ABOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE – As French navy Rafale and Super Etendard fighter-bombers carrying laser-guided bombs catapulted Wednesday off the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier into a cloudless Mediterranean sky, officers onboard described the difficulties they face: Despite all the modern technology, troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi are harder than ever to identify from the air.
Gadhafi's forces are now expertly camouflaging their units to conceal them from detection and attack from the air, the officers said.
"There is obviously a degree of savoir-faire on the part (of Qaddafi's forces) that we haven't seen before," said the commander of the carrier's air wing, who identified himself only as Herve.
He compared it to the performance of Serbian troops during NATO's airstrikes in Kosovo in 1999. The Serbs weathered NATO attacks and minimized their losses of tanks, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles and other vehicles through deft use of camouflage.
The Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered carrier is cruising along the northern edge of the Gulf of Sirte, near Libyan territory. It leads a standard carrier task force of three frigates, a resupply oiler and a nuclear hunter-killer submarine.
From its decks, at least 20 sorties over Libya are launched each day.
The twin-engine Dassault Rafales flown Wednesday carried a combination of Mica air-to-air missiles, GBU-12 250-kilogram laser-guided bombs, GBU-58 125 kilogram bombs and laser pods designed to pinpoint targets for the bombs.
The Super Etandards, a modernized version of a single-engine strike jet originally introduced into the French navy's inventory in the 1960s, were armed with the laser-guided bombs.
The warplanes, divided into two five-jet flights, are charged with patrolling the battlefields and looking for targets of opportunity.
From the decks of the carrier, it can be hard to gauge the results of the action over Libya. NATO reported from its headquarters in Brussels that 12 tanks were destroyed near Zintan, and an ammunition storage site was destroyed near Sukhan, south of Sirte.
NATO also said that 159 sorties had been flown Wednesday over Libya, 60 of them classified as strike sorties. But as officers on this ship know only too well, the pilots on strike sorties cannot always clearly identify targets; often they return without having dropped their bombs.
To observers on the ground the fighting appears to have changed little. But the naval task force's commander, Rear Adm. Philippe Coindreau, gave an optimistic report Wednesday. The back-and-forth stalemate of the first week of April had ended and opposition forces had seized the initiative, he said.
"There's been a reversal of that tendency; the oppositions forces have regained territory," he said in his headquarters on board the Charles de Gaulle. "Whether the air operation is more effective or not, I don't know."
He said, though, that coordination between NATO and the opposition in Benghazi has improved recently.
"Initially there was no coordination between the rebels and NATO, but nowadays NATO has more information through contacts with the opposition leadership in Benghazi," Coindreau said.
"I have a feeling that if the air campaign continues and if the political and diplomatic dialogue continues, then we can arrive at a cease-fire acceptable to all sides."
To journalists on the ground, the situation appears more nuanced. Weekend airstrikes around the city of Ajdabiya blunted an advance by forces loyal to Qaddafi. But it does not appear that the rebels have taken a significant amount of territory: The main front remains around the eastern city of Brega, and those rebel fighters who are in the west remain bottled up.
Coindreau acknowledged that it was still difficult for NATO to ascertain the exact balance of forces on the front lines between Brega and Ajdabiya, because Qaddafi's forces have started breaking their units into smaller, more maneuverable contingents and using civilian vehicles for transport and combat actions.
The Charles de Gaulle mounted the first reconnaissance flights over Libya on March 22. Attack missions followed almost immediately, and the ship has acted as the tip of the spear for the international aerial onslaught on Gadhafi's forces ever since.
Libya has two Soviet-built Foxtrot submarines that could threaten the Charles de Gaulle and the approximately 25 other NATO vessels patrolling the Libyan coastline.
"So far they have made no preparations to put to sea, so we have left them alone," Cmdr. Marc Gander said. "But we make sure to monitor them regularly just in case."
The NATO fleet has been joined by a smaller Italian carrier, the Garibaldi, but no U.S. Navy carriers have joined in the assault. An amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, which was in the region at the start of the U.S.-led operation on March 21, steamed away after Washington ended its combat role and turned the command of the operation over to NATO.
The Charles de Gaulle is the flagship of the French fleet and the only nuclear-powered carrier outside the United States.
It is also the only one outside the U.S. Navy to use the so-called CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) system, whereby planes are launched by catapults and recovered by arrestor wires.
This allows fighter-bombers to carry much heavier loads than the alternative short takeoff systems used by most of the navies operating aircraft carriers.