Every war creates improvisation. Even though it's only four days old, the U.S.-led attack on Libya is already showing more tactical innovation than most, at least where military hardware is concerned. Weapons that you thought you knew are getting essentially repurposed and functionally reinvented.
And that makes sense. Operation Odyssey Dawn is anything but a traditional no-fly mission -- created haphazardly on-the-fly, and mostly run from the sea. But the reinvention of familiar weapons for Libya is sure to stretch beyond this current war. Here's a guide to the military hardware that Moammar Gadhafi accidentally transformed.
The Florida submarine wasn't supposed to shoot Tomahawk missiles, when it was first built. In a past life, it carried a much deadlier payload: Trident nuclear missiles. But over the past decade, the Ohio-class sub Florida got retrofitted to carry SEALs, spy gear, and up to 154 of the smaller missiles -- ones that are far more tactically relevant than the Florida's old arsenal. In 2003, Florida was the first ship in the Navy to launch a Tomahawk from a Trident tube. The secretive sub is rumored to have gone on other clandestine missions since its retooling. But for the first time, it's part of a crew of subs and surface ships that have shot over 130 of them at Gadhafi's radar and missile sites so far.
Photo: U.S. Navy
Tomahawk Cruise Missile
Speaking of the Tomahawk, this is a new model upgrade crashing into Libyan air defenses. The Tomahawk is a military standby, used in Bosnia and both Iraq wars. But the "Block IV" missiles become quasi-drones after their launch flying horizontally and using radars and satellite links to keep it on course. It can even linger in the air at a controller's request, or get a new target punched into its guidance system -- perfect for a fast-paced war. Saddam never had to put up with that.
Photo: U.S. Navy
Score one for perhaps the most controversial U.S. aircraft ever. When the pilot of a malfunctioning F-15 Strike Eagle had to bail out over northeast Libya late Monday, he was rescued by the Marine Corps' tilt-rotor helicopter, the V-22 Osprey. And the Ospreys, which rise in the air straight up like a copter and then fly like a plane, don't typically do search-and-rescue. The Osprey is supposed to handle everything from troop transport to scout missions. But mechanical problems of a zillion different kinds have made it a frequent target of Pentagon budget-cutters (even Dick Cheney wanted it dead) and kept the Osprey from flying consistently in places like Iraq. But with a new war comes new chances.
Photo: U.S. Marine Corps
Possibly the most deceptive ship in the Navy, the Kearsarge gets treated like an 844-foot-long hunk of humanitarian aid. The Pentagon likes to send the Kearsarge around on goodwill missions, disaster relief, and other so-called "soft power" efforts. The ship has traveled to Latin America and Pakistan, where it helped with last year's floods. (Even flying Ospreys from its deck.) But off the Libyan coast, it's launching Harrier jets from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Powerful, yes; soft, no.
Libya is this flying jammer's trial by fire, and it's likely to stay as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn even after other U.S. planes pull back. That's because the Growler is the Navy's plane of choice for blocking enemy communications -- only it's just now taking its maiden combat voyage. So far, so good: Gen. Carter Ham of U.S. Africa Command assessed on Monday that Libya's air defenses aren't emitting radar -- which, OK, is also due to the pounding those air defenses are getting from B-2s, Tomahawks, F-15s and F-16s. But the Growler helps make sure that Libya's long range missiles don't come near allied planes. And within five years, its jamming tech is going to get even more sophisticated, placing viruses into enemy computer networks.
Photo: U.S. Navy
This drone has already had a busy decade; it's been put to near continuous use as a spy in the sky over Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, the Global Hawk is adding its first no-fly mission to the workload. Capable of flying as high as 60,000 feet, it's the first unmanned aircraft, as far as we know, being put to use to snoop on Moammar Gadhafi. (Though commanders typically decline to specify exactly what spy planes they're using -- and here, at least, the Libya war has been typical.) When it's not over Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, the Global Hawk moonlights as a drug-hunter over Mexico, too.