If Libyan rebels continue to hold on the center of the besieged city of Misurata, one of the major questions surrounding the battle will be, can NATO jets more easily pummel Gadhafi's forces now that they have withdrawn to the city's outskirts where they may be preparing to bombard the city with heavy weapons.
last week, we saw the United States introduce armed Predator drones into the conflict. Pentagon officials said the drones were brought in to hunt down Gadhafi's forces that were dug in close to civilians in the cities and using civilian vehicles to get around. Over the weekend the drones drew first blood, taking out a loyalist rocket launcher. Here's Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the joint chiefs, saying last week why the drones are needed:
What they will bring that is unique to the — to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on particularly targets now that have started to dig themselves in into defensive positions. They’re uniquely suited for areas — urban areas where you can get low collateral damage. And so we’re trying to manage that collateral damage obviously, but that’s the best platform to do that with; their extended persistence on the target — they’re out there for a full day working the targets.Added Cartwright:
The character of the fight has changed also. I mean, the introduction of the air and the capability that NATO’s brought — things that are out in the open, know that they’re going to probably perish if a NATO bird sees them.This destroyed tank, which may have been one of Ghadhafi's that tried to hide from air strikes by partially hiding under the loading bays of Misurata's downtown fruit market, was allegedly hit by a NATO strike. It could very well be the work of a Predator armed with a Hellfire anti-tank missile. If this is the case, it's exactly why NATO needed the drones; Gadhafi's forces were digging in super close to civilians. Still, it's too early to see how much of a decisive factor the assist by the drones, or NATO writ large, played in helping the rebels drive Gadhafi's troops from Misurata.
So you’re seeing a much more dispersed fight, people that are digging in or nestling up against crowded areas, where collateral damage is.
The other issue out there that we’re trying to struggle with is the — now you have the intermixing of the lines, so to speak. So it’s very difficult to pick friend from foe. So a vehicle like the Predator that can get down lower and can get IDs better helps us.
So, if Ghadafi's troops are under pressure from drones and rebels inside the city, will they now become sitting ducks for NATO's manned jets as they try to hammer Misurata into submission with heavy weapons from afar? Or, as countless observers have said, will NATO's air campaign be unable to tip the balance in favor of the disorganized rebels, despite increased efforts to hammer the regime from the air?