WASHINGTON – Coalition forces pounded Libyan military targets with 24 more Tomahawk missiles, expanding the no-fly zone over the North African nation but suffering the loss of a U.S. fighter jet, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
And the on-scene commander, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, confirmed that troops of leader Moammar Gadhafi were attacking civilians in the city of Misrata. He said that as the international mission continues, coalition forces will better be able to target government troops.
The two-man crew of an F-15E Strike Eagle ejected after the craft suffered mechanical problems during a strike mission against a Libyan missile site, Locklear said. He spoke to Pentagon reporters via phone from the command ship USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean Sea.
The crew was recovered and suffered only minor injuries, U.S. Africa Command said. One crew member was recovered by rebels and the other was picked up by a Marine Corps search and rescue plane, the command said, adding both were in U.S. hands Tuesday and off Libyan soil.
Two dozen more Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. and British submarines, a defense official said earlier in the day. Locklear didn't give details but confirmed that brought to 161 the number of Tomahawk strikes aimed at disabling Libyan command and control facilities, air defenses and other targets since the operation started Saturday.
Locklear said the additional strikes had expanded the area covered by the no-fly zone.
He said intelligence showed that Gadhafi's forces were attacking civilians in Misrata, Libya's third-largest city. In a joint statement to Gadhafi late Friday, the United States, Britain and France called on him to end his troops' advance toward Benghazi and pull them out of the cities of Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zawiya.
Locklear said the coalition is "considering all options" but didn't elaborate. Asked if international forces were stepping up strikes on Gadhafi ground troops, Locklear said that as the "capability of the coalition" grows, it will be able to do more missions aimed at ground troops who are not complying with the UN resolution to protect those seeking Gadhafi's ouster.
The overall commander of international military action, Gen. Carter Ham, said Monday that the operation was achieving its goal of setting up a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi. Building on what Ham called a successful first stage, the focus was shifting to widening the no-fly zone across the North African country while continuing smaller-scale attacks on Libyan air defenses and setting the stage for a humanitarian relief mission.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's authority to order the military action against Libya without congressional approval was challenged by some on Captiol Hill.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said in a Tuesday interview with CBS's "The Early Show." that the military strikes were necessary because there would have been "a horrible blood bath" under Gadhafi without international intervention. But Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, remained opposed to the operation and said he would offer an amendment to the next budget resolution that would prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used to fund U.S. military operations in Libya.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others said the U.S. military's role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action like the barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles also fired over the weekend mainly by U.S. ships and submarines off Libya's coast.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, said Monday the attacks thus far had reduced Libya's air defense capabilities by more than 50 percent. That has enabled the coalition to focus more on extending the no-fly zone, which was mainly over the coastal waters off Libya and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east. The aim was to stretch the protective zone's reach across the country to the Tripoli area this week. It was unclear how much that had been expanded by the latest strikes.
In Russia for an awkwardly timed visit on other topics, Gates said it would be a mistake to set Gadhafi's ouster as a military goal.
"I think it's pretty clear to everybody that Libya would be better off without Gadhafi," he said in an interview with Interfax news agency. "That is a matter for the Libyans themselves to decide," and given the opportunity they may take it, Gates said.
Other administration officials said Washington is not interested in using military action to get rid of Gadhafi. Rather, a combination of international sanctions and other non-military actions designed to isolate him and undermine his authority are more likely to hasten his demise, they said.
Rep. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview Monday: "The goal is to be achieved in days, not weeks, without U.S. boots on the ground. As the hours go by, allied countries, Europe and the Arab countries are playing a larger role. Our role is becoming less."
Obama addressed the Libya matter while visiting Chile on Monday. He contrasted his approach in Libya, in which his administration insisted on an international military partnership, with President George W. Bush's actions in Iraq, where U.S. forces bore the bulk of the burden.
"As you know, in the past there have been times where the United States acted unilaterally or did not have full international support, and as a consequence typically it was the United States military that ended up bearing the entire burden," Obama said.