By John T. Bennett - 03/03/11 04:04 PM EST
Even as prospects cooled for the U.S. military to seize control of Libya's skies, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Thursday pressed for action to aid rebels there by establishing a no-fly zone or arming opposition groups.
Even signaling an intent to set up a no-fly zone over Libya would act as a "strategic deterrent" that could keep Libyan military pilots from following orders to fire on opposition members, McCain said.
On Tuesday, senior Pentagon officials warned a no-fly zone would require widespread air strikes across Libya to take out the regime's air defense systems. It likely would also require sending a second U.S. aircraft carrier, they said.
“If it’s ordered, we can do it,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said almost 24 hours before McCain's comments. But, he added, it would be “a big operation in a big country.”
The no-fly zone is under consideration because of reports — yet unconfirmed by the Pentagon — that Libyan officials last week ordered its military fighter pilots to fire at anti-regime rebels.
At the same time, the White House is eager to keep up the perception that it might give such an order.
McCain bristled at the notion that the mission might be too complex, noting the U.S. led a years-long no-fly zone over southern Iraq. He added that experience shows "it's not hard to do."
Under questioning from McCain about the American military's ability to take control of Libyan air space, Dempsey replied: "We have the finest Air Force in the world, Senator."
The committee's ranking member dismissed Gates's description of consideration of the mission as "loose talk," saying it is anything but to Libyan rebels.
Lieberman also endorsed consideration of a U.S.-led no-fly zone, but floated another idea: giving opposition groups anti-aircraft batteries that would help them fight back or deter Libyan military air strikes.