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U.S. jets have struck at Libyan targets, even after NATO takeover

By Barbara Starr and Adam Levine, CNN
  • U.S. jets have been flying bombing and strike missions, the Pentagon spokesman says
  • Officials previously had indicated that U.S. jets were involved in support missions only
  • One U.S. military official says the flights are "defensive missions" and part of the support role

Washington (CNN) -- U.S. fighter jets have been flying bombing and strike missions against Libyan air defenses even after control of the operation was handed over to NATO, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said Wednesday.

Public comments by U.S. officials since the handover had previously indicated that the U.S. mission had largely been limited to support roles, such as refueling and electronic jamming.

The U.S. aircraft assigned to NATO for these roles include six F-16 fighter jets and five EA-18 jets, which are equipped to jam electronic signals but also are capable of firing missiles. They have flown 97 sorties since April 4, and on three occasions U.S. aircraft fired ordnance, according to data provided by the Pentagon.

The revelation comes as divisions have arisen within NATO over the mission. British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe both called Tuesday for NATO to get more aggressive in Libya, and Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, deputy chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, urged the international community to implement a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for "all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack."

At the time of the mission handover to NATO control, U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, said the American input would be more support than kinetic.

"The United States will play a supporting role -- including intelligence, logistical support, search-and-rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications. Because of this transition to a broader, NATO-based coalition, the risk and cost of this operation -- to our military and to American taxpayers -- will be reduced significantly," the president said when he spoke about the changing Libya mission on March 28.

Also in March, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the House Armed Services Committee, "We will not be taking an active part in the strike activities, and we believe that our allies can sustain this for some period of time."

The U.S. fighter jets have been assigned to NATO, Lapan told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, and NATO does not have to ask the United States for permission to use the aircraft. Lapan indicated he was disclosing the missions for the first time, and said he simply had not been asked about them before.

NATO, however, does have to ask for permission to use aircraft such as A-10s and AC-130s to strike targets like Libyan armor and troops on the ground in an effort to protect civilians from attack. Those planes, capable of firing machine guns with great accuracy, stopped flying last week, despite criticism from some, including influential senators, who said the United States was taking key offensive capabilities away even though the allies do not have the ability to fill the void.

A U.S. military official with direct knowledge of the air defense strikes insisted they are "defensive missions" and part of the support efforts the United States is still flying.

"It's a defensive mission pure and simple," the official said.

"We didn't feel there was a need to identify each and every mission," the official said.

Lapan said the U.S. aircraft assigned to NATO are ordered to defend the pilots who are enforcing the no-fly zone, and nothing more. NATO, he said, must still request U.S. strike aircraft should they want them for offensive operations.

In addition to the 11 U.S. fighter aircraft being used by NATO, Lapan listed other assets the United States has provided to the alliance.

They include one guided-missile destroyer, one P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, one EP-3E signals reconnaissance aircraft, 22 KC-135 refueling tankers, two E-3 command-and-control aircraft, two EC-130 signals and communications aircraft, two RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, one U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, one E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, and three unmanned aerial vehicles -- two MQ-1 Predators and one RQ-4 Global Hawk.