Military planners told President Reagan six weeks ago that Iran was sowing mines in the Persian Gulf but ranked as a "low probability" the risk that the mines posed in the open seas to U.S.-escorted tanker convoys, Administration officials say.
The officials, interviewed as the White House and Pentagon scrambled to cope with shock waves from a mine blast that ripped a hole in the supertanker Bridgeton on July 24, also disclosed that Reagan had made a firm decision as early as March to re-register Kuwaiti tankers under the American flag and give them the full protection of the U.S. Navy--even before the Navy had a chance to assess thoroughly whether it could provide adequate support.
Top military planners reported to Reagan that the tankers would be vulnerable to Iranian Silkworm missiles, lightly armed but speedy patrol boats and suicide attacks by planes or helicopters. Even then, Administration officials said, the President never wavered in his determination to show the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that he would no longer tolerate Iranian disruption of merchant shipping in the gulf's vital sea lanes.
Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the risk analysis to Reagan during a mid-June meeting of the White House national security planning group.
"The mine threat was mentioned, but it was low on the list," said one official familiar with the briefing.
The military risk assessment "certainly considered the possibility (of mines), but it was not accorded a heavy probability," another official said.
Crowe reported that "we'd found mines at Kuwait and neutralized them, but we said others might come," a Pentagon official added. "The question is whether the dimensions of the mine threat really registered" on Reagan and others at the meeting.
A White House official insisted vehemently that it was nonsense "to say that the President was given a detailed briefing on the mine threat."
Last week's mine explosion has reverberated through the Administration and laid bare some disturbing concerns about the nation's ability to cope with military threats:
-- It fanned a smoldering dispute within the Administration over whether military realities are thoroughly considered at the White House before high-stakes geopolitical decisions are made--or whether military risk analysis is so weak and operational planning so flawed that critical facts become obscured from policy-makers.
On one side of the dispute is a cadre of professional military men who grumble that the White House too often sets out on a course for political reasons, without waiting for a complete assessment of the risks. On the other are some political and diplomatic officials who have grave reservations about the military's ability to prepare and execute essential missions.
-- It clearly exposed to public view the limited ability of America's high-tech Navy to deal with such low-tech threats as mines of pre-World War I design. The Soviet Union, America's European allies and even some Third World countries have superior fleets of minesweepers, and it will be years before the United States--which follows an offensive naval strategy that puts low priority on defensive minesweeping--completes significant improvements in its minesweeping capability.
-- It highlighted the unwillingness of America's allies to offer even minimal cooperation in such a potentially risky operation. A week after the incident, European governments dependent on Persian Gulf oil still were refusing to lend minesweeping assistance. Even Kuwait, the most direct beneficiary of the U.S. operation, was continuing to balk at openly providing land facilities for American forces.
The lack of allied assistance forced the Pentagon this week to stitch together a stop-gap solution to the problem posed by the gulf's hidden mine fields. Eight minesweeping helicopters were dispatched from bases in the United States with plans to operate them off an amphibious assault ship.
But military experts acknowledged that the helicopters' capabilities are limited. And they said that the disastrous experiences of similar helicopters in an abortive attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1979--plus the crash Thursday of a smaller helicopter trying to land on a U.S. warship in the gulf--underscore the hazards of such high-pressure missions.
Full details of the military's assessment of risks involved in carrying out Reagan's determination to provide Navy protection to "re-flagged" Kuwaiti tankers remain classified, but interviews with more than a dozen officials in the White House, Pentagon, State Department and Congress yield glimpses of the picture presented to the President behind the guarded doors of a White House meeting room six weeks ago.
Crowe, a craggy-faced man with a gruff voice and ample girth who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff speaks for America's military, placed Silkworm missiles at the top of his list of threats, according to several sources.
Range of 50 Miles
Iran has installed the high-speed, Chinese-made anti-ship weapons--capable of carrying 1,100-pound warheads more than 50 miles--along the gulf's narrow entrance through the Strait of Hormuz and farther north near Kuwait.
Analysts say that the missiles threaten to seal off the strait, but they rank as unlikely the chances that the Iranians actually will fire them. They note that American warships in the gulf are equipped with Phalanx Gatling guns and Standard missiles to destroy missiles such as the Silkworm.
In briefing the President, several officials said, Crowe also cited Iran's pesky new flotilla of about 100 Swedish-made patrol boats. Though small and lightly armed, the fiberglass craft can hide behind buoys and oil rigs in the gulf and then dart across the water at up to 50 knots, analysts said. They said that a simultaneous attack by several of the speedy boats could be especially difficult for the much larger but slower American warships to counter.
Suicide Attacks Cited
And, the sources said, Crowe raised the possibility of suicide attacks by Iranian planes or helicopters.
The Iranian air force, which less than a decade ago bristled with scores of U.S.-supplied F-4 and F-5 warplanes, as well as super-sophisticated F-14s, has been severely depleted by the lack of spare parts and trained pilots, analysts said. But some military planners recalled vivid accounts of the damage inflicted on U.S. ships by Japan's desperate kamikaze attacks during the waning days of World War II.
