By John T. Bennett and Sam Youngman - 03/03/11 01:42 AM EST
The White House was anxious Wednesday to maintain the threat of a no-fly zone against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, even as Pentagon officials appeared to back away from such a mission, warning of its complexity and cost.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee that the U.S. military could establish a no-fly zone over Libya, but cautioned that doing so would first require widespread air strikes across that nation.
Establishing control of Libyan air space would “start with attacks to destroy” Libyan air defense systems, Gates said. That kind of assault would require more U.S. military aircraft than “you would find on a single aircraft carrier.”
While military brass signaled Wednesday that a no-fly zone was increasingly unlikely, the White House maneuvered to at least maintain the possibility as a threat to the Gadhafi regime.
When confronted during the White House’s daily briefing with Gates’s remarks, White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted that the president had “not ruled any options out.”
“The fact that the no-fly zone idea is complex does not mean it’s not on the table,” Carney said.
The USS Enterprise carrier is reportedly already in the region, joined by U.S. amphibious assault ships — but those vessels are there for other types of tasks, DoD officials said.
“I have directed several Navy ships to the Mediterranean. The USS Kearsarge and the [USS] Ponce will be entering the Mediterranean shortly and will provide us a capability for both emergency evacuations and also for humanitarian relief,” Gates said Tuesday.
“About 1,400 Marines from the Kearsarge are serving in Afghanistan. And so we are sending about 400 Marines from the U.S. that will be in support of the Kearsarge’s mission,” Gates said.
Gates told the panel that U.S. military involvement in Libya would require Congress to approve a use-of-force measure. Most lawmakers have so far remained mum on the prospect of U.S. military intervention in Libya.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) asked Gates several questions about establishing control of Libya’s air space, but added that he was not endorsing such an action. Still, Frelinghuysen noted, “there is a perception that we are the only ones who can do it.”
With so many fighter jets involved in other conflicts, the needed additional jets would have to be redeployed, Pentagon officials said. Another option would be to accelerate the deployment of the USS George H.W. Bush, set to sail in three weeks from Norfolk, Va., officials said.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, who has called the no-fly zone “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up,” reiterated Wednesday that U.S. security officials have still been unable to confirm that Libyan military jets fired on opposition members.
The Pentagon also has pointed out there is no consensus among U.N. Security Council or NATO members for the mission.
But Pentagon officials were quick to add that the U.S. military has the firepower to take and keep control of Libyan air space.
Both Carney and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in separate appearances on Wednesday said all options remain on the table.
The administration apparently wants Gadhafi to believe the U.S. is ready to send multiple aircraft carriers to the region to take out his air defenses and patrol his skies.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Clinton and panel Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) called for an international no-fly zone over Libya.
Both Kerry and Clinton said Gadhafi must step down without delay.
“He has lost all legitimacy,” Kerry said. “We cannot be halfway about that goal.”
“We have joined the Libyan people in demanding Gadhafi must go — now, without further violence or bloodshed,” Clinton said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) also has called for a no-fly zone.