First wave of allied assault: 112 cruise missiles

By ROBERT BURNS
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 1:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- U.S. and British ships and submarines launched the first phase of a missile assault on Libyan air defenses Saturday and a senior American defense official said it was believed substantial damage was inflicted.

In the strikes, 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force.

While U.S. defense officials cautioned that it was too early to fully gauge the impact of the onslaught, the official said that given the precision targeting of the Navy's cruise missiles, they felt that Libya's air defenses suffered a good deal of damage.

Explosions continued to rock the coastal cities, including Tripoli. Navy Vice Adm. Wiliam E. Gortney, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, would not discuss future operations But defense officials said military action was likely to continue.

The official spoke on grounds of anonymity because the ongoing mission.

In announcing the mission during a visit to Brazil, President Barack Obama said he was reluctant to resort to force but was convinced it was necessary to save the lives of civilians. He reiterated that he would not send American ground troops to Libya.

"We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy," he said in Brasilia.

While U.S. defense officials said it was too early to gauge the impact of the onslaught, one senior official said that given the precision targeting of the Navy's cruise missiles, they believe Libya's air defenses suffered a good deal of damage.

It was clear the U.S. intended to limit its role in the Libya intervention, focusing first on disabling or otherwise silencing Libyan air defenses, and then leaving it to European and perhaps Arab countries to enforce a no-fly zone over the North African nation.

Gortney told reporters the cruise missile assault was the "leading edge" of a coalition campaign dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn. Its aim: prevent Moammar Gadhafi's forces from inflicting more violence on civilians -- particularly in and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi -- and degrading the Libyan military's ability to contest a no-fly zone.

"This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought," Obama said from Brazil, where he is starting a five-day visit to Latin America. "Our consensus was strong, and our resolve is clear. The people of Libya must be protected, and in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians our coalition is prepared to act, and to act with urgency."

A chief target of Saturday's cruise missile attack was Libya's SA-5 surface-to-air missiles, which are considered a moderate threat to some allied aircraft. Libya's overall air defenses are based on older Soviet technology but Gortney called them capable and a potential threat to allied aircraft.


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