Washigton, D.C. – Hours after U.S. and British ships pounded Libya with precision missiles, American officials are eager to confirm that the damage was extensive enough to allow air patrols to protect civilians being targeted by embattled strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Military officials said that as Sunday dawned in Libya, satellites would give commanders a better view of the expected destruction along the country’s coastline. U.S. and British ships launched the first phase of the missile assault Saturday, raining 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto more than 20 radar systems, communications centers and surface-to-air missile sites.
While the U.S. was leading the initial onslaught, officials made it clear that America would quickly step back into a supporting role, possibly within days, and shift command to its European and Arab partners.
Speaking from Brazil where he was kicking off a five-day Latin America visit, President Barack Obama made clear the U.S. reluctance to take on another war.
“This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought,” Obama said. But, he said he was convinced it was necessary to save the lives of civilians, particularly in and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. He added: “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy.”
The Pentagon was in 24-hour battle mode. Military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, scrambled over the past several days to coordinate the attacks with commanders and reach out to military counterparts in the region.
A defense official who spoke on grounds of anonymity because of the ongoing operation said officials believed that because of the precision targeting of the strikes, the damage to Gadhafi’s military establishment was significant and substantial.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was conferring with Obama and his national security team, as they reviewed the steady flow of intelligence information and operations updates. Gates had planned to fly to Russia Saturday but delayed his departure for a day so that he could be in Washington to monitor the operation’s launch.
Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told reporters the cruise missile assault was the “leading edge” of a coalition campaign dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn.
He said it would take six to 12 hours to assess the damage, and if the main targets Libya’s SA-5 surface-to-air missiles were taken out, then it would be safe to send an unmanned Global Hawk surveillance drone to get a better picture of the area.
Libya’s overall air defenses are based on older Soviet technology but Gortney called them capable and a potential threat to allied aircraft.
Also targeted: early warning radars and unspecified communications facilities, Gortney said. The U.S. military has extensive recent experience in such combat missions; U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft repeatedly attacked Iraq’s air defenses during the 1990s while enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq’s Kurdish north.
Cruise missiles are the weapon of first choice in such campaigns; they do not put pilots at risk, and they use navigational technologies that provide good precision.
The first Tomahawk cruise missiles struck at 3 p.m. EDT, Gortney said, after a one-hour flight from the U.S. and British vessels on station in the Mediterranean.
They were fired from five U.S. ships the guided-missile destroyers USS Stout and USS Barry, and three submarines, USS Providence, USS Scranton and USS Florida.
The U.S. has at least 11 naval vessels in the Mediterranean, including three submarines, two destroyers, two amphibious warfare ships and the USS Mount Whitney, a command-and-control vessel that is the flagship of the Navy’s 6th Fleet. Also in the area are Navy P-3 and EP-3 surveillance aircraft, officials said.
Gates was skeptical of getting involved in Libya’s civil war, telling Congress earlier this month that taking out Libya’s air defenses was tantamount to war. Others have worried that the mission could put the U.S. on a slippery slope to deeper involvement in yet another Muslim country on top of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attended an international conference in Paris that endorsed military action against Gadhafi, the U.S. and Britain kicked off their attacks. Clinton said Gadhafi had left the world no choice but to intervene urgently and forcefully to protect further loss of civilian life.
–Associated Press writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.