Airpower would not have effectively prevented or stopped the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September, because of the "problem of distance and time," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Those attacks killed four Americans, including the US ambassador.
Panetta said it would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours" to deploy armed remotely piloted aircraft, AC-130 gunships, or fixed-wing fighters, along with the necessary air refueling support.
"This was, pure and simple . . . a problem of distance and time. Frankly, even if we were able to get F-16s or the AC-130s over the target in time, the mission still depends on accurate information about what targets they're supposed to hit and we had no forward air controllers there," testified Panetta on Feb. 7. (See also Panetta's prepared statement.)
He continued, "We had no . . . communications with US personnel on the ground, and as a matter of fact, we had no idea where the ambassador was at that point to be able to conduct any kind of attacks on the ground."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, said such claims were "simply false."
"We could have placed forces there. We could have had aircraft and other capabilities a short distance away at Souda Bay, Crete," stated McCain, emphasizing that it takes just an hour and a half to fly from Souda Bay to Benghazi.
Panetta countered, citing the report from the State Department's Accountability Review Board that investigated the incident. The report "found no evidence of any undue delays in decision-making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders," he said.
In fact, Panetta said the report found exactly the opposite.
"The safe evacuation of all US government personnel from Benghazi 12 hours after the initial attack, and subsequently to Ramstein [AB, Germany], was the result of exceptional US government coordination and military response, and helped save the lives of two severely wounded Americans," he said.
That does not mean that there were not lessons learned, said Panetta.
The Defense Department is working with the State Department to harden facilities and reassess security, he said.
Teams have assessed 19 facilities considered "vulnerable," including the US embassy in Tripoli, Libya, and are in the process of developing recommendations to increase security at those facilities, he said.
DOD also will stand up 35 additional diplomatic security detachments at locations to be determined, in addition to the 152 in place today, he said.
And, it is working with the State Department to enhance intelligence collection to prevent similar crises from occurring, he said.
Still, Panetta cautioned that the US military "should not be a 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world."
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