The aircraft carrier America was ordered to stand by for possible unscheduled duty in the Mediterranean as another carrier sailed from Naples, Italy, on Friday and Pentagon officials studied military options against Libya in the wake of last week's dual terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna.
But defense officials said that, before any military action is taken, diplomatic and economic pressure is likely to be applied against Libya, which had more than $10 billion in trade with key U.S. allies in Europe alone in 1984.
Navy and other sources portrayed Libyan defenses as relatively sophisticated and capable of presenting greater obstacles to attackers than those encountered when U.S. carrier-based jets struck Lebanon two years ago or when Israeli aircraft bombed a Palestinian camp near Tunis, Tunisia, last Oct. 1.
President Reagan, posing for photographs with Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid at the start of a meeting in Mexicali, Mexico, told reporters: "I'm not aware we are doing anything out of the ordinary at all. We've had various maneuvers and practices there going on."
A senior Pentagon official said, however, that the America, a conventionally powered aircraft carrier, had been alerted to the possibility that it might receive orders for a sudden departure from Norfolk, Va., for the 10-day trip across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, where it would join the carrier Coral Sea.
The Coral Sea, also conventionally powered, left Naples on schedule after a holiday port call, carrying four squadrons of FA-18 strike fighters--about 50 aircraft--and a contingent of A-6 all-weather bombers, E-2C airborne battle control craft, tankers and anti-submarine airplanes. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, there are six diesel-powered subs in the Libyan navy.
Location of Submarines
Asked whether the U.S. Navy knows the location of the Libyan submarines, a Navy source responded, "You can assume we know where they are."
The Coral Sea's mission was described as a "normal training operation" near Sicily. The ship was accompanied by a standard battle group, which includes a destroyer, a frigate and, in this case, the Yorktown, an Aegis-class cruiser loaded with highly sophisticated electronic warfare and intelligence equipment, officials said.
Navy sources said that although the ships were across the Mediterranean from North Africa, aircraft could be launched at any time and, with aerial refueling, be within range of Libya.
Libyan defenses include a variety of Soviet-built surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns and MIG-23 fighters, which in the past have been flown by, among others, North Korean pilots, a Pentagon official said.
And, within weeks, SAM-5 missiles are likely to be operational, extending the air defense perimeter from the current missile range of about 15 miles to about 100 miles, officials said.
"It's not like the Israelis going into Tunis. That was easy," a Navy source said, referring to the lack of air defenses in Tunisia. "This is a real, honest-to-God country that has spent years building up a system (of) air defense."
Focusing on Libya
Government officials, contemplating a response to the attacks that took the lives of 15 travelers, including five Americans, at the two airports on Dec. 27, have focused primarily on Libya. They have said that Libya has directly supported Abu Nidal, whose Palestinian group has been blamed for the attacks, and that there is substantial evidence of direct Libyan assistance in the terrorists' missions.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, Libya denied that it was involved in the attacks and called on Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to "see to it that peace and security in the region are not endangered."
In a letter to Perez de Cuellar, Libyan Foreign Minister Ali Tureiki also called the Rome and Vienna airport attacks "deplorable blood outrages" which Libya "vigorously condemns."
The letter seemed to put forth a more conciliatory view than that offered by Libya's leader, Moammar Kadafi, who earlier said the attacks were justified as Palestinian retaliation for the Israeli air raid on the Tunisia headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
And in Libya, the government radio contended that anti-American demonstrations were staged in several cities, although other reports indicated that the streets of Tripoli, the capital, were quiet. Libyan officials said they did not expect protests to begin in the capital until today.
Libyan radio also broadcast statements from people and from student organizations throughout the country declaring the willingness of the Libyan people to become "fighters against American imperialism and Zionism."
Western diplomats in Tripoli said they doubted the 1,500-person American community in Libya would be harmed during the demonstrations. But an English-language report on Libyan television later in the day said Libya was forming suicide squads to attack American and Western European interests in Libya.
"We're all making sure we have exit visas," an American engineer told United Press International. "There is heightened concern among the American community."
"We've been through this before, but it looks like things are getting hotter," said a Texan employed by Libya's state-owned National Drilling Co. Because the U.S. Embassy shut down five years ago, "we don't have anyone to help us," he added. "Who knows what Kadafi will do to the Americans? This guy is crazy."
In Washington, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), said he would back military action against terrorist targets but added that it should be done carefully and with international cooperation and support.
"If we are certain of the perpetrators, if we have a well-defined plan of action, it's certainly one thing I could support," Lugar told reporters.
He said he did not know what course the Administration is considering, but said he would favor "a surgical strike."
Lugar added that he believes the public would back military action, too. "There is a mood change there that will support governmental leaders who decide to take action that may result in loss of life," he said.
But Lugar said he was not yet convinced of a clear link between the terrorists and Libya. "Their funding, their ties to specific states, still have to be established," he said. "But . . . we sort of look to Libya as having great responsibility."
One Administration official also questioned the usefulness of striking Libya. While not questioning the Libyan role in the attacks, he asked whether U.S. military action would inhibit the support the government says Kadafi has given to Palestinian terrorists.
Such sites as military airfields, oil fields or guerrilla camps have been mentioned as potential targets but the official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, asked, "Will smashing these targets subdue terrorism?"
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.