“Where are the carriers?” is believed to be the first question a U.S. President asks his closer advisors each time America has to deal with a crisis.
In this case, the attack on the Benghazi consulate, that cost the life of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others, has compelled the Pentagon to send a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST), an expeditionary group of skilled and very well equipped Marines capable to reinforce U.S. security forces at embassies and other key installations around the world.
Along with the FAST team, reportedly moving from Rota, Spain, drones, and the USS Laboon and USS McFaul destroyers, equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles, sailing towards the Libyan coasts, it is quite likely that even an amphibious ship with a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), capable to perform NEOs (Noncombatant Evacuation Operations), will be dispatched in the Mediterranean sea in preparation for the possible evacuation of the U.S. diplomatic mission.
Image credit: U.S. Marine Corps
A MEU is made of 2,200 Marines and sailors deployed as a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) that includes a Marine infantry battalion equipped with tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, light artillery as well as Mv-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, AV-8B Harrier combat planes, UH-1N Huey and AH-1Y Cobra helicopters.
The nearest such MEUs is the 24th Marine Expeditionary unit, with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 operating on board the LHD-7 “Iwo Jima” a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship.
Although the “big deck amphibious warfare ships” is deployed as “a theater reserve force for U.S. Central Command and is providing support for maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet area of responsibility” the Iwo Jima is probably already moving into position.
Even if, citing U.S. officials, the CNN has just reported that unmanned aerial vehicles will begin flying over Benghazi in the next few days, American drones may already be flying surveillances flights over eastern Libya following the attack at the U.S. consulate where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed by anti-U.S. mob.
The U.S. Air Force drones can be particularly useful to discover jihadi encampments and targets that may be tied to the attack to the Benghazi consulate.
CNN’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reported that the proposal for use of drones could be approved shortly by the DoD and the White House, however, ISR (intelligence surveillance reconnaissance) have continued to take place over Northern Africa, where U.S. spyplanes, most probably looking for terrorists camps and smuggled weapons travelling towards Egypt, have been reported (and spotted) months after Operation Unified Protector had ended.
Since the first drones to operate in the Libyan airspace during 2011’s Air War were the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the US Air Force, based at Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily, the main operating base of the NATO Air Ground Surveillance Global Hawk program, it is quite likely that, if not already flying high-altitude surveillance flights over eastern Libya, these will be the first UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) to seek and hunt insurgents.
Last year’s Libya Air War saw the coalition of NATO and non-NATO members, operating within Operation Unified Protector, dropping some 3,644 LGBs, 2,844 GPS-guided, 1,150 precision-guided direct-fire weapons, to enforce the UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 and get rid of Gaddafi.
However, in spite of the exclusive use of PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) and a 30-minute process to perform identification and accurate Collateral Damage Estimate before any weapons could be dropped against a target (even a time-sensitive one) in order to prevent civilians from being either injured or killed by the strike, NATO was unable to achieve the standard of “zero expectation” of death or injury to civilians.
Unfortunately, when you are at war, you can use the most advanced weapon system ever produced and take all the precautions to reduce collateral damage, but you will never be able to completely remove civilian harm when you drop bombs in urban scenarios.
As already highlighted by the UN report issued in March 2012, NATO has failed to acknowledge several civilian casualties from air strikes during the 2011 air campaign and has not investigated possible unlawful attacks. That’s the conclusion of “Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya” a Human Rights Watch 76-page report released on May 14.
Eight airstrikes that resulted in 72 deaths were investigated on the field during and after the conflict by the HRW that did not find evidence of clear military target at seven of the eight visited sites.
The most serious incident occurred in the village of Majer, 160 kilometers east of Tripoli, the capital, on Aug. 8, 2011, when NATO bombs fell on two family compounds killing 34 civilians and wounding more than 30.
A second strike outside one of the compounds killed and wounded civilians who witnesses said were searching for victims. HRW believes that the infrared system used to guide the bomb (most probably an LGB) should have indicated to the pilot the presence of many people on the ground. If the pilot was unable to determine that those people were combatants, then the strike should have been canceled or diverted.
As reported by the UN report, HRW found that NATO officials were unwilling to investigate some incidents: “They were forthcoming about all the general measures they took to protect civilians, such as the exclusive use of PGM and the rigorous target review process, but they refused to give any details about some specific targets in which civilians died. The standard answer was that all targets were military objects, and they usually called them “command and control nodes” or “staging areas.” But they never gave detailed evidence to support those claims” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch and principal author of the report.
“That evidence matters. We looked at 8 sites and, at seven of them we found no or only possible evidence of Libyan military activity. This is consistent with the UN commission of inquiry. At the eighth site, the target may have been a Libyan Brig General. But that attack also killed three women and four children from the family. The strange part of all this is that NATO is undermining its own successes in reducing civilian casualties. The overall numbers are quite low, but they are refusing to examine the mistakes that took place” Abrahams said.
Obviously, the problem is not linked to a possible violation of the laws of war (under which parties to a conflict may only direct attacks at military targets and minimize harm to civilians) or to lessons that could be learned to minimize casualties in future wars; most probably the real issue is that governments could be compelled to compensate victims of unlawful attacks (admitting a direct involvement they might not want to publicize….) as done in Afghanistan, where a program provide payments to civilian victims of NATO attacks without regard to wrongdoing.
Reportedly taken on Apr. 10, and brought to my attention by some of my Twitter followers, the following image shows what’s in my opionion a U.S. EP-3E flying at high altitude over Libya.
People who saw the image thought the aircraft was a drone. However, it seems quite clear to me that it is an EP-3E ARIES II, a highly modified version of the P-3C that became famous on Apr. 1, 2001 when one such planes and its crew were detained for 11 days following a collision with a Chinese J-8IIM fighter (that crashed causing the death of the pilot) and the subsequent emergency landing at Ligshui airbase, in Hainan island.
What the intelligence-gathering plane was doing in the Libyan airspace is hard to say. The most obvious hypothesis is that the plane was monitoring activities on the eastern Libyan city, where new extremist forces have taken root and car bombs, assassinations and looting have been reported quite often.
The U.S. Navy spyplane could also be involved in operations aimed at detecting and tracking smuggled weapons travelling towards Egypt: according to a recent Washington Post article, Egyptian officials have already intercepted several surface-to-air missiles, most of them shoulder-launched, on the road to Sinai and in the smuggling tunnels connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip.
There is also a last, less intriguing and less likely, theory: the picture was taken with a powerful zoom as the aircraft was quietly transiting many miles off the Libyan coast, during a ferry flight or routine mission out of Souda Bay or Sigonella, where EP-3Es are regularly deployed.
The following Reuters images, taken on the runway at Tammahint, 15 km (9 miles) from the southern Libyan city of Sabha, on Apr. 3, 2012, are the first ones showing Libyan Mig-21s in Free Libya Air Force markings.
Image credit: Reuters
Although it is extremely difficult to determine because of the low quality of the video, what seems to be a Mig-21 was filmed overflying Sabha region on Mar. 29, 2012, during the recent unrest, in what could have been the first action of the new Libyan Air Force (or Free Libya Air Force) since the end of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector on Nov. 1, 2011.
Another video, filmed in June 2011, when the No-Fly Zone was enforced over Libya by NATO and no Libya aircraft was supposed to fly, shows a Mig-21 taxiing for take off from a Libyan airbase.