"Do you know they are flying around at 25,000 feet?" asks Sen. John McCain, incredulously.
The Republican lawmaker is speaking by phone from Italy, where he has gone to discuss the Libyan operation with U.S. and NATO officials before traveling on to Libya to meet with anti-Gadhafi rebels. During the NATO briefings, McCain, perhaps the world's most famous former naval aviator, has been told that NATO pilots, ostensibly protecting civilians, are flying at altitudes so high -- 25,000 feet -- that it's hard to effectively attack Gadhafi's forces on the ground.
NATO officials have told McCain they're concerned that there are thousands of small anti-aircraft weapons known as MANPADS -- Man-Portable Air Defense Systems -- in Libya. McCain has asked whether any have been fired at NATO aircraft. The answer is no.
"The overriding fear of pilots and air crew being shot down and captured is dictating most of [NATO's] actions," McCain says. "When you go into war, into battle, you have to take risks. That is what war is all about. I knew that there were SAM missiles aimed at me when I was flying in Vietnam."