WASHINGTON — A U.S.-led coalition has succeeded in scattering and isolating Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi’s forces after a weekend of punishing air attacks, Pentagon officials say, and American military authorities are moving to hand control of the operation to other countries.
Gadhafi is not a target of the campaign, a senior military official said Sunday, but he could not guarantee the Libyan leader’s safety.
Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference there is no evidence civilians in Libya have been harmed in the air assault, code named Odyssey Dawn. Gortney also said no allied planes have been lost and all pilots have returned safely from missions that used stealth B-2 bombers, jet fighters, more than 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles and other high-tech weapons.
“We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime’s air defense capability,” Gortney said. “We believe his forces are under significant stress and suffering from both isolation and a good deal of confusion.”
But Gortney did not rule out the possibility of further attacks aimed at preventing Gadhafi from attacking civilians in Libya and enforcing a no-fly zone.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. expects to turn control of the mission over to a coalition — probably headed either by the French and British or by NATO — “in a matter of days.”
Late Sunday, however, NATO’s top decision-making body failed to agree on a plan to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, although it did approve a military plan to implement a U.N. arms embargo.
On Saturday night, three Air Force B-2s, launched from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, dropped precision munitions on an airfield near the city of Misurata, destroying hardened military aircraft shelters while avoiding commercial structures nearby. A military official said the B-2s flew 25 hours in a round trip from Whiteman and dropped 45 2,000-pound bombs.
And fifteen Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft, along with jets from France and Great Britain, hit a heavy infantry unit advancing on the rebel capital Benghazi. “To protect the Libyan people, we took them under attack,” Gortney said.
Gortney said the coalition had control of the air space between Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya’s capital. “The no-fly zone is effectively in place,” he said. “Anything that does fly that we detect, we will engage.”
Inside Gadhafi’s huge Tripoli compound, an administration building was hit and badly damaged late Sunday. An Associated Press photographer at the scene said half of the round, three-story building was knocked down, smoke was rising from it, and pieces of a cruise missile were scattered around the scene.
Gadhafi and his residence are not on a list of targets to be hit by coalition aircraft, Gortney said. But Gadhafi won’t be safe “if he happens to be at a place, if he is inspecting a surface-to-air missile site and we don’t have any idea that he’s there or not,” Gortney said.
Earlier Sunday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the goals of the operation are to protect civilians from further violence by pro-Gadhafi forces, while enabling the flow of humanitarian relief supplies. But it was unclear how long the military effort would continue or on what scale.
That uncertainty led to criticism from senior Republicans in Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner said that the Obama administration “has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is” and how it will be accomplished.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama needs to tell the American public “to what extent military force will be used and for how long.”
Army Gen. Carter Ham, the top officer at U.S. Africa Command, is in control of the operation. But the U.S., which is heavily engaged in Afghanistan and still has troops in Iraq, is working to transfer command to another member of the coalition. Gortney did not provide details on when that would happen or which country would take the lead.
The U.S. role would shift to mostly providing support with aerial refueling tankers and electronic warfare aircraft that can jam or monitor enemy communications — assets that other countries don’t have in their inventories.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told lawmakers last week that intelligence-gathering and surveillance aircraft being used in Iraq and Afghanistan may be shifted to Libya. These aircraft are limited in number, Schwartz said, and “trade-offs” may have to be made.
Schwartz said he expected the supersonic F-22 Raptor — a jet fighter yet to be used in combat — to play a prominent role in the initial attacks on Gadhafi’s forces. With its stealth design, the F-22 can evade radar and has advanced engines that allow it to fly at faster-than-sound speeds without using gas-guzzling afterburners.
But Gortney would not say whether the F-22 had been or will be used. The Air Force has said only that the B-2 and F-15 and F-16 fighters participated in the operation.
As of Sunday, Gortney said members of the coalition included the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Belgium and Qatar. More are expected to join, but Gortney said those countries, and not the U.S., would make that announcement.