The Obama administration has been downplaying the American role in Libya.

A Thursday report in the Military Times family of newspapers reported that “Air Force and Navy aircraft are still flying hundreds of strike missions over Libya despite the Obama administration’s claim that American forces are playing only a limited support role in the NATO operation.” They quote AFRICOM spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple saying, “As of today, and since 31 March, the U.S. has flown a total of 3,475 sorties in support of OUP. Of those, 801 were strike sorties, 132 of which actually dropped ordnance.”

Given the ratio of non-kinectic to kinetic flights and available reports, my sense was that the 2500-odd “non-strike sorties” were mostly refueling and what in the vernacular is called ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). But apparently another mission type, Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) is much more prevalent than advertised.


National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh fleshed out the numbers in a report last afternoon:

Each day for the last three months, NATO has issued a classified order dividing the ongoing air war in Libya—uhh, let’s call it “mission”—into offensive and defensive operations.

The latter category is America’s job, and it is huge. It includes Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, which consists mainly of U.S. jets “loitering” in Libyan air space to watch for surface-to-air missiles that might threaten the “offensive” part of the mission: the French, British, Canadian, Norwegian, and Danish planes attacking Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces.

The United States is also supplying most of NATO’s intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in Libya, along with air-to-air refueling for NATO strike forces. By NATO’s own evidence, President Obama was somewhat disingenuous in claiming at his Wednesday news conference that U.S. forces were not “carrying the lion’s share of this operation.” U.S. planes, in fact, “represent the majority of aircraft within the theater, and they have done so from the beginning,” NATO spokesman Tony White told National Journal on Thursday. “The U.S. role continues to be fundamental to the mission” and is “supremely important in every strike sortie.” Thus, by playing “defense” and putting no U.S. soldiers on the ground, Obama has effectively gone to war in Libya while denying that America is pursuing “hostilities” that might trigger the War Powers Resolution requiring congressional approval. Whatever you think about his legal argument, Obama’s approach may be working. As he said on Wednesday: “We have not seen a single U.S. casualty.”

By my lights, SEAD is not a “support” mission in the way that aerial refueling or even ISR are. The whole point is to be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. That’s a combat mission, pure and simple.

The bottom line is that, while our NATO allies are indeed playing the lead role in the “kinetic” part of this operation–discounting, naturally, the first few days of heavy fighting, which was completely dominated by American capabilities–it’s still mostly an American operation. This is necessary for the reasons that Robert Gates outlined on his way out of office: The Europeans have underfunded their militaries for so long that they’re simply not capable of carrying out even relatively small operations against the likes of Gaddafi’s pathetic forces on their own.

Back in March, when the handoff to NATO was announced, the late night comic Jon Stewart joked that the United States turning the mission over to NATO was rather like “Beyonce ceding control to Sasha Fierce.” He’s looking more right every day this operation drags on.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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