The first missile strike by an unmanned Predator against Moammar Kadafi's forces underscores how the drones have become the go-to weapon for an Obama White House wary of being drawn deeper into another messy conflict. But few believe the remote-controlled aircraft are likely to tip the balance in the Libyan stalemate.
Anti-Kadafi rebels who have grumbled about the limited U.S. role in the international air war in Libya were buoyed by Saturday's strike on a rocket launcher in the besieged port city of Misurata.
"The drones will make the difference, God willing," Tareq Khalil Shihbani said as he and fellow fighters gathered amid a warren of heavily damaged villas in Misurata, awaiting their next target.
However, only two patrols of armed Predators — with each drone capable of carrying a pair of Hellfire missiles — have been assigned to Libyan airspace. The limited deployment tends to mitigate the drone's strengths, such as advanced targeting capabilities and an ability to hover over the battlefield.
"The effect in Libya is going to be largely psychological," predicted Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You're not going to have enough of them to conduct a war of attrition against a dispersed force."
Last week, the Obama administration approved the use of the Predators, best known for blasting alleged terrorist haunts, to augment aerial assaults by other NATO nations against Kadafi's troops.
In the Libya campaign, the president has endeavored to balance concerns about "mission creep" with demands from European allies and others for a more robust intervention in a conflict that seems deadlocked. The drone deployment was widely seen as an administration move to satisfy those favoring greater force in Libya while not substantially escalating the U.S. involvement.
"The Predators have proven in other theaters to be an incredibly effective surveillance as well as weapons system," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a vocal supporter of the Libyan revolt, said during a recent visit to the rebel capital, Benghazi. "So I am hoping they will have a beneficial effect on the battlefield."
In Pakistan, President Obama has stuck to a policy of drone attacks targeting alleged Al Qaeda operatives despite complaints from Pakistani officials, human rights groups and others about the scores of civilian deaths that ensue in that nation's tribal zones.
The decision to unleash the drones in Misurata, where civilians have endured a punishing campaign of rockets and sniper fire by Kadafi loyalists, delighted a rebel leadership desperately in need of enhanced weaponry from abroad to have any chance of toppling Kadafi after his more than four decades in power.
"We are thrilled about the drones," said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a spokesman for the Benghazi-based rebel army. "This means America is with us."
One clear psychological advantage to the use of drones is that word of their presence will make pro-regime forces even more uncomfortable out in the open. In a bid to be less obvious targets, Kadafi's men are already said to have switched to civilian vehicles and have dug in around urban areas at the front lines. Charred tanks and other military vehicles destroyed by NATO aircraft in the early days of the campaign still litter roads near Benghazi.
"This system [an armed Predator] can loiter for hours and strike without warning," Cordesman said. "That has some psychological impact."
What breathing room the weapons will provide to the people of Misurata after weeks of fighting and shelling remains a question mark.
Rebels said they weren't aware that a drone had taken out a regime rocket launcher until some time after Saturday's strike. Nonetheless, Shihbani, the insurgent fighter interviewed here, voiced the hope that drones could stop government forces now outside town from hitting Misurata with rocket, mortar and artillery fire from beyond the city gates.
Predators, equipped with advanced sensors and live-video surveillance cameras, are capable of precision strikes in urban areas, hitting tanks or artillery pieces while limiting civilian casualties, analysts say. Still, critics say repeated civilian casualties in drone attacks in Pakistan undermine the argument that Predators are somehow safer for civilians than other military aircraft.
But from the Pentagon's perspective, the remote operation provides perhaps the Predator's biggest strength: It means no chance of losing pilots and a Mogadishu-like "Black Hawk Down" disaster on the streets of Misurata. Kadafi's troops are known to possess a variety of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons that can down low-flying aircraft.
"Nothing will cause people's support to fall faster than an urban warfare scenario," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst with London's Royal United Services Institute.
The Obama administration, Joshi noted, "doesn't want another Fallouja," referring to the Iraqi city largely destroyed in a 2004 U.S. invasion that routed Sunni Muslim insurgents hunkered down there.
But experts cautioned that it was wrong to think of the robotic aircraft as capable of turning the tide of battle — either here in Misurata or in Libya as a whole. Despite their cachet, drones function more as a complement to other weapons systems.
"It would absolutely be a grave error to see the drones as some kind of magic bullet," Joshi said. "What is likely to turn the conflict in Misurata is the conduct of the forces of the regime and of the rebels on the ground, rather than anything that NATO can or cannot do."
The Pentagon initially led the U.N.-authorized bombing campaign designed to protect Libyan civilians. But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has since taken command and officials said the U.S. role would be limited to providing surveillance, refueling and other noncombat support operations. The Obama administration seems determined to let Europeans remain out front.
Even while applauding the administration for deploying drones in Libya, Sen. Joe Lieberman criticized the White House on Sunday for removing other U.S. attack aircraft from front-line roles in support of rebel forces.
Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" with McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the Connecticut independent said, "You can't get into a fight with one foot."
Parker reported from Misurata and McDonnell from Benghazi. Times staff writer Noam N. Levey in Washington contributed to this report.