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We're going to hear now about some of the military options and constraints when it comes to Libya. First, there is already a humanitarian mission, and NATO is gathering aerial surveillance to assess what's really happening on the ground. Now comes the question of whether to do more. For example, enforce a no-fly zone.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports on why these decisions are so complicated.
TOM BOWMAN: The carrier USS Enterprise was supposed to head east to the Arabian Sea to take part in the air war in Afghanistan. Now, it's afloat farther west in the Red Sea, with its dozens of warplanes, waiting to see if it's needed for any Libyan operation.
GARY ROUGHEAD: We come from the sea. We don't ask permission where we put our airfields. We put them where they're needed.
BOWMAN: That's the Navy's top officer, Admiral Gary Roughead, telling lawmakers about the flexibility of an aircraft carrier.
ROUGHEAD: We are a very good option for that, but there are other factors that I think leadership would have to take into account.
BOWMAN: Factors like what's the mission. Right now, it's pretty much a humanitarian one. The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, says beyond that, alliance defense ministers will consider other military options.
IVO DAALDER: A no-fly zone is a possible answer. It can't be the answer. A no-fly zone is not going to answer all our questions. It's not going to solve all our problems that we confront in Libya.
BOWMAN: And one reason is that a no-fly zone will do nothing to prevent Libyan helicopters or tanks from attacking the rebels.
Still, there is increasing political pressure to do something, as Libyan aircraft and soldiers continue to attack rebels.
Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the U.S. and its allies should at least prepare a no-fly zone and put it in place only with international approval, such as a U.N. resolution. But the Pentagon has been resisting.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has argued that a new mission in Libya could further stretch an American military already engaged in two wars. Remember that aircraft carrier, its Afghanistan mission put on hold in case it's needed for Libya.
ROBERT GATES: If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan, for the Persian Gulf? Those are some of the effects that we have to think about.
BOWMAN: Some military officials are less worried than Gates about a possible Libyan operation. They doubt enforcing a no-fly zone would last as long as the one in Iraq did. It went on for a dozen years.
Still, a no-fly zone can evolve into more commitments and a greater amount of time. It's what's called mission creep: you go in to do one thing and you end up doing another.
GUS PAGONIS: Consequently, you know, you set up a no-fly zone, that's one part. Then the next step, you say you're going to insert, say, U.N. troops. Then you have to be able to logistically support them.
BOWMAN: That's retired Army Lieutenant General Gus Pagonis who was in charge of U.S. logistics for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
PAGONIS: Mainly, it's how long will you do it for. I mean, we can do anything for a short period.
BOWMAN: Already, there are other military ideas being floated. Here's Senator Kerry.
JOHN KERRY: One could crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time.
BOWMAN: Then there are calls to arm the rebels.
STEVE HADLEY: Maybe even covertly starting to get some weapons to the rebels so they can create their own no-fly zone rather than the United States have to do it.
BOWMAN: That's Steve Hadley, who served as National Security adviser under President George W. Bush, on CNN.
And there are still more ideas. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula says Libyan aircraft could be targeted with U.S. cruise missiles from the sea. That, he says, would make Libyan pilots think twice about hopping into their MiG fighters.
DAVE DEPTULA: You're a member of an aircraft attack squadron, and you come to work the next day, and half your squadron is destroyed on the ramp, you're probably not going to want to go out and fly again.
BOWMAN: That kind of talk makes Defense Secretary Robert Gates nervous. He told lawmakers that even a no-fly zone is an act of war, because Libya's radar and missile sites would have to be destroyed before U.S. planes start their patrols.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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