Inside the radar plane — a windowless Boeing 707 with a 30-foot-wide radar dish perched on its back — military personnel from nine countries keep watch over the round-the-clock bombing raids that have pounded Libya since March. On their screens, air traffic controllers track the pulsing dots representing fighter jets, warships and drone aircraft, while English in a cacophony of accents crackles over the radio systems as they communicate with pilots.
By the end of July, however, the Norwegian voices will fall silent, as the country pulls out the six planes that have flown 10 percent of the airstrikes carried out since NATO took over control of operations from the United States at the end of March.
Other countries have also been reconsidering their commitments. Last week, Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen decried “mission creep,” saying that NATO should stick to protecting civilians and not try to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Last month, the House of Representatives voted not to authorize President Obama’s use of U.S. forces in the conflict in Libya, although it voted down a proposal to strip funding for the operation.
As of late last month, the United States had flown a quarter of the total NATO sorties over Libya and 16 percent of the strike sorties, according to the Defense Department. Bombs were dropped on 135 occasions, including 46 from unmanned Predator aircraft. According to the Defense Department, U.S. manned strike aircraft are engaged only in defensive missions against Libyan air defenses on the ground as part of the no-fly zone enforcement, not the “offensive” missions being flown by coalition members engaged in “civilian protection.”
At present, NATO, France, Britain and the United States each fly one AWACS command-and-control plane a day, for eight to nine hours at a time.
On a recent evening, planes struck targets in the Libyan capital, Tripoli; a military base west of Tripoli; and near Misurata, the rebel-held city east of Tripoli that is encircled by government troops. Just 17 planes, including two drones, were in the air during the more than six hours the NATO AWACS plane was on duty, many fewer than in previous months, air traffic controllers said, reflecting the stagnation of the front lines and the Libyan government’s apparently diminished ability to attack civilians.