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With 'God's eyeview' on Libya, NATO strikes
by Staff Writers
Aboard A Nato Awacs (AFP) July 12, 2011

China, Russia invited to Libya talks in Istanbul
Ankara (AFP) July 12, 2011 - Turkey has invited China and Russia to join for the first time discussions on Libya as part of a contact group of major powers, to convene this week in Istanbul, a Turkish official said Tuesday.

"Russia and China have been invited as permanent members of the UN Security Council. We think they will participate but no information has reached us so far on what level," foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told reporters.

The so-called International Contact Group on Libya, scheduled to meet Friday in Istanbul, includes the countries participating in the NATO-led campaign targeting Moamer Kadhafi's regime and regional players.

Russia abstained from a vote on a Security Council resolution in March that opened the way for international involvement in Libya and has since criticized the scale and intent of the NATO-led strikes.

China, for his part, had maintained a policy of non-interference in the conflict, but has appeared more involved recently and its officials have met several times with Libyan opposition representatives.

Along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the foreign ministers of Australia, Bahrain, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Malta, Morocco, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have confirmed their participation in the Istanbul meeting, Unal said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as well as the heads of the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council will also attend, he added.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that Libyan opposition appeals for financial assistance will be discussed at the gathering.

During a visit to Ankara last week, Mahmud Jibril, a senior member of the Libyan rebel council in Benghazi, called on the international community to release Libyan funds frozen under sanctions against Kadhafi's regime and make them available to the opposition.

The UAE hosted the previous meeting of the contact group in June, at which the powers discussed what Clinton called an inevitable "post-Kadhafi Libya" and Italy promised hundreds of millions of euros in aid to answer rebel pleas for funds.

During her two-day stay in Istanbul, Clinton will also hold bilateral talks with Davutoglu as well as Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Unal said.

Two F-16 fighter jets prowling the skies over Tripoli pinpoint a missile launch site near a building in the capital. They ask for clearance to drop a pair of 500-pound bombs.

Flying off the coast of Libya, a large AWACS relays the request to a team of analysts and legal advisers in a NATO air operations centre in Italy to weigh whether there is a risk to civilians.

Around an hour later, an AWACS weapons controller monitoring NATO aircraft movements on a map of Libya gives the pilots authorisation to drop the payload.

"Weapons away, time of impact, in 30 seconds," the F-16 pilot is heard saying moments later through a secured radio frequency. After 30 seconds of silence, a US drone filming the target confirms the hit: "Good splash," says a US military man controlling the drone from an undisclosed base.

This bombing past midnight Sunday highlights the complex choreography behind more than 2,500 air strikes conducted by the alliance over nearly four months in pursuit of Moamer Kadhafi's forces.

Mistakes have happened and Tripoli has repeatedly claimed that the NATO strikes are causing numerous civilian casualties.

A warplane's missile went astray in Tripoli last month in an incident the regime said killed nine people. NATO jets have accidentally struck rebels in friendly fire incidents too.

NATO's fleet of Airborne Warning and Control Systems craft -- modified Boeing 707s equipped with a disc-shaped radar on top -- play the central role in managing an average 150 daily sorties conducted by an array of aircraft over Libya and the Mediterranean.

-- 'God's eyeview' --

In the windowless AWACS that circled over the Gulf of Sirte for eight hours overnight Saturday to Sunday, the crew monitored some 40 aircraft: fighters, spy planes, air-to-air refuelling tankers, helicopters and unmanned drones.

From 30,000 feet above the sea, the lights from the western rebel-held city of Misrata were visible from the cockpit. Sporadic tracer fire, probable skirmishes between rebels and Kadhafi troops, flickered in the darkness between Misrata and Zliten.

In the back, the aircraft was kept cool to prevent sophisticated computers from overheating, but when the saucer-like rotodome on top started turning, the grinding sounded like a whale's song.

Controllers in green jumpsuits manned three rows of monitors with blue and yellow dots representing planes on a map. Speaking in English, they passed messages between fighters and the command centre, ensured planes did not collide and guided jets to refuelling tankers.

"We have what we call a God's eye view, and that is an eye in the sky looking down at the Earth so we can see everything moving around in small dots," said Danish weapons controller, Captain Rune.

This one evening, four F-16s and two Predator drones circled Tripoli and hit two different sites within a span of three hours.

Elsewhere, two Mirage 2000 loitered over the Berber highlands south of the capital where rebels have launched an offensive, while F-18s surveilled the rebel-held city of Misrata. Later that night, eight attack helicopters swooped towards Misrata.

