US Air Force and Navy aircraft are still flying hundreds of strike missions over Libya even though the US government claims it is only playing a support role in the NATO-led operation.
An Africa Command (Africom) spokeswoman told Army Times on Wednesday that US military aircraft have flown hundreds of strike missions since NATO’s Operation Unified Protector (OUP) took over from the American-led Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 31.
The Obama administration earlier said that it was mostly providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and tanker support to NATO forces operating over Libya.
“US aircraft continue to fly support missions, as well as strike sorties under NATO tasking,” Africom spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple said in an emailed statement. “As of today, and since 31 March, the US has flown a total of 3,475 sorties in support of OUP. Of those, 801 were strike sorties, 132 of which actually dropped ordnance.”
Africom couldn’t immediately say when the last US strike sortie over Libya was flown
This contrasts with a White House report on June 15 that said “American strikes are limited to the suppression of enemy air defence and occasional strikes by unmanned Predator UAVs against a specific set of targets.”
Dalrymple said the Air Force’s F-16CJ and Navy’s EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft as the primary platforms that have been suppressing enemy air defences. These carry electronic warfare equipment as well as anti-radiation missiles.
The revelation that the US is still flying combat missions has added fuel to the fire regarding the debate over the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The resolution states that the US president needs to ask permission from Congress to deploy forces into combat longer than 60 days. If Congress does not grant that permission within that span, American forces must be withdrawn within 30 days.
On Wednesday President defended his decision to intervene in Libya, saying he consulted with Congress and operated within legal guidelines in approving a narrow, UN-mandated mission.
“We have engaged in a limited operation to help a lot of people against one of the worst tyrants in the world,” he said, referring to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Obama’s comments came after a week in which lawmakers have harshly criticized his Libya policies, and the House rebuffed him by refusing to authorize US participation in the NATO-led mission.
The House of Representatives defeated a move last month to curb US intervention in Libya but also delivered a symbolic rebuke to Obama by defeating the measure that would have formally authorized US operations in Libya.
The White House argues that the Libya military operation and the limited US role there do not constitute “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution.
Obama said he had consulted fully with Congress before approving the mission in March but was not required to secure authorization.
“I think that such consultation is entirely appropriate. But do I think that our actions in any way violate the War Powers Resolution? The answer is no.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the administration for not formally seeking Congress’ authorization.
Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat and former Navy secretary, called “contorted” the administration’s argument that the mission does not rise to the level of “hostilities” under US law. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, said the White House was trying to “have it both ways” by saying it supports the resolution while saying it did not apply to Libya.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said poor planning for what happens once the conflict in Libya concluded was a more pressing problem.
“The debate over the war powers act is a diversion from what really matters for American interests, which is the post-conflict environment in Libya,” he said.
Obama stressed that the United States plays a supporting role in the Libya operation, underscoring that no US troops had been dispatched to Libya, there have been no US casualties, and that the operation remained limited in time and in scope.
Most air assets involved in the Libya campaign are reconnaissance aircraft, including the U-2 high-altitude spy plane, E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System ground surveillance aircraft and the Navy’s P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. The US provides nearly 70 percent of the NATO operation’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capacity, according to the White House report.
Additionally, the Air Force is still providing EC-130J aircraft to the operation to conduct psychological warfare operations by broadcasting coercive messages.
The remaining aircraft operating in the theatre are aerial refuelling tankers, including KC-10s and KC-135s. The US also provides the majority of the alliance’s tanker capability.