On the surface the press release by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on airstrikes in Libya from January 19, 2017 does not seem like anything out of the ordinary.
Statement By Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on Airstrikes in Libya
Release No: NR-014-17
Jan. 19, 2017
In conjunction with the Libyan Government of National Accord, the U.S. military conducted precision airstrikes Wednesday night destroying two ISIL camps 45 kilometers southwest of Sirte. The ISIL terrorists targeted included individuals who fled to the remote desert camps from Sirte in order to reorganize, and they posed a security threat to Libya, the region, and U.S. national interests. While we are still evaluating the results of the strikes, the initial assessment indicates they were successful. This action was authorized by the President as an extension of the successful operation the U.S. military conducted last year to support Libyan forces in freeing Sirte from ISIL control. The United States remains prepared to further support Libyan efforts to counter terrorist threats and to defeat ISIL in Libya. We are committed to maintaining pressure on ISIL and preventing them from establishing safe haven. These strikes will degrade ISIL’s ability to stage attacks against Libyan forces and civilians working to stabilize Sirte, and demonstrate our resolve in countering the threat posed by ISIL to Libya, the United States and our allies.
A press release like we have seen them many times before as the Obama administration is relying heavily on U.S. air capabilities in the fight against ISIL. In the context of what is going on in Libya the release also makes sense, the Libyan port city of Sirte, which had been held by ISIL fell last month after a long siege to the forces of the United Nations backed Government of National Accord in Libya supported by U.S. air assets. So the fact that some of the ISIL fighters fled to more remote camps 45 kilometers southwest of Sirte and are now targeted by American airstrikes there lines up with the overall U.S. involvement in the conflict.
What is out of the ordinary though is the fact that the strikes were not conducted using drones or aircraft stationed in the region but were carried out utilizing two B-2 bombers which flew a 34-hour, round-trip mission from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, supported by a total of 15 tanker aircrafts to refuel the bombers along the way.
A RARELY USED ASSET
The use of the B-2 bombers makes the mission unique as the B-2 fleet rarely gets called into action. The strikes marked only the fifth time that they have been used in combat operations since they became operational in the 1990s. The previous four B-2 missions were in March 1999 during Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia, in September 2001, in the opening strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, in March 2003, in the initial phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom and in March 2011 during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya to topple the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The reason for the limited use of the B-2 in comparison to other aircraft can largely be attributed to the fact that most missions currently conducted by the U.S. can be carried out by aircraft that are much less valuable than the B-2 and cost significantly less to fly and maintain. The B-2’s main advantage over other aircraft is it’s stealth technology, a capability that does not seem necessary to conduct airstrikes against ISIL camps in Libya.
So it is not surprising that the press release was supplemented by a press conference with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who had already given what was thought to be his final press conference before the new administration takes over the day prior and Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.
According to a U.S. Air Force spokesman, the two B-2 bombers dropped approximately one hundred 500 pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), commonly referred to as precision-guided bombs. Additionally, the B-2 strikes were supported up by one MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle utilizing Hellfire missiles. Another official indicated that the mission was coordinated with U.S. special operations personnel working with local allies. According to Carter, “Initial estimates indicate that the airstrikes killed more than 80 ISIL fighters…”.
No doubt the airstrikes are unique and while killing 80 ISIL fighters will be a huge blow for the group in Libya, the use of the B-2s seems to continue to stand out. While defense officials argued the B-2s were chosen to conduct the mission due to their large carrying capacity and their on target loitering time, they also did not deny that other aircraft could have been used. Carter brushed off speculation that the strikes were intended by the outgoing administration to send a message to Russia and China that the U.S. retained the ability to strike anywhere in the world on short notice, or to offset criticism by President-elect Donald Trump of U.S. military readiness.
A possible explanation for the high importance of the target and for the use of the B-2s came just a couple of days later. Although unconfirmed, CNN and Der Spiegel (a German news outlet) reported, citing a U.S. official and a source close to Libyan intelligence, that the possible presence of terrorists linked to the Berlin truck attack, contributed to the decision to conduct the airstrikes.
On December 19, 2016, Anis Amri from Tunisia drove a truck into a Christmas market in Germany’s capital, Berlin, killing 12. He managed to escape, however was shot bz plice four dazs later in Milan, Italy. ISIL released a video recored by Amri claiming he was acting on ISIL’s behalf.
The reports echo what Carter said during the initial press conference on January 19th, “Importantly, these strikes were directed against some of ISIL’s external plotters, who were actively planning operations against our allies in Europe … and may also have been connected with some attacks that have already occurred in Europe”. Additionally, Germany’s Ministry of Interior announced last week that two Libyan cell phone numbers were flagged by the German foreign intelligence service”BND” for further investigation prior to Amri’s attack, drawing another line between the Berlin attack and the airstrike in Libya.
If the airstrikes in Libya were actually aimed at targeting some of Amri’s connections and/or other individuals involved in the Berlin attack, it becomes clear on why the airstrikes were so important to the U.S., its European allies and especially Germany. However, no doubt the Pentagon and the administration does not mind if the use of the B-2s sends a reminder to possible adversaries that the U.S. can strike targets across the globe very quickly. Wich ultimatly echos what Carter said during the press conference on February 19, “The use of the B-2 demonstrates the capability of the United States to deliver decisive precision force to the Air Force’s Global Strike Command over a great distance”.
– Stages of War