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U.S. Drones Join Fight To Oust Libya's Gadhafi


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

The war in Libya is moving towards a stalemate. That's according to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To try to break that stalemate, the Pentagon has announced that armed American drones will be joining the fight, and that's a shift. The move marks a resumption of a direct combat role for U.S. aircraft in Libya.

NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin is here with me.

Good morning, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So why send the Predator drones now?

MARTIN: Well, this is in response to a specific request from NATO. U.S. defense officials say NATO wanted this capability in Libya, and the U.S. agreed to deploy two armed Predator drones. And it's worth noting that the U.S. has been flying Predator for weeks in Libya, but only in a surveillance capacity. This is really the first time that they're now flying armed missions.

KELLY: And when you say two armed drones, two at any given time. So they'll be continuously up in the air.

MARTIN: Correct. They can fly for 24 hours at a time.

KELLY: Is this enough to tip the balance? I mean, that must be the hope, here. Is this going to be a game-changer?

MARTIN: Well, it's clear, as you mentioned in the intro, that there is some kind of stalemate, here, even though people don't like to use the word within the Pentagon. Vice admiral of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright, General James Cartwright yesterday said the drones are necessary right now because the character of the fight has changed. And what he meant by that is that Gadhafi forces have essentially adapted to the NATO strikes. And they're taking cover, now. They're not operating in the open as often.

So the Predator drones can change that in that they can fly very low. They allow for a very precise level of targeting. And this is all in an effort also to minimize collateral damage and hopefully to minimize civilian casualties, as well. And defense officials say these are going to be flying along the coastline, really, where the fighting has been most intense, especially in places like Misrata.

KELLY: OK. Now, in that same Pentagon briefing where Cartwright was speaking, the Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted this is not mission creep. It does seem as though the administration is trying to try tread a very fine line, here.

MARTIN: Exactly. And, you know, Secretary Gates has insisted that the U.S. is still in a supporting role, here, that NATO allies asked for help and that the U.S. is responding to that. That's the U.S. commitment, here. But that he - he said that primarily, this is a NATO-led mission, Britain and France primarily still leading operations. Those countries have agreed to send dozens of trainers. The U.S. has agreed to send $25 million in non-lethal aid. This is things like binoculars and canteens - seemingly, very innocuous.

The U.S. has been very firm publicly in saying that there are no intentions of arming the rebels. Gates was actually very frank yesterday and said we still don't know a lot about these people. There's still a lot of questions about who exactly the rebels are. He did say, though, again, that the Obama administration has been very clear. There will be no U.S. boots on the ground in Libya, and that there is just no wiggle room on that issue.

KELLY: OK. Did they say anything about what the targets will be for these drones? And I ask because, as you know, there have been concerns in the past about the Predator being used for targeted assassinations. I mean, in Pakistan, for example, they're being used to target specific individuals. Do we know whether one goal might be to try to take out Moammar Gadhafi?

MARTIN: You would think that, considering kind of the stalemated nature of things. And Gates said yesterday everyone agrees that Gadhafi has to go. But at the same time, he has been very clear on this, that regime change has to happen from within. Any time an external force tries to bring this to bare, that this can be very complicated, can bring a lot of problems about.

So the administration's line really has been this has to be Libya's decision. The Libyan people have to force Gadhafi out, if he's ever to go.

KELLY: OK. Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's NPR's Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.