Two U.S. Navy battle groups, ready to head south toward Libya, were joining forces in the Mediterranean Sea near Italy on Thursday while military commanders here drew up plans for renewed military action in the region, Reagan Administration officials said.
The officials insisted that they knew of no decisions on specific plans of action, but one indicated that a decision has been reached to conduct a “surgical” strike against a Libyan target in retaliation for two terrorist attacks last week.
However, another source said that while the Pentagon’s joint staff--which is responsible for drawing up precise details of all military options--had completed that task, he did not believe an order had been issued to the U.S. 6th Fleet to strike.
Military officials generally refused to speculate about possible targets, when any operation would take place or what overall military options are available to President Reagan in the growing war of nerves with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
Administration officials have said that Libya bears responsibility for bombs set off in a West Berlin discotheque and a TWA jetliner, attacks that killed a total of five Americans, and Reagan vowed at a news conference Wednesday to respond “when we could specifically identify someone responsible.”
Spain Recalls Envoy
Meanwhile, in a sign of growing European concern about Libya, Spain recalled its ambassador to Tripoli. In Madrid, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Ambassador Ricardo Peydro is being brought home for consultations about Kadafi’s reported threat to attack nations that are host to U.S. military facilities. Several major bases in Spain support U.S. operations and could play a role in an attack against Libya.
And, in a speech in Atlanta, Army Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, the supreme allied commander in Europe, said Wednesday night that the expulsion of two Libyan diplomats from France on Saturday may have prevented an attack on the American ambassador in Paris, Joe M. Rodgers.
“The disco in Berlin, the evidence is there. We have indisputable evidence. . . . I can’t tell you how we got it, but it’s there,” Gen. Rogers said. He added that U.S. officials were trying to warn soldiers at gathering places in West Berlin but that “we were about 15 minutes too late.”
White House spokesman Larry Speakes on Thursday confirmed the accuracy of the general’s comments.
By joining forces in the Tyrrhenian Sea northwest of Sicily, the U.S. battle groups accompanying the aircraft carriers Coral Sea and America were assembling in a convenient staging area no more than two days’ distance from the central Mediterranean area north of Libya. However, even off Sicily, the fighters and bombers attached to the two 6th Fleet carriers would be within striking range of Libya if refueled in the air.
Gulf of Sidra
In the military confrontation between the United States and Libya two weeks ago, the two carriers, along with a third, the Saratoga, edged toward the disputed Gulf of Sidra before beginning previously announced flight operations. The Saratoga is now headed home to Mayport, Fla.
That exercise unfolded slowly and in a carefully constructed set of steps to assert the United States’ claim that international maritime law allows it to navigate freely in the gulf anywhere beyond 12 miles from the Libyan coast. Any new operation, however, would require even more precision but would most likely be conducted with considerably less warning, with the United States taking full advantage of the element of surprise.
Until specific orders are received, the America was said by a Pentagon official to be “meandering” in the Tyrrhenian Sea while awaiting the Coral Sea to join it. The America canceled a port visit to Cannes, on the French Riviera, and the Coral Sea was given orders to extend its deployment indefinitely, rather than begin a final exercise and then return to Norfolk, Va., after a six-month voyage.
The Navy said that the America, carrying an 85-airplane force made up of F-14 Tomcat fighters and A-6 and A-7 attack aircraft, is the centerpiece of a 10-ship battle group that includes cruisers, destroyers and frigates. The Coral Sea, carrying 75 airplanes--most of them F/A-18 Hornet fighters--is escorted by seven other ships.
In addition, five amphibious ships carrying about 2,000 Marines were on station in the Mediterranean, but one Pentagon officer said that “they’re not players” in any contemplated operation. A number of support ships, carrying fuel and supplies, also are arrayed in the region.
The Navy said that it considers two carriers the minimum needed for an attack. “It gives you the ability to counter a multi-axis threat,” one officer said.
While insisting that he knew of no specific plans, he said that the formation of the battle groups and the scathing criticism of Kadafi coming from Administration officials led him to believe that “this one looks like we’re going in and hitting,” rather than probing the Gulf of Sidra as the aircraft and several vessels did on March 24 and 25.
Missile Boats Sunk
During that operation, Navy jets responded to missile attacks by Soviet-supplied SAM-5s by firing on a missile-guiding radar unit at Surt on the Libyan coast. In addition, at least two Libyan missile patrol boats were sunk by the Navy.
The Surt missile site was repaired, Pentagon officials said, and a second site at Benghazi to the east across the Gulf of Sidra from Surt was said by a Navy source Thursday to be so close to operational status that the Navy would consider it a threat.
Two weeks ago, the Navy jets encountered little difficulty in dealing with the SAM-5s, striking the radar installation that guided them with high-speed, anti-radiation missiles fired from a distance of 40 to 60 miles, the Navy said.
As portrayed by military officials, a strike against an inland target most likely would begin with an attack on the missile launching sites, using missiles against the radar antennas and bombs against the missiles and launchers, to strip away the first line of Libyan air defense. This would be followed quickly by a second wave of airplanes attacking Libyan airfields with bombs to destroy runways or aircraft still on the ground. The Libyan air force includes Soviet-built MIG-23 and MIG-25 fighters, some of them flown by Syrian pilots.
“They’re not flying clunkers,” an Air Force officer said.
Once the most threatening defenses had been attacked, other targets could be struck.
While speculation focused on the possible use of Navy aircraft, British-based F-111 U.S. Air Force jets, adept at low-level, tactical strikes, and even B-52 bombers stationed as far away as North Dakota all are considered capable of delivering damaging blows.