As NATO takes over Libya campaign, US jets still take the lead in no-fly zone

Coalition forces continue to pound Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s military with nearly 200 combat flights each day -- and U.S. planes are still carrying the load, a senior Pentagon official said Monday.

NATO is poised to assume command of the air strikes -- which coalition officials say is aimed at “protecting civilians” -- “in the coming days,” Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, Joint Staff director, said during a Pentagon briefing.

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Because NATO and U.S. forces routinely “exercise together” and because U.S. military officials “understand NATO,” the hand-off of the final aspect of the campaign to the alliance should go smoothly, Gortney said. The three-star admiral said he has “pretty high confidence we’re not going to drop the ball.”

That command change was announced in time for President Barack Obama’s primetime speech this evening on Libya.

The administration and the Pentagon have sought to downplay the U.S. role in the campaign, and emphasize the increasing role of coalition nations and NATO.

For example, Gortney noted that Qatari fighter jets have already flown several no-fly zone missions, and aircraft from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) soon will join the coalition. Aircraft from Belgium also are now flying no-fly zone and civilian-protection missions, according to the Pentagon.

The Joint Staff director also noted that, with NATO stepping into command of all parts of the campaign, U.S. forces would take a “support” role.

Even with those additions, however, in the last 24 hours, U.S. aircraft continued to conduct most of the no-fly zone and civilian-protection flights, authorities said.

During that span, the coalition flew 178 combat sorties, according to the Pentagon. American planes conducted 107 of those sorties, with coalition jets doing the remaining 69.

Some of those sorties are what the Pentagon calls “strike missions,” meaning planes are putting munitions on Libyan targets -- especially Libyan military units that target civilians and seek entry into cities. Other missions are intended to go after Gadhafi’s ability to “command-and-control” his forces, as well as his supply lines, Gortney said.

Gortney also said U.S. A-10 air-to-ground attack planes and AC-130 aerial gunships are joining the fight.

That move raised eyebrows among defense observers because those planes are often used to provide U.S. ground forces with cover from the skies, or destroy heavy vehicles like tanks. The move suggests the coalition is escalating strikes on Gadhafi's ground forces, amid American assurances the coalition is not assisting rebel forces.

During past briefings since the onset of operations over a week ago, Gortney and other U.S. military officials have made clear that the coalition is not striking inside Libyan population centers, even though they felt Gadhafi’s forces were inside cities attacking civilians.

Today, Gortney declined comment on whether the coalition is now sending munitions inside Libyan cities.

He also voiced agreement with comments U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. Carter Ham, the top American commander in the Libyan effort, made in an email today to the New York Times, saying gains made by the opposition are fragile.

Libyan rebel groups “are not well organized” and are “not robust,” meaning any successes they have had against Gadhafi’s military “are tenuous,” Gortney told reporters.