WASHINGTON — The Pentagon disclosed Tuesday that a Czechoslovak military jet had crossed the West German border and fired at least two rockets at a U.S. Army helicopter on a routine border reconnaissance mission.
The helicopter was not hit in the attack last Saturday, which Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims described as the most serious in a series of 17 violations of West German airspace by Warsaw Pact aircraft since April. None of the previous 16 incidents involved weapons fire.
Pentagon aides said they were puzzled by Saturday's attack, which they viewed as intentional and not simply the result of a navigational error. The United States has strongly protested "this irresponsible act" to the Czechoslovak government, Sims said.
U.S. officials Tuesday emphatically denied that the American helicopter was closer to the Czech border than about 100 yards--statements more precise than those issued by the Pentagon in April, 1984, when another U.S. helicopter was attacked by Soviet-made MIGs along the same border. The Pentagon first protested that attack, then acknowledged a week later that the U.S. craft had inadvertently strayed six miles into Czech territory.
Describing Saturday's incident, Sims said that a Czech L-39 military trainer--a high-performance jet--broke away from at least one other similar plane on the Czech side of the border, invaded West German airspace and fired between two and four rockets on the U.S. helicopter, an AH-1S Cobra. Then the Czech plane fled back across the border.
The incident was said by the Pentagon to have occurred just north of the small town of Finsterau, over hilly terrain near the heavily guarded border in southeastern West Germany and not far from where Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia meet.
The jet approached within about 150 feet of the helicopter, one official said, adding: "That's very close in the air, and you wonder why he missed. You don't normally fire warning shots with rockets."
Sims, meanwhile, noted, "This was a mismatch at best." He said the helicopter can be equipped with 20-millimeter guns, although he refused to say whether it was armed at the time. The Cobras, older helicopters often used in action during the Vietnam War, also can carry TOW anti-tank missiles.
Witnessed by Civilians
Sims said the attack, which took place about 1 p.m. local time, occurred in clear weather and was witnessed by two groups of German civilians. The two helicopter crew members, flying from a base near Nuremberg, were not identified.
Helicopters are dispatched daