WASHINGTON — Less than a month into the Libyan conflict, NATO is running short of precision bombs, highlighting the limitations of Britain, France and other European countries in sustaining even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time, according to senior NATO and U.S. officials.
The shortage of European munitions, along with the limited number of aircraft available, has raised doubts about whether the United States can continue to avoid returning to the air campaign if Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi hangs onto power for several more months.
U.S. strike aircraft that participated in the early stage of the operation, before the United States relinquished command to NATO and assumed what President Barack Obama called a "supporting" role, have remained in the theater "on 12-hour standby" with crews "constantly briefed on the current situation," the Washington Post reported, citing a NATO official.
So far, the NATO commander has not requested their deployment. The Post reported that several U.S. military officials said they anticipated being called back into the fight.
Opposition spokesmen in the western Libyan city of Misrata, under steady bombardment by government shelling, said Friday that Gadhafi's forces had used cluster bombs. The New York Times also reported that cluster bombs, banned by much of the world, and ground-to-ground rockets were fired into residential areas. The dangers were evident Friday at the site of an impact crater, where eight people were killed while standing in a bread line.
A spokesman for the Misrata City Council appealed for NATO to send ground troops to secure the port that is the besieged city's only remaining humanitarian lifeline.
The opposition has also repeatedly called for an increase in NATO airstrikes. The six countries conducting the air attacks, led by Britain and France, were unsuccessful at a meeting this week in Berlin in persuading more alliance members to join them.
European arsenals of laser-guided bombs, the NATO weapon of choice in the Libyan campaign, have been quickly depleted. Although the United States has significant stockpiles, its munitions do not fit on the British- and French-made planes that have flown the bulk of the missions.
Britain and France have each contributed about 20 strike aircraft to the campaign. Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Canada have each contributed six, all of them U.S.-manufactured and compatible with U.S. weaponry.
Since the end of March, more than 800 strike missions have been flown, with U.S. aircraft conducting only three, targeting static Libyan air defense installations. The United States still conducts about 25 percent of the overall sorties over Libya, largely intelligence, jamming and refueling missions.
Other NATO countries, along with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan, have contributed planes to enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gadhafi's use of air power, but so far have declined to participate in the strike missions.
After the Berlin meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rassmussen said that 10 more aircraft were needed and that he was confident they would be supplied.
But with Gadhafi's forces and the rebel army locked in a stalemate, Obama has resisted calls to move U.S. warplanes back into a leading role.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others have called on Obama to redeploy U.S. AC-130 gunships, which are considered more effective over populated areas.
Libya "has not been a very big war. If the Europeans would run out of these munitions this early in such a small operation, you have to wonder what kind of war they were planning on fighting," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank.