U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft are still flying hundreds of strike missions over Libya despite the Obama administration's claim that American forces are playing only a limited support role in the NATO operation.
A U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokeswoman confirmed June 29 that since NATO's Operation Unified Protector (OUP) took over from the American-led Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 31, the U.S. military has flown hundreds of strike sorties. Previously, Washington had claimed that it was mostly providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and tanker support to NATO forces operating over Libya.
"U.S. aircraft continue to fly support [ISR and refueling] missions, as well as strike sorties under NATO tasking," AFRICOM spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple said in an emailed statement. "As of today, and since 31 March, the U.S. has flown a total of 3,475 sorties in support of OUP. Of those, 801 were strike sorties, 132 of which actually dropped ordnance."
A White House report on Libya sent to Congress on June 15 says that "American strikes are limited to the suppression of enemy air defense and occasional strikes by unmanned Predator UAVs against a specific set of targets." The report also says the U.S. provides an "alert strike package."
Dalrymple named the Air Force's F-16CJ and Navy's EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft as the primary platforms that have been suppressing enemy air defenses.
However, those F-16s are not solely drawn from U.S. units based in Spangdahlem, Germany, or Aviano, Italy. The service has reportedly deployed U.S.-based units to Europe to conduct these operations.
Earlier this month, Malta Today reported that two F-16s from the 77th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Wing, made emergency landings on the island. The 20th Fighter Wing is based at Shaw Air Force Base (AFB), S.C.
The AFRICOM spokeswoman did not address why U.S.-based units were deployed for the mission.
The Navy's Growlers are based at Whidbey Island, Wash.
However, those may not be the only U.S. strike aircraft flying over Libya. Last week, Air Force F-15E crews attending the Paris Air Show, along with their public affairs officer, said they could not talk about their activities in Libya during Odyssey Dawn because they are not able to comment on "current operations."
AFRICOM couldn't immediately say when the last U.S. strike sortie over Libya was flown.
The fact that the U.S. is conducting strike missions over Libya should not come as a surprise, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the service's former intelligence chief.
"It's no surprise to me that we've been participating, because we're a member of NATO," Deptula said.
What is different now, he said, is that sorties are planned differently under NATO control. Deptula said it is not particularly surprising that additional units would be brought in to support those operations.
The revelation comes as a debate rages in Washington over the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which calls for the president to ask Congress for permission to deploy American forces into combat longer than 60 days. If the Congress does not grant that permission within that span, U.S. forces must be withdrawn within 30 days.
"It's not necessarily a violation of the War Powers Resolution," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, now associate director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, and visiting professor of the practice at Duke University School of Law. "[But] it does raise questions about the scope and intensity of our participation versus how it's been represented."
Others disagreed. The president is in clear violation of the War Powers Resolution, said Robert Turner, co-founder of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia. Under the legal definition of hostilities, even providing logistical support or intelligence data qualifies as such, he said, never mind firing missiles from Predator UAVs or F-16 fighters.
However, the resolution itself is unconstitutional because treaties are effectively part of the Constitution the way the framers wrote the document, he said.
"Legally, this is his discretion, but he is in clear violation of the statute," Turner said. "The reason he's not bound by that is because the statute is clearly unconstitutional."
Dunlap said he is less sure. "It does raise that specter [of violating the Constitution], but in any event, it doesn't seem to track with what we've been told about the relatively benign participation of U.S. forces," he said.
The Obama administration has said that the War Powers Resolution does not apply to the Libya operation because the U.S. role is limited.
The White House declined to comment on how 801 strike sorties constitutes "limited" involvement, but Harold Koh, a State Department legal adviser, said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 28 that "when U.S forces engage in a limited military mission, that involves limited exposure for U.S. troops, and limited risk of serious escalation, and employs limited military means, we are not in the kind of hostilities of the kind envisioned by the War Powers Resolution."
He said there have been "no active exchanges of fire with hostile forces" despite AFRICOM's statement that weapons had been dropped during 132 sorties.
Many in Congress on both sides of the aisle vehemently disagree with the White House's contention.
Most U.S. air assets involved in the campaign are reconnaissance aircraft, including the U-2 high-altitude spy plane, E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System ground surveillance aircraft and the Navy's P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. The U.S. provides nearly 70 percent of the NATO operation's ISR capacity, according to the White House report.
Additionally, the Air Force is still providing EC-130J aircraft to the operation to conduct psychological warfare operations by broadcasting coercive messages.
The remaining U.S. aircraft operating in the theater are aerial refueling tankers, including KC-10s and KC-135s. The U.S. also provides the majority of the alliance's tanker capability.
Kate Brannen contributed to this report.