Gates gives grim account of NATO's Libya efforts

McClatchy NewspapersJune 10, 2011 

LONDON — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday painted a bleak picture of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's mission in Libya in a speech designed to encourage alliance members to spend more money on defense.

Pointing out that the Libya mission has lasted just 11 weeks, Gates told NATO representatives gathered in Brussels that "it has become painfully clear" that the effort to drive Moammar Gadhafi from power had revealed a range of "shortcomings, in both capability and will, that have the potential to jeopardize the alliance's ability to conduct an integrated, effective and sustained air-sea campaign."

Among the problems Gates cited:

  • Two of the alliances smaller members, Denmark and Norway, are conducting 30 percent of the bombing missions aimed at Gadhafi forces. "While every member voted for the Libya mission," less than half of NATO's 28 members have participated in the campaign, Gates said.
  • Pilots flying the world's best fighter jets can't find targets because they don't have the proper intelligence. "The most advanced fighter aircraft are of little use if allies do not have the means to identify, process and strike targets as part of an integrated campaign," he said.
  • The NATO control center where the Libyan missions are planned is strapped and can barely handle the 150 sorties that aircraft are flying daily against Libya — only half the number of missions the center is designed to handle, Gates said. Even that required "a major augmentation of targeting specialists, mainly from the U.S., to do the job — a 'just in time' infusion of personnel that may not always be available in future contingencies," he added.
  • The mission is running short of bombs and missiles and is having to turn to the United States for new supplies, even though Gadhafi's Libya is "a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country."
Gates said the first weeks of the campaign had met "its initial military objectives — grounding Gadhafi's air force and degrading his ability to wage offensive war against his own citizens." He made no prediction, however, that it would succeed in ousting Gadhafi or suggest how much longer it would go on.

In Libya, rebels have frequently complained that NATO has ignored their calls to strike Gadhafi military targets. Most recently, the rebels have said they asked NATO forces to strike weapons caches and sniper hideouts in the embattled city of Misrata, Libya's third-largest city.

Despite the widespread NATO bombing, the conflict has remained stalemated for weeks, with Libyan rebels holding onto Misrata and the eastern half of the country, while Gadhafi controls the country's western portions and its most important oil export facilities.

Gates' downbeat assessment of the NATO campaign in Libya comes as a growing number of members of Congress are questioning both the legality and rationale for the U.S. involvement there. The Obama administration has called for Gadhafi to step down, but after leading the NATO mission for the first month, it has largely confined its role to providing munitions, intelligence and reconnaissance planes.

Last week, the House of Representatives approved a measure requiring President Barack Obama to report back to Congress on Libya by later this month. The measure had wide bipartisan support. Another measure that would have required the administration to pull out of the Libya campaign was defeated, 265-148, but it, too, had support from both Democrats and Republicans.

The Libya mission has not come to a vote in the Senate and it's not clear that it will. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, had said earlier this week that they would offer a resolution supporting the U.S. military mission in Libya, something Obama had said in a letter last month that he backed. But Kerry later said no such resolution was likely.

The U.S. contribution to Libya costs roughly $2 million a day, according to an internal Pentagon memo obtained by the Financial Times earlier this week; by mid-May, the U.S. military had spent $664 million.

Gates was far more upbeat about NATO's participation in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, saying the effort there had shown important success.

"Frankly, four years ago I never would have expected the alliance to sustain this operation at this level for so long, much less add significantly more forces in 2010," he said. "It is a credit to the brave ISAF troops on the ground, as well as to the allied governments who have made the case for the Afghanistan mission under difficult political circumstances at home."

But he warned that the United States may no longer see the alliance as a worthy investment at a time when the Obama administration is calling for $400 billion in defense budget cuts over 12 years. He noted that the U.S. share of NATO defense is now 75 percent, compared to 50 percent during the Cold War.

"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress and in the American body politic writ large to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense," Gates said.

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