President Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drone aircraft to launch airstrikes against ground targets in Libya, the latest sign of mounting concern in Washington that the NATO-led air campaign has failed to stop Moammar Gadhafi's forces from shelling the besieged city of Misrata and other populated areas.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who announced the decision at a Pentagon news conference, said that Predators armed with Hellfire missiles will augment airstrikes by warplanes from NATO nations against the intensifying attacks by forces loyal to Gadhafi.
The decision marks a resumption of a direct combat role for U.S. aircraft in Libya and marks a shift for the White House. It follows decisions by France, Italy and Britain earlier this week to send military advisers to assist the poorly armed, inexperienced and disorganized rebel force based in eastern Libya.
Gates said Obama has been clear that the U.S. would put no military forces on the ground and that the main strike role would belong to the allies.
The first Predator mission was launched Thursday, but the pilotless plane was forced to turn back because of poor weather conditions, said Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He said two drones would fly 24 hours a day and focus initially on targets around Misrata, Libya's third-largest city and the focal point of resistance in western Libya, where the outgunned and outnumbered opposition forces have held out against relentless attacks by Gadhafi's forces.
"What they will bring that is unique to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on targets," Cartwright said. "They are uniquely suited for urban areas."
As the siege has deepened, high-flying NATO fighter planes have struggled to find and attack the military squads that have fired mortars and other weapons into Misrata, killing dozens of people. Mortars are small, portable weapons that can be easily hidden and quickly moved after being fired.
U.S. Army units are equipped with radar that tracks the trajectory of incoming mortar shells and allows U.S. forces to swiftly return fire. But NATO has no troops or radar units on the ground in Libya. The Predators could help fill the gap, however.
Gates denied that the decision to deploy the Predators indicated that U.S. forces were being drawn deeper into a conflict that increasingly appears to be a military stalemate.
"I don't think that any of us see this as mission creep," Gates said. He called the Predators a "modest contribution" to the NATO-led effort.
The Obama administration will give the rebels $25 million in vehicles and other supplies from excess military stocks, but it has ruled out sending weapons and other forms of lethal aid for now.
Gates defended the results of the air operation so far, saying that the NATO-led effort has prevented Gadhafi's forces from taking the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and from carrying out a massacre.