President Obama has given approval 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 today 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.
For more on the rise of drones in U.S. engagements, read Martha Raddatz's piece in the Atlantic.
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 US 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.
"Regime change imposed from the outside, as we have seen in Iraq and in the Balkans, is incredibly difficult and works best, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, when it is done from within. And we are trying to provide enough space -- and in order to protect the opposition from Gadhafi's military, to the extent we can, we are reducing his military capabilities to the point where hopefully those who rose up in many of these other towns, as well as the places that are under siege now, will have a better chance of being successful in bringing about a change there," he added later.
"The real work of that will have to be done by the Libyans themselves. But we can provide them with some cover from the air. And I think the kind of training that some of the allies are going to do and some of the assistance they're providing will help them. But this is likely to take a while," Gates said.
He ticked off ways in which Gadhafi's capabilities are being eroded, including the destruction of his military capability and that it is getting harder for him to fund his operations since he is no longer selling oil and other assets have been seized.
"That's not a short-term thing any more than the weakening of the military is, but the fact is it is taking place day after day," Gates said