NATO counts on European firepower in Libya as US pulls back

AFP , Monday 4 Apr 2011

NATO will depend on Europe's aerial firepower to keep up momentum in the mission to protect civilians in Libya when the US military withdraws into a backup role later Monday

One of the Swedish Air Force’s JAS 39 Gripen jet fighter aircraft takes off from Kallinge southern Sweden, on Saturday April 2, (AP).

The United States has conducted half of around 70 daily air bombing missions against Muamer Gaddafi's ground forces during the campaign, but US fighter jets will soon be grounded, NATO officials said.

US President Barack Obama, whose troops are already facing the brunt of the fighting in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, has been in a hurry to wind down US operations in Libya and move to a support role to the 28-nation alliance.

The US military had planned to stop its air missions and Tomahawk missile launches at the weekend but it accepted a NATO request to continue the operations for another 48 hours until Monday.

"To make up for the American assets that will leave, the other countries will have to multiply their sorties and open up more ammunition," a military official told AFP.
Since NATO took command of operations on March 31, alliance warplanes have conducted 276 strike missions, although planes did not necessarily drop their payload during every flight, according to official figures.

"The NATO mission, which is to protect civilians, remains the same, regardless of the role of this or that ally, however big it may be," a NATO diplomat said.
Before NATO took over, the United States led an international coalition along with France and Britain that began bombing Libyan tanks and artillery in a UN-mandated mission to protect civilians from the regime.

The Libyan army's fixed installations were obliterated by US Tomahawk missiles that rained down on the regime in the first 10 days of the operation, a military source said.

After the United States withdraws around 40 attack planes, NATO can count on scores of fighter jets from other NATO nations to continue the ground strikes.
With around 20 and half a dozen attack planes respectively, France and Britain will likely carry the bulk of the load after US jets are grounded.

French jets have conducted between a fifth and a quarter of daily sorties, while the British have taken part in one in 10 missions, the NATO diplomat said.
The five other nations participating in bombing missions -- Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy and Norway -- use around 30 warplanes in total.

More NATO nations are taking part in two other missions, policing a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi's warplanes from flying and an arms embargo to stop suspect ships from bringing weapons and mercenaries into Libya.

"Every ally, in particular those who take part in few strikes, will have to pick up the tempo," the military official said.
The United States is not completely exiting the picture.

The US military will continue providing surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and NATO will be able to call in US warplanes on a "case by case" basis, NATO sources said.

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