April 1 (Bloomberg) -- Rebel forces fighting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi have less need for sophisticated weapons than they do for help with training and organization, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel.
“What they really need is training, command and control, and some coherent organization and I believe that that requires advisers on the ground,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, making clear he didn’t mean American advisers. “More sophisticated weapons might enable them to be more successful but I think that, frankly, is not the primary need right now.”
When the rebels do need arms, “I think somebody else should do that” other than the U.S., Gates told the House Armed Services Committee, where he also testified yesterday.
President Barack Obama has issued a “finding” to the Central Intelligence Agency that provides the legal framework necessary to ask formal permission to arm the rebels, according to a U.S. government official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
The U.S. hasn’t yet made a decision on what assistance, if any, should be provided to the rebels, who Gates described as “very disparate, very scattered.”
Gates said the U.S. still has little information about the rebels who are fighting Qaddafi, such as who led the uprisings in the western part of the country, which is still under Qaddafi’s control.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, testifying beside Gates, said that after almost two weeks of coalition air attacks, Qaddafi’s forces continue to have an almost 10 to 1 advantage in heavy equipment such as tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery.
“That is a great concern,” said Mullen,
As the military campaign shifts to the command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from U.S. leadership, the American forces will provide mainly what other nations aren’t able to supply, including electronic jamming, aerial refueling, logistics, search and rescue, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Gates said.
Air-to-ground missions to protect civilians from attack will be performed mostly by NATO, he said. Mullen said U.S. A-10 and AC-130U gunships, designed specifically to destroy tanks and ground targets with cannon fire, won’t be used unless they are expressly requested. Those aircraft have been flying missions against Qaddaffi’s best units.
“The military mission is a limited one and does not include regime change,” Gates told the House panel. “Personally, I felt strongly about that. We’ve tried regime change before.”
Political and economic pressure and the Libyan people probably will achieve the “welcome” removal of Qaddafi, he said.
“However, this NATO-led operation can degrade Qaddafi’s military capacity to the point where he -- and those around him -- will be forced into a very different set of choices and behaviors in the future,” Gates said.
The defense chief told lawmakers that Obama is determined that no U.S. troops set foot on the ground in Libya. He made no mention of reports that Central Intelligence Agency personnel are working in Libya with the rebel forces.
Since launching the attack on March 19, the coalition of the U.S., U.K., France, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others has managed to degrade Qaddafi’s forces by 25 to 28 percent, Mullen said.
House committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, said the administration’s goal of ousting Qaddafi from power seems to conflict with the limits of the military operation. “I’m concerned that such a mismatch is a recipe for stalemate,” he said.
Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the panel, said that, while the failure to act to protect Qaddafi’s opponents would have been a “crushing blow” to the U.S. image abroad, the American public needs more information.
“I think it’s very important to explain to the American people that this is not an open-ended commitment,” Smith said.
Gates defended the administration’s verbal and written notifications to Congress, saying it was consistent with the actions of previous presidents. He said he was on the White House National Security Council’s staff when Congress passed the War Powers Act of 1973, outlining requirements for consultation with Congress.
“I think it is fair to say there has been disagreement between the Congress and the president since then over what is required,” Gates said.
While Gates inserted a note of caution about the rebels, deputy secretary of State James Steinberg spoke more positively in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Calling the rebels “courageous individuals,” he praised a statement this week by the Transitional National Council, the opposition’s ruling group, that embraced democratic ideals and disavowed any connection to al-Qaeda. Steinberg said the administration’s confidence in the rebels is growing and there is little evidence of any connection with extremists.
“Being supportive of the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people” who oppose Qaddafi gives the U.S. the best chance of preventing extremism from taking hold there, he said.
“The more we are able to be involved” with the opposition, Steinberg testified, the lesser the risk of the rebels becoming radicalized.
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