U.S. and European intervention in Libya continued on March 20 with more strikes by cruise missiles and coalition aircraft, bringing the total number of cruise missiles launched by U.S. and U.K. naval assets since the opening of hostilities to 124.
The main targets of the cruise missiles have been the long-range air defense missile batteries — SA-5s, SA-3s and SA-2s. The U.S. military stated that the strikes have been successful, but that there are still hundreds of mobile surface-to-air missile systems — SA-6s and SA-8s — as well as hundreds of shoulder-fired SA-7 missile launchers. Also, anti-aircraft artillery has not been targeted because much of it is placed close to civilian areas and is far more mobile and difficult to detect. The SA-7s and anti-aircraft artillery will remain a persistent, if low-level threat. Following the cruise missile strikes, three U.S. B-2 long-range strategic bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri attacked a number of Libyan airfields. There was also an apparent cruise missile strike against an administrative building inside Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s compound. However, U.S. officials stressed that Gadhafi was not a target and that the attack was against command-and-control structure.
A number of tactical airstrikes also took place. In what may be the first combat use of the EA-18G “Growler” electronic warfare aircraft, the United States deployed the new aircraft to support U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jets launched from amphibious assault vessel the USS Kearsarge (LHD 3). The Harriers engaged Libyan government ground units around Benghazi. The U.S. Air Force deployed its multi-role F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16CJ Fighting Falcons, but the precise location of their strikes is unknown.
U.K. Tornado GR4 aircraft were also involved in launching airstrikes while French aircraft enforced the no-fly zone. It is notable that U.K. Tornado and Typhoon fighters have finally deployed to the Italian Gioia del Colle air base, thus placing them much closer to the combat theater. French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) has also left its port of Toulon, accompanied by the anti-submarine frigate Dupleix, frigate Aconit and refueling ship La Meuse. This will significantly increase the European sortie generation rates and time on station with Charles de Gaulle’s complement of Rafale and Super Etendard jets.
According to U.S. officials, the United States continues to be taking the lead of the initial salvo against Libyan air defense. However, U.S. military officials are stressing that the leadership will ultimately be passed to one of the coalition members, most likely France, in the coming days. The role of NATO in the intervention is still unclear. Politically, the alliance has not been able to agree to stand behind the action, but STRATFOR sources are saying that this will not prevent the alliance from providing its command-and-control functions to the intervention. It is also notable that the French strike against ground units around Benghazi on March 20 — which STRATFOR noted seemed politically motivated and out of character with how the initial phase of an air war is traditionally conducted — has apparently caused a minor rift between U.S. and French military leadership.