"It was a successful night. We found a lot of targets on the ground that we were able to engage: a couple of battle tanks, radars, missiles," said Dutch Lieutenant Colonel "Jaydee," the tactical director in a crew of 18 from eight countries, before landing back at base in Trapani, Sicily.

With no troops on the ground in Libya, NATO relies heavily on images taken by surveillance planes and drones to identify targets.

But the final decision to deploy weapons rests with a Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Poggio Renato, Italy, or the fighter pilot himself if the target is nowhere near civilians.

-- The "Ops Floor" --

At the CAOC, 260 NATO personnel work round-the-clock inside trailers marked with signs such as "crypto room" or "current operations" to prepare missions ordered by the commander, Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, from his headquarters in Naples.

In one room full of sensitive data called the "operations floor," analysts and legal advisers follow operations on computer monitors.

They also have three giant screens: the first shows aircraft movements, a second displays messages in an encrypted chat room NATO uses to exchange information, and the last shows a real-time video of sites in Libya captured by drones.

The images are so clear, "you can see a man, a cat, a dog walking," said the NATO officer in charge of the "ops floor." Every day, he said, Kadhafi forces are seen using weapons mounted on pickup trucks to fired at civilians.

Although daily NATO air strikes have left Kadhafi's military in tatters, the alliance is still finding tanks, command and control facilities, and ammunition bunkers, often hidden in urban areas to deter air strikes.

"It's not really a question of how much he has left," said French Lieutenant General Vincent Tesniere, the CAOC's deputy head. "It's seeing his capacity to use his assets, and in this case he has been considerably handicapped by the fact that we have been effective."

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NATO's airborne fuel stations keep Libya air raids rolling
Aboard A Canadian Air Tanker (AFP) July 12, 2011 - After hanging over the blue Mediterranean for a couple of hours, Canadian tanker pilot Steve Aston welcomed his first customers -- a pair of thirsty British combat jets.

His Canadian refueller, a modified civilian Airbus turned tanker, then deployed 24-meter (80-foot) hoses from each wing to deliver thousands of liters (pounds) of fuel enabling the Tornado and Typhoon jets to return to combat over Libya.

Deploying probes from their noses to connect with the hose some 7,600 meters (25,000 feet) above the sea, the aircraft cruised at 300 knots (555 kilometers per hour) before separating less than 10 minutes later.

This routine yet vital task is what allows NATO to keep sending steady streams of fighters into Libya to maintain pressure on Moamer Kadhafi, whose military has been left in tatters but remains in power despite daily bombings.

Canada's two Airbus tankers and some 35 refuelling aircraft from seven other nations provide 1.1 million liters of fuel per day to surveillance planes and combat jets, which burn massive amounts of fuel roaring south from bases across the Mediterranean on their way to Libya.

"It's an essential part of getting the mission done," said Major Aston, a 47-year-old pilot who migrated to Trenton, Ontario, and became Canadian after 22 years on the British Royal Air Force.

"All of our fighter and reconnaissance assets are based in the northern Mediterranean, and being able to refuel them as they come down to the area of interest means they can stay on station for a good length of time to carry out their missions," he said.

"Without the refuelling, it would not be possible to carry out this mission."

The Canadian tanker had a crew of four: Aston, a co-pilot, a refuelling technician who operates the hose and communicates with the jets, and a load master who fills up the plane's huge tank.

NATO was short of refuelling planes after it took command of the operation from a coalition led by the United States, France and Britain on March 31.

The alliance filled the gap weeks later after the United States provided nine more tankers and Italy came forward with two, a NATO official said on condition of anonymity.

The United States provides the bulk of the tankers with 25, while France contributes three. Britain, Spain, Italy and Canada provide two each, while Turkey contributes one. Non-NATO partner Sweden also deployed one tanker.

"We are in a much better position now," the alliance official said.

During a six-hour flight, the Canadian tanker delivered some 130,000 pounds of fuel, or 20,000 pounds per aircraft. After the British jets, two Italian Tornados came to be refuelled.

When the RAF jets came back later for more fuel, the Typhoon had one less precision-guided bomb than in the first refuelling run -- presumably, he had deployed it somewhere in Libya.

A final plane, another British two-seater Tornado, was the last customer of the day, topping up with 10,000 pounds of fuel before easing off the hose and turning sideways far off into the horizon within seconds.

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