US Raptors and Tomahawks to herald Libyan operation

Washington: American forces are to take the lead in an impending military action against Libya which may come anytime and US will use `standoff` long reach weapons to pulverise Muammar Gaddafi`s lethal arsenal of Soviet-era supplied surface to air missiles.

The presence of these missiles has made NATO commanders wary of sending in their fighter jets to bomb the Libyan military bases to enforce the UN approved no-fly zone.

Under a plan, almost finalised, New York Times reported, Americans would take the initiative to rain down precision guided `Tomahawks` from submarines, surface warships and attack jets to destroy Gaddafi`s 141 SA-2, SA-3, SA-5 and SA-6 missiles in their silos.

Such a missile barrage would pave the way for wave of NATO bombers to take to sky to strike Gaddafi`s airforce on the ground, the Times said.

US airforce officials said the opening forays against Libya would also be led by land based Lockheed-Martin F-22 fighters, since their radar-evading stealth technology makes them the only US fighters to effectively evade the SA-5 and SA-6 missiles.

According to Pentagon estimates, the majority of Gaddafi`s 30 SAM sites linked to 15 early warning radars are strung across the Mediterranean Coast.

The Americans estimate that SA-5 with a range of 300 kms provide Libya with "significant standoff capability".

Gaddafi also has about 50 SA-6 missiles used by the Bosnian Serbs to shoot down US airforce F-16 in 1995.

NATO`s top decision making body met in emergency session in Brussels today to review the military action plans for a no-fly zone over Libya.

The meeting comes amid reports that NATO council is expected to issue the order to launch the operation over the weekend.

"We may do the shaping on the front end," a top Pentagon official said as he asserted that only the US forces had greater ability than that of allies to strike targets from long distances.

"We plan to control the skies over Libya within hours after destroying Gaddafi`s air defences," the Pentagon official said.

Besides the missiles, Gaddafi has about 350 strong airforce with an assortment of Russian and French fighters including MIG-21, 23 and 25. He also has SU-22, SU-24 and French built Mirage F-1 fighters.

But, according to `Janes` most of these fighters are in storage for want of spares and the Libyan airforce is far short in fighter pilots.

BBC quoting NATO officials said under the plan, the first wave of attacks by Raptors and Tomahawks would be followed by dozens of fighter bombers, tankers, helicopters and surveillance planes which would be deployed at bases along Europe`s southern rim.

The US officials insist that the Libyan operation does not stipulate in any manner committing ground forces.

"It may be almost a cakewalk," a NATO official said as 50 per cent of the Libyan air bases were in rebel hands and only three bases at Mitga, outside Tripoli, Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi and Maaten al-Saara in south Libya in government control.