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As Libya mission intensifies, Italy OKs U.S. to fly armed drone missions

The Italian government recently cleared the way for expanded U.S. drone operations from an air base in Sicily, giving the American military more options for tracking — and potentially targeting — Islamic State militants and their spread across North Africa. The Italian government is allowing the U.S. military to fly armed drones from an air base in Naval Air Station Sigonella to locations where personnel need additional support, defense officials told Military Times on Monday.

The agreement, reached last month, allows armed unmanned aircraft operating from Naval Air Station Sigonella Italian and U.S. officials agreed to fly drones that can be "armed to conduct defensive operations, such as force protection against adversary threats to U.S. personnel," Pentagon Defense Department spokeswoman Laura Seal told Military Times said. Previously, Seal said a prior agreement with Italy allowed the U.S. to conduct only covered unarmed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, Seal said.

As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, the move comes as the U.S. is lobbying allies across the region for expanded basing options to facilitate its war on ISIS. Last summer, Turkey the Turkish government cleared the way for American combat aircraft and armed drones to fly from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.  

"We're in continuing dialogue about our broader defensive cooperation," Seal said.

On Friday, American F-15s based in England swooped into a coastal city in Libya and wiped out a purported ISIS training base. Some 40 militants were killed in the airstrikes, which also targeted a senior ISIS leader there. It was the second known U.S. attack on ISIS positions in Libya since November.

The air base in Italy, which also houses NATO forces, has become a strategic location for drone missions across North Africa, where ISIS continues to expand. Estimates suggest there are between 5,000 and 6,000 fighters in Libya alone. Other terror groups in the region have sworn their allegiance to ISIS.

The U.S. conducted manned and unmanned strikes in Libya on Friday against the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, targeting for the second time ISIS positions inside the north African country, officials said.

A key element to visualizing how ISIS moves within the African continent — and how to best defeat their stronghold in Libya — is through drone missions, experts say.

"What you'll see is a series there — first in ISR, Global Hawk, really soaking the area, understanding patterns of life there. That's happening," said retired Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's former supreme allied commander who in 2011 oversaw the U.S.-led air campaign in Libya.

For now, there are two governments in Libya, one internationally recognized regime based in Tobruk in eastern Libya, and another in Tripoli, the capital in the west. For months, there has been a united effort between the Italian, British, French and U.S. governments to create a central authority who can lead the ground fight against ISIS. That's seen as crucial for any further military action to succeed.

U.S. intelligence estimates suggest the size of the ISIS force there is between 5,000 and 6,000, up from about half that just a few months ago.

"The. U.S. has stepped up reconnaissance collection in Libya," Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair for the topic of strategy at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said told Military Times on Friday. "The problem that you run into is that the U.S. is also trying to get the Libyans to unite and to have some kind of coordination in Benghazi and Tripoli, [so] it's been working with the Italians and Europeans to introduce some kind of training effort," Cordesman said, acknowledging the U.S.'s continued work with the Italian government.

This story was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Military Times' Pentagon Bureau Chief Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report. 

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.

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