A U.S. Air Force Predator drone took out a rocket launcher used to attack civilians in the battle between Qadhafi forces and civilians in Misrata, Libya, NATO said today.
The strike, which was also confirmed by the Pentagon, is the first use of the unmanned aircraft in Libya since President Obama gave his approval two days ago.
"The first Predator strike in Libya occurred today in the early afternoon local time," Pentagon spokesman Capt. Darryn James said. "Per common practice we are not providing any details."
NATO, however, released a statement saying the strike had destroyed a Qadhafi regime Multiple Rocket Launcher near Misrata.
Obama gave approval Thursday for two armed American Predator drones to operate over Libya, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The U.S. has flown armed drones in Libya for the past several weeks, but they have been used only for surveillance. They will now be used to strike Gadhafi's forces as part of the civilian protection mission.
British, French and Italian forces have already agreed to step up their efforts to aid the rebels.
The use of drones is significant, too, because it marks the United States' return to using force for civilian protection mission for the first time since shortly after the U.S. handed full authority of the mission over to NATO last month. Bombing drops by U.S. planes that have taken place since then were only to take out Gadhafi's air defenses for the separate no-fly zone enforcement mission.
American forces are helping to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, aiding rebel forces struggling against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The drones, aircraft without pilots that the U.S. military has also used in Afghanistan and over Pakistan, will be used to root out Gadhafi forces that are burrowed into urban areas. Their first mission was to be today but they didn't drop any bombs and the mission was curtailed today because of bad weather.
Gates, appearing at the Pentagon on Thursday with Marine Gen. James Cartwright, said these drones have the capability to fly lower than piloted AC-130 gunships and better identify targets of Gadhafi forces burrowed into urban areas with less threat of collateral damage. They're also able to stay on a target for much longer than a plan can, they can be in the air all day long.
Cartwright noted that the nature of the fight has changed recently, with the conflict taking place more now in urban areas near civilian populations.
Gates would not say where the drones will fly from, but he said they are based "in theater." He said they did not come from Afghanistan.
Gates also went as far as anyone in the administration has gone so far in saying that the international mission in Libya is trying to get Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi removed from power. That, of course, is not part of the United Nations mandate which calls for steps to protect civilians, and the U.S. and others have tried to frame their actions in that context alone.
"Regime change was always a political goal. And I think that there was an understanding that regime change is complicated and that it works best when it's done from the inside, and that it could take time. And that's why the sanctions and the embargoes and everything are associated with that," Gates told reporters.