U.S. Warplane Crashes in Libya As Fears of a Stalemate Loom

Libyan rebels gather around a burning T-72 tank belonging to forces of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, which were targeted the day before by a French air strike, in Shat al-Bedin 50 kms West of Benghazi, on March 21, 2011 as news reports said Libyan government forces pulled back 100 kilometres (60 miles) from rebel-held Benghazi but showed they still had plenty of fight as they beat off an insurgent advance. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: PATRICK BAZ/2011 AFP

An Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle jet crashed in Libya Tuesday. The pilots ejected at high altitudes and landed in different areas, but both were rescued with only minor injuries. Military officials say the jet crashed after an equipment malfunction, not enemy fire. The F-15 Eagle was the first warplane to go down since international forces began enforcing the U.N. resolution for a no-fly zone on Saturday. As the allies prepare to expand the protective shield above Libya, fears have intensified that the effort could contribute to a lengthy stalemate between Muammar Qaddafi and the opposition. That stalemate in turn could force the coalition into more aggressive action to stop Qaddafi.

U.S. General Carter Ham, the current commander of the military campaign, said the coalition would expand the no-fly zone from the rebel stronghold in Benghazi to Brega (an oil refinery city on the coast), to Misrata, and eventually to Tripoli. During a visit to Chile yesterday, President Obama reiterated that the U.S. will only run the effort for a limited time, stressing that it would be "a matter of days and not a matter of weeks," before handing the reins over to coalition partners. But an ally willing to lead has yet to emerge.

Both Italy and the U.K. want NATO to assume command of enforcing the no-fly zone. But France, which only recently rejoined the alliance, says it doesn't want NATO to play a central role.

Although Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that Libyan air defenses had been "largely neutralized," the outcome on the ground is still very unclear. Government forces have been weakened by the no-fly zone and attacks on some military facilities, but Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst tells Voice of America:

"They’re certainly not out of it, and they’ve demonstrated that they do have some adaptive qualities and that they may be able to weather this unless the attacks are pressed home hard enough."

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen has emphasized that despite bombings of Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli, the resolution only applies to protecting civilian areas. But as the U.S. and its allies brace for a worst-case scenario — a partition that leaves Qaddafi in control of Tripoli and the west — the prospect of increasingly aggressive intervention seems more likely. Former State Department intelligence analyst Wayne White said:

"I don’t think anyone who participated in advocating action at the U.N. was interested in anything that would preserve a divided Libya. They’re interested in getting rid of Qaddafi."

U.S. Warplane Crashes in Libya; Pilots Safe [WSJ]
Will Libya attacks lead to stalemate? [CBS News]
Libya Stalemate Could Draw Stronger Action [Voice of America]