JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Libyans inspect office of Muammar Gaddafi following a NATO airstrike early April 25 )
Apr 25, 2011 – 10:34 AM ET | Last Updated: Apr 25, 2011 10:37 AM ET
If Muammar Gaddafi hadn’t noticed over the weekend, he discovered the truth early Monday, when NATO war planes targeted his personal compound in Tripoli and destroyed a multi-storey library and office complex, while damaging a reception hall for visiting dignitaries.
The war in Libya has entered a dramatic new phase. It began last Thursday when U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced the United States’ return to direct combat in Libya with the deployment of two squadrons of Predator drone pilotless aircraft.
The drones, possibly the most sophisticated weapons in the history of warfare, will give NATO’s Libyan command the ability to peek into formerly inaccessible corners of the battlefield, 24 hours-a-day. With their sophisticated command and control systems, video surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities and their Hellfire missiles, the Predator drones are a deadly new addition to NATO’s arsenal.
They can hover over the battlefield for hours on end and strike without warning. They can fly low to more accurately identify targets and launch precise air strikes in built up urban areas.
But their biggest benefit may be merely psychological – impressing upon Col. Gaddafi that he should consider retiring, since he can now be hunted 24 hours a day.
To drive that message home, NATO warplanes launched an attack Friday on a secret underground bunker in Col. Gaddafi’s sprawling Bab al-Azizya compound.
There was no proof the Libyan dictator was using the bunker at the time, but Col. Gaddafi’s supporters said three people were injured in the attack on what they claimed was simply a paved parking lot. But when they brought foreign reporters to the bomb site, the propaganda value of the tour was reduced by the obvious evidence of a now damaged steel-reinforced concrete roof directly under the shattered asphalt.
While U.S. officials have said they initially intend to use their Predator drones over the urban battlefield of besieged Misurata, the introduction of the drones could greatly expand NATO’s surveillance and strike capabilities in Libya.
While Washington withdrew from a combat role in Libya after the initial air strikes needed to help impose a no-fly zone, the Pentagon continued to provide NATO with targeting and intelligence information gathered by Global Hawk spy drones.
RC-135 Rivet Joint eavesdropping planes were being used to intercept communications from Libyan commanders and troops, and the information relayed to the Global Hawk drones which zoomed in to locate Libyan armoured forces and calculated their geographical coordinates.
The Global Hawks would send their target information to NATO analysts at a ground station, who would share the information with command centres that establish target priorities in Libya. Ultimately, the target co-ordinates would be relayed to AWAC command and control planes that direct NATO fighter jets on their bombing runs.
With Predator drones participating in the war, the whole process of launching an attack can be dramatically condensed.
Any electronic intercept can be relayed directly to the Predators, whose pilots work out of the Creech Air Force base, 56 kilometres northwest of Las Vegas.
Once the Predator arrives over a potential target, it can hover there for hours, while a team of trained video analysts – nicknamed “screeners” – in Okaloosa, Florida, monitor the battlefield through high-definition television screens.
Any decision to attack can be executed within seconds. That should terrify Col. Gaddafi, who he has just become the primary target in a new, computerized battle of the drones.
Monday’s attack on his leadership compound may just be the beginning of an all out campaign to personally drive him from power.
“The way to get Gaddafi to leave is have his inner circle break and turn on him,” U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program on Sunday.
“I think the focus should now be to cut the head of the snake off. That’s the quickest way to end this.”
Col. Gaddafi “needs to wake up every day wondering, ‘Will this be my last?’,” he said.