WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates is sharpening his words of caution about providing air cover for Libyan rebels, telling a U.S. congressional committee that establishing a no-fly zone would have to begin with an attack on Libyan territory.
Such an attack would be designed to destroy the North African country's air defense weapons.
Gates also told the panel that he is concerned by what he termed "loose talk" about military options in Libya. After stating that a no-fly zone would entail bombing Libya, Gates noted that the overall military effort would require more airplanes than are available from a single American aircraft carrier.
The Pentagon chief began his remarks Wednesday by saying that if President Barack Obama decides to order air cover for Libyans opposing leader Muammar Qaddafi, the Pentagon can do it.
At a press conference Tuesday,regarding possible military intervention, noting that any military response would have complex consequences and ripple effects for U.S. interests.
"All of the options beyond humanitarian assistance and evacuations are complex. ... If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan? For the Persian Gulf? And what other allies are prepared to work with us in some of these things?" Gates said. "We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East."
He noted that the U.N. Security Council's resolution regarding Libya does not authorize the use of military force, adding only that the Defense Department is working to "provide the president with a range of options."
NATO countries are drawing up contingency plans modeled on the no-fly zones over the Balkans in the 1990s in case the international community decides to impose an air embargo over Libya, diplomats said Wednesday.
NATO has already said that any such move would require a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council. This is unlikely because Russia, which has veto power in the council, has already rejected the idea.
Still, diplomats at NATO and the European Union said some countries, including United States and Britain, are already drawing up contingency plans to prevent Libyan leader Qaddafi's air force from carrying out air strikes against the rebels.
Two U.S. warships have passed through the Suez Canal, officials said Wednesday, following Gates' orders earlier in the week to enter the on their way to the Mediterranean Sea and draw closer to the Libyan conflict.
The amphibious assault ships USS Kearsarge and USS Ponce entered the canal earlier in the day from the Red Sea. The officials said the USS Kearsarge is carrying 42 helicopters.
Gates said he ordered two Navy amphibious warships into the Mediterranean, along with an extra 400 Marines, in case they are needed to evacuate civilians or provide humanitarian relief.
And while he did not rule out other options, such as providing air cover for Libyan rebels, he made clear he has little enthusiasm for direct military intervention.
Qaddafi has warned "thousands of Libyans" will die if the U.S. or NATO intervene in his country.
Gates also said Tuesday that the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt - and the mostly peaceful protests against autocratic regimes elsewhere in the Middle East - represent major setbacks for the extremist ideologies of al Qaeda and the Iranian government.
"I'm an optimist about these changes," Gates said. "I think [they] are an extraordinary setback for al Qaeda. It basically gives the lie to al Qaeda's claims that the only way to get rid of authoritarian governments is through extremist violence."
If the international community imposes a no-fly zone over Libya it would pit the country's disintegrating air force against the vastly superior air fleets of Western nations.
Although Libya has over 400 fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, analysts say the number of airworthy aircraft is much smaller. The Libyan military has been in disarray for a long time, and the air force in particular is said to suffer from low morale, declining training standards and poor maintenance.
In contrast, NATO's air assets in the region are extensive and robust. The several hundred fighter jets available in NATO's southern nations and on the U.S. carriers could quickly establish air dominance over Libya, experts say.