A Tug Of War Over U.S. Military Options In Libya Pressure is mounting for the U.S. and its allies to take action in Libya. There's talk of providing weapons to the rebels. Some U.S. lawmakers are pressing for a no-fly zone. But the Pentagon has been resisting, arguing that a new mission could stretch a military already engaged in two wars.
NPR logo

A Tug Of War Over U.S. Military Options In Libya

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/134367056/134372849" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Tug Of War Over U.S. Military Options In Libya

A Tug Of War Over U.S. Military Options In Libya

A Tug Of War Over U.S. Military Options In Libya

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/134367056/134372849" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, shown departing from Naval Station Norfolk on Jan. 13, is now in the Red Sea, with its dozens of warplanes, waiting to see if it's needed for any Libyan operation. U.S. Navy/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, shown departing from Naval Station Norfolk on Jan. 13, is now in the Red Sea, with its dozens of warplanes, waiting to see if it's needed for any Libyan operation.

U.S. Navy/Getty Images

As Libyan aircraft and soldiers continue to attack anti-government rebels, political pressure is mounting for the U.S. and its allies to take action.

Already, U.S. military cargo planes are taking part in a humanitarian mission, bringing in supplies to Tunisia and evacuating refugees caught up in the fighting across the border.

NATO surveillance planes have increased patrols near Libya, monitoring that government's military moves. And U.S. officials and their NATO counterparts will meet on Thursday to discuss a possible no-fly zone.

'A No-Fly Zone Is A Possible Answer'

The carrier USS Enterprise was supposed to head east to the Arabian Sea to take part in the air war in Afghanistan. Instead, 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.

"We come from the sea. We don't ask permission where we put our airfields. We put them where they're needed," the Navy's top officer, Adm. Gary Roughead, told lawmakers about the flexibility of an aircraft carrier.

"We are a very good option," Roughead added, "but there are other factors that I think leadership would have to take into account."

Factors like: What's the mission? Right now, it's pretty much a humanitarian one.

But the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, says alliance defense ministers will consider military options beyond NATO's increased surveillance flights.

"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," Daalder says.

One reason is that a no-fly zone will do nothing to prevent Libyan helicopters or tanks from attacking the rebels.

Concerns About 'Mission Creep'

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the United States and its allies should at least prepare a no-fly zone, and put it in place only with international approval — such as a United Nations 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.

"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," Gates has said.

Some military officials are less worried than Gates about a possible Libyan operation. They doubt a no-fly zone would last as long as the one in Iraq, which went on for a dozen years.

Still, a no-fly zone can evolve into more commitments that require a greater amount of time. It's called "mission creep" — you go in to do one thing and you end up doing another.

"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," says retired Army Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis, who was in charge of U.S. logistics for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"Mainly, it's how long will you do it for?" Pagonis says. "I mean, we can do anything for a short period."

Other Options?

Other military options are being floated already.

Kerry told CBS: "One could crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time."

Some have made calls to arm the rebels, including Steve Hadley, who served as national security adviser under President George W. Bush.

"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," Hadley told CNN.

And there are still more ideas: Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula says Libyan aircraft could be targeted themselves with U.S. cruise missiles from sea.

That, he says, would make Libyan pilots think twice about hopping into their MiG fighters.

"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," he says.

That kind of talk makes Gates nervous. He told lawmakers that even a no-fly zone is actually an act of war, because Libya's radar and missile sites would have to be destroyed before U.S. planes started their patrols.