US military remains in command of coalition airstrikes

Coalition commanders have essentially split the tasks endorsed by a United Nations resolution into three parts: maintaining a no-fly zone, protecting Libyan civilians and enforcing an arms embargo at sea.

NATO already is in command of the embargo mission, and announced Thursday it will soon take over the no-fly zone.

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, Joint Staff director, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that the U.S. remains in command of the effort to protect civilians, a mission under which American and coalition forces have been pounding Libyan military targets around population centers.

Specifically, coalition forces have conducted “kinetic activities” to target and take out Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s ground units operating near cities, as well as their supporting command-and-control systems and supply lines, Gortney said.

“You cut off their supply lines,” Gortney said. “If they’re at the [center] of the fight, and you cut off their supplies, you cut off their ability to fight and their will to fight.”

The Joint Staff director said the mission of protecting civilians “could” eventually be transferred to NATO — or even commanded by individual nations.

A chart showing which entities control which aspects of the mission listed protecting civilians as being led in the future by “TBD.”

That aspect of the campaign will remain under control of the U.S.-led Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn until other plans are made, with Gortney saying: “We will continue to command the Odyssey Dawn.”

The job of protecting Libyans is a “delicate mission” because of potential civilian casualties inside cities, which is why coalition commanders have opted against dropping any ordinance inside population centers. But this also complicates the JTF Odyssey Dawn-led effort because coalition forces cannot go after regime forces positioned inside cities.

The Obama administration has been eager to put a non-U.S. identity on the entire Libyan campaign. Eyebrows were raised in Washington when NATO on Thursday stopped short of taking control of the entire mission.

U.S. European Command chief Adm. James Stavridis is also NATO’s supreme allied commander, meaning he will be the senior alliance military officer over the no-fly zone once that mission is transferred from American control. But Stavridis could place a senior officer from another nation in direct command of the no-fly zone.

Gortney said the “wire diagram” for the NATO-led mission is still being debated. “We’re not ready to brief that,” he told reporters.

A chart displayed during the Pentagon briefing sought to show how the U.S. military’s role already is declining. It stated the coalition has flown 875 sorties during the campaign, with American aircraft conducting 529 flights and coalition planes 346.

Since Wednesday, U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown about the same number of sorties, according to DoD.

In the last 24 hours, coalition forces took out more of Gadhafi’s command-and-control facilities around Tripoli, and fired 16 more ship-based Tomahawk missiles at various targets.

During that same span, the coalition flew 153 missions, with 96 of those intended to strike Libyan targets — half of those strike missions were conducted by American aircraft, Gortney said.

Pentagon officials continue to describe a military campaign that is going well.

Gortney told reporters Gadhafi has virtually no air force left, significantly crippled air defense systems and heavily damaged command-and-control capabilities and command bunkers.

The U.S. admiral said he finds it “interesting” that coalition officials “are getting reports” that Gadhafi is arming volunteers, or “seeking reinforcements,” as Gortney put it.