too little, and far too late at this point. We might have dithered around too long and the only way left to successfully end it would be a ground force invading Tripoli.

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Taxandrian April 26, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Pfff… to win a war you need Feet on the Ground. Now there are, as in rebels, but if WE want to win, WE'll have to send soldiers too. No war was ever won from the air.

But wait, do we want to win? Or do we want the rebels to win? It's all so confusing…

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Brian April 26, 2011 at 4:08 pm

We just don't like Ghadafi. The rebels might be dirtbags, but we seem to have taken a position that anyone shooting at Ghadafi is okay by us. For now.

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Guest April 27, 2011 at 7:05 am

Kind of like when Iraq and Iran were at war…

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Morty April 26, 2011 at 4:09 pm

If Gadhafi's forces are out in the open like they say I think the preditor's will get the job done.

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@Earlydawn April 26, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Good equipment can't compensate for bad policy.

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Sanem April 27, 2011 at 2:16 am

attacking government buildings can have a positive effect, in that in can undermine leadership confidence and complicate command and control

that said, it's pretty easy to relocate for this type of target; there's also the increased risk of hitting civilians, which happened in Iraq when women and children were hiding in one of Sadam's bunkers

UAVs are hardly super-weapons, but that's also their greatest strength, they add cheap numbers

a single Reaper can stay on target for up to 20? hours, at $400/hour. executing that same job with manned jets would require up to 5 planes, at $4000/hour. so one UAV is potentially worth 5 or more fast jets, at a fraction of the cost

Lybian army being forced out of the city does make them easier targets for aircraft, but you still have the problem of telling the difference between a civilian, an army and a rebel truck, never mind people on foot. this gets more complicated as Lybian military develop hit-and-run tactics, waiting for the jets to leave before they launch their attack and hide

jets find this tactic hard to deal with because they can't be everywhere at once or for an extended period of time. UAVs however can, because they have the numbers and the loiter ability

while fast jets still offer vital strategic advantages and abilities, like speed and air-to-air combat (for now), this is why I believe that all those F-16s up for replacement should at least in part be replaced with UAVs: in a scenario like Lybia (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo…), 10 UAVs are a lot more useful than 1 F-35

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Lance April 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm

We are helping forces who want to kill Americans too Why help these Islamic terrorist its not n our interests. Oh by the way I be The enemy will adapt and hid there weapons better its not all that easy like the writer here wants to make it to be.

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Will April 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm

RPVs can have a persistent presence that is very expensive to do with manned aircraft, in addition to flying low without risking the pilot. Ground FACs will make the European aircraft much more effective. I'd really like to see them coming from NATO members who aren't already heavily committed to A-stan.

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