We’re used to an image of a Predator drone as a solo killer, hunting terrorists in the skies above Pakistan or Yemen. But above the Balkans in the 90s, the robotic planes spotted targets for NATO pilots to attack, and continued in that support role during the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And during the final moments of Moammar Gadhafi’s life, the Predator returned to those roots — this time, with backup from French fighter jets.
Details are still hazy. But early Thursday, a 100-car convoy suspiciously rolled out of the besieged Gadhafi stronghold of Sirte. You might think that was an odd decision: NATO spy planes — and warplanes — have been patrolling the skies over Sirte for weeks for signs, meaning a huge vehicular processional would immediately be spotted and targeted. That’s exactly what happened.
Pentagon officials pled ignorance on Thursday when asked if any U.S. aircraft were involved in the strike that disabled Gadhafi’s convoy. Later in the day, they disclosed that a Predator indeed struck a convoy near Sirte, but didn’t say if it was Gadhafi’s convoy.
As it turns out, it was. A Predator released Hellfire missiles on the convoy. Joining it in the strike: at least one French Mirage-2000, according to France’s defense minister, Gerard Longuet. So much for the tired stereotype of the French as wimps. As some other enfant de la patrie once said: L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.
The airstrikes didn’t kill Gadhafi. They disabled the convoy, allowing rebel fighters to descend on vehicles as they scattered from the column. Apparently Gadhafi attempted to hide in a drainage ditch. No dice. You’ve probably seen the graphic video of Gadhafi’s last moments, and if you believe the New York Post, a Libyan revolutionary Yankee fan was the last person the dictator saw.
U.S. officials aren’t saying if the strikes meant to kill Gadhafi. But it’s unlikely they were, even if intelligence indicated Gadhafi was in the column. From the start, NATO has wanted the Libyan fighters in the lead — even if for no other reason but to make sure they don’t get sucked in to policing post-Gadhafi Libya.
But the combined Predator-Mirage mission raises intriguing question about the future of drone warfare. It’s hard to think of earlier examples of strike missions in which armed U.S. drones teamed up with foreign allied planes. (Pakistan collaborates with U.S. drone strikes, but there’s no evidence it sends its own F-16s along for the ride.) What kind of training, tactics, techniques and procedures in joint operations did French fighter pilots and remote U.S. drone operators back at Creech Air Force Base receive?
For years, U.S. defense officials have urged NATO allies to bear a larger burden of global military responsibilities. And for all its faults and frustrations, NATO, and especially France and Britain, stepped up in Libya. So Gadhafi’s final hours might herald the beginning of combined multilateral drone/manned aerial warfare.