The heads of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps confirmed today (March 8) that two Navy amphibious warfare ships with a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) are being stationed in the Mediterranean Sea close enough to Libya to take action if ordered by the White House.
Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said 400 Marines of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment have joined troops of the 26th MEU aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge (LHD3) and the U.S.S. Ponce (LPD15). But he and Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, said there were no immediate plans for U.S. Intervention in the Libyan crisis.
Photo: USS Kearsarge Website
Replying to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Amos said the ships are equipped with AV-8A Harrier jump jets, attack and cargo helicopters, including V-22 Osprey til- rotor helos, and landing craft.
Roughead added that the vessels are equipped with missiles that can strike land targets, as well as medical teams and operating room facilities,
The ships and Marines are equipped to handle everything from “a raid, amphibious assault to non-combat evacuation,” Amos said.
But both commanders were reluctant to say it would be relatively easy to impose a No Fly Zone over Libya.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the committee got Amos to acknowledge Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's air defenses are “modest.” The top Marine said the “greatest threat” was probably Libyan helicopters. McCain, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), has been advocating imposition of a no-fly zone to prevent Qaddafi's forces from attacking rebels and aircraft in the eastern part of the country. The air attacks have blunted advances by rebels seeking to topple Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya for more than 40 years.
McCain prodded Amos into confirming that Qaddafi's air defense systems were mostly older Soviet-style surface-to-air missiles, concentrated at four air bases in and around the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
But Amos said success for the warring Libyan parties relies on more than simply controlling the airspace. “I think it's more than aviation. It's complicated,” Amos said.
“No one is saying a No Fly Zone is uncomplicated,” Lieberman conceded during his turn questioning the Navy and Marine Corps leaders.
Roughead said there has been no military-to-military communication between the U.S. and the Libyan rebels. He added that the aircraft aboard the Kearsarge and Ponce do not have the electronic warfare (EW) technology, like the EA 6B Prowler, that can jam Libyan air defense systems. The closest ship with EW-equipped aircraft is the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise currently in the Red Sea. Roughead said there are no plans to shift the Big E to the Mediterranean.
He told Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) that “entering into combat operations*” would be a precursor to any No Fly Zone because it would be necessary to suppress or destroy any air defense or radar warning systems.
Before any action could take place, Roughead said a number of questions would have to be answered such as what forces would be used, where would they be based and what were the rules of engagement.
“We've done No Fly Zones before,” Roughead said, “significant infrastructure is required.”
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