The lightning attacks delivered against Libya by U.S. warplanes under cover of darkness early today demonstrated the type of closely coordinated operation and the long reach that the American military has worked for years to perfect.
The accomplishment was roughly equivalent to taking off from New York, flying across the continent, then teaming up with planes from Hawaii to deliver a pinpoint bomb attack on Los Angeles City Hall in the middle of the night--and returning to New York without ever touching ground.
Combining new electronic technology, well-practiced midair refueling techniques and some of the nation's most-tested planes, the Air Force and Navy joined forces to launch land- and carrier-based aircraft on a set of raids that began 3,200 miles away, at air bases on the outskirts of London.
And, reflecting the Pentagon's sophisticated surveillance and communications capabilities, White House spokesman Larry Speakes was able to address a nationwide television audience only 20 minutes after the raids occurred, reporting on the military action hours before the bombers were due back at their bases in England.
The attacks were conducted by 18 F-111s that took off in the early evening from three air bases in Great Britain and by 15 A-6 and A-7 ground attack planes launched from the carriers America and Coral Sea. The carriers had slipped Sunday night from their previous operating area near Sicily to a point just north of Moammar Kadafi's "line of death" delineating the northern boundary of the Libyan-claimed Gulf of Sidra, Pentagon officials said.
The F-111s, capable of flying at 2 1/2 times the speed of sound for short periods at an altitude of 59,000 feet, operated at subsonic speeds, a Pentagon source said.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said they flew a roundabout route to avoid crossing France, which denied the United States permission to fly over its territory. The French refusal added about 2,500 miles to the mission.
Barely hiding apparent displeasure with France, Weinberger said: "If we had permission to fly a direct route, we would not have subjected the pilots to quite such a long flight."
After taking off from bases at Lakenheath, Upper Heyford and Mildenhall, they flew southwest over the English Channel, turned south over the Bay of Biscay, skirted the Atlantic shore of the Iberian peninsula, and then turned east to fly over the Strait of Gibraltar and in toward their targets in Libya.
The trip required several refuelings, presumably carried out by KC-10, KC-135 or KC-130 tankers. About 10 of the KC-10s--military versions of the DC-10 widebody passenger jet--arrived Sunday at Mildenhall air base in England, but a spokesman there had said the visit was unrelated to any military action.
Under normal operations, the F-111s would take off relatively low on fuel, gain altitude, and fill their tanks from supply planes.
At a White House news conference after the action, Weinberger said that each of the Navy planes returned safely to the carriers, and all but one of the F-111s were accounted for.
The Pentagon chief said there was no indication that the missing craft "went down or it was the victim of any enemy fire or anything of the kind." Rather, he said, "it could be going to another base because of . . . radio trouble. It could have had an internal problem, an internal explosion."
The fighter-bomber, last produced 10 years ago but equipped with some of the Air Force's most sophisticated terrain-avoidance guidance systems to allow it to fly nearly at sea level to avoid radar detection, can skim the ocean on such a precise path that its guiding radar lifts it up over high waves.
The F-111s, nearing the end of their long flight, were joined over the Mediterranean by 15 A-6s and A-7s, along with such supporting aircraft as the refueling tankers and E-2C airborne battle control planes, Weinberger said. In addition, Pentagon officials said that EA-6B aircraft were launched from the carriers to jam Libyan radar and missile guidance systems and to help protect the attack airplanes.
The A-6s and A-7s are equipped with computer targeting systems that can deliver bombs with unparalleled precision.
One Pentagon source said that F-14 and F-18 fighters from the carriers were assigned aerial interceptor roles to protect the attacking aircraft.
Reaching their targets in the coordinated run in from the Mediterranean, the Air Force jets struck the Aziziya Barracks, a terrorism command and control center, another base for Libyan commandos at the port of Sidi Bilal that includes a maritime diving training unit , and the military side of the Tripoli airport. The Navy attack planes struck an alternate terrorism command and control headquarters at Jamahiriya Barracks and the Baninah Air Base near Benghazi, Weinberger said.
Weinberger said that damage assessments were limited but that the attack on the air base left the facility without lights, radar or communications.
"They were unable to launch any aircraft," he said. However, Libyan pilots have been known to avoid flying at night--an advantage seized upon by the United States in the timing of the raids.
Weinberger said that the warplanes dropped a combination of 500- and 2,000-pound laser-guided weapons and gravity bombs.
He added: "All of the targets were terrorist-related, and the criteria for selecting the targets was that they . . . had a full terrorist connection, that we would minimize any collateral damage from civilian or other facilities nearby, that we would have full consideration for the safety of the pilots as a major consideration and that they had good outlines that could be reflected on the radar and not mistaken for other targets."