With 'God's eyeview' on Libya, Nato strikes

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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