Hawkish senators pressure Obama to back no-fly zone

While committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sought to defend President Obama’s cautious approach, other panel members were notably hawkish about the American military seizing control of Libya’s skies.

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has pressed for the administration to consider using the U.S. military to set up the no-fly zone, said Libyan air assets operate out of only four bases.

He called the Libyan regime’s air defense systems “modest,” an opinion echoed by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

McCain and Lieberman made their comments during a hearing on the Navy’s 2012 budget plan.

McCain and other lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration for moving slowly to thwart the Libyan regime’s air strikes on rebels, arguing the White House should arm the rebels while taking the lead on a no-fly zone to prevent more Libyan strikes.

President Obama and the Pentagon have appeared to resist those entreaties, with military leaders highlighting the air strikes  and costs necessary to set up a no-fly zone. The White House is reportedly concerned that U.S. military involvement could undermine the revolt by bringing in a Western presence.

Military officials at the hearing walked a fine line, both assuring the senators that U.S. forces could handle the mission and playing up their ability to conduct humanitarian assistance and medical tasks in Libya.

Lieberman suggested setting up the no-fly zone would not be difficult, saying Libyan air bases are located “on one strip of land ... along the north coast.”

McCain called Libya’s surface-to-air missiles “Soviet-style,” seeming to suggest U.S. jets and munitions could easily destroy them.

The biggest threat, according to the panel’s ranking Republican, would come from Libyan attack choppers.

Levin said Arab and African states might establish control of Libya’s skies.

“It has been reported that some Arab states are apparently considering coordinating with the African Union in support of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya,” said Levin, who also noted France and the United Kingdom are readying a resolution “for possible use at the United Nations.”

Levin said Obama is “appropriately seeking support from the international community, in particular the support of other countries in the Arab and Muslim worlds and in the region.”

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead told Sen. Rodger Wicker (R-Miss.) a number of issues should be sorted out before setting up a no-fly zone, including “that we would be entering into combat operations.”

Wicker interjected that Washington only would be “entering into air combat operations.”

When Roughead added that U.S. forces have established no-fly zones before and that a “significant infrastructure” is required to “back them up,” Wicker replied: “Well, that’s available to us, right?”

The CNO said such details would have to be worked out, should Washington opt to undertake the mission.

McCain pressed Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos on whether Libya’s embattled regime has a large advantage over opposition fighters because of its air assets.

Amos replied that, in general, the side with control of the airspace has an advantage. “But I don’t know about [Libya’s] air force,” he added.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told McCain the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier is now in the Red Sea, but “no order” has yet been given to move it into the Mediterranean.

Levin on Tuesday cited the War Powers Act, saying the administration must consult with Congress “before exercising a military option involving the use of force.”