Only then did Crowe turn to the threat posed by mines, according to several sources. Saudi minesweepers working with a small contingent of U.S. underwater demolition experts had cleared about a dozen mines from channels leading to Kuwaiti harbors in the upper gulf, and intelligence pointed toward Iran as the source of the mines. Four tankers--one Soviet, one Greek and two Liberian--had been damaged by mines between mid-May and mid-June.
Mines Not Anticipated
"Mining was discussed, including the mining of open waterways," said one Administration official familiar with Crowe's presentation. "But the Pentagon was saying it didn't anticipate mines in the area (off Farsi Island, 120 miles south of Kuwait, where the tanker was damaged) because they had not been found there before."
Another expert in naval operations gave this assessment: "At port, the threat (of mines) might be moderate to high. Random mining along the way? Low probability."
Deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, middle-level planners have complained privately that they are being blamed for lapses in preparations for the Persian Gulf escort operation when, in fact, their professional views were given scant consideration by policy-makers.
"When we first heard about it, the die already was cast," one planner said. "We were told it was not a matter of if we would escort the Kuwaiti tankers, it was a question of when the escorts would start. They didn't seem to want to hear anything about the downside. They had their minds made up. It was all political."
Criticism From Democrats
On Capitol Hill, similar criticism rained down on Reagan from Democratic members of Congress.
Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that a U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf "makes sense, but what we've seen once again is (that) the Administration makes bold policy decisions without thinking through the military implications or understanding the military assets we're using."
Torricelli recalled the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. servicemen and the Iraqi missile attack in May that killed 37 sailors aboard the Stark, a frigate patroling the Persian Gulf.
"This is Lebanon and the Stark all over again," he said, "putting American forces in harm's way without really understanding their capabilities."
'It Is Nonsense'
One State Department official rejected such criticism. "It is nonsense to suggest that the Navy was pushed to go early (with escorts) for political reasons," this official said. "The Pentagon said the military was ready to go weeks before it did."
Indeed, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who generally has urged caution in committing U.S. forces in troubled regions, was described by several sources as one of the earliest and strongest advocates of increasing the U.S. military presence in the gulf to keep it from becoming "a Soviet lake."
There are some not-so-subtle signs that the nation's military leadership is less than enthusiastic about so much of the Navy's prestige being placed on the line in the treacherous waters of the gulf.
Several middle-level Pentagon sources pointed, for example, to a quotation attributed by the Wall Street Journal to Gen. P. X. Kelley, the recently retired Marine Corps commandant who was a member of the Joint Chiefs when the escort mission was ordered: "Life is sometimes full of lousy options."
An 'Era of Neglect'
Some of the "lousy options," several naval experts acknowledged, are caused by an "era of neglect" of America's defensive minesweeping forces by a service that increasingly stresses offensive capabilities--aircraft carriers and submarines, for example.
"Minesweeping is a bastard stepchild," said one congressional staff member. "It's not attractive to the best guys, who went for the carriers or destroyers."
Less than two decades ago, the United States had nearly 90 active-duty minesweepers. Today it has three on active duty and another 18 attached to reserve units. All are of Korean War vintage and all are based in the United States, at least several weeks' steaming away from the Persian Gulf.
In 1981, as part of its drive for a 600-ship Navy, the Reagan Administration embarked on a $1.5-billion program to build 14 ships in a new class of minesweeper. But officials say that the program is $200 million over budget and two years behind schedule. The first ship is undergoing trials in Lake Michigan and will not be commissioned for another two months.
New Minesweeper Class
The Navy has had even greater trouble constructing a new class of minesweeper-hunters. As a result, it has been forced to lean heavily on its fleet of 23 RH-53D minesweeping helicopters, all based in the United States.
Eight of these Sea Stallion copters have been ordered to the Persian Gulf, but officials admit that the craft have limits. For example, they cannot search for mines at night, and their maximum time on station without refueling is barely two hours.
Because America's Arab allies have balked at giving landing rights to U.S. aircraft, the helicopters will not actually reach the gulf until sometime next week--far too late, in the view of some experts.
"I was astonished to find out that they sailed the first convoy without any minesweeping capability at all available from the United States," a former commander of the Navy's Middle East task force, retired Rear Adm. Robert Hanks, said Tuesday on the ABC program "Nightline."
4 Earlier Mine Attacks
Citing the mines encountered by four merchant ships in May and June, Hanks said, "I thought that would have alerted somebody to get at least the CH-53D choppers out there."
Another retired admiral, who asked not to be identified by name, told The Times: "It was a misjudgment not to expect them (mines) where the Bridgeton was hit and put sweepers out in front of the convoy.
"They should have been ultraconservative in their threat assessment, given the high visibility of the operation," he added. As for the future, he said, "It is possible a U.S. warship will be hit, and there will be sailors in the compartments, not empty like the Bridgeton.
"There is," he added, "a real danger of the loss of more U.S. personnel."
THE MINESWEEPER GAP Oceean-going vessels on active duty for minesweeping.
Soviet Union 251 Great Britain 40 West Germany 39 China 27 France 20 Italy 15 Netherlands 8 India 6 Cuba 4 United States 3*
* Another 18 manned largely by naval reserve forces. Source: Jane's Fighting Ships, 1986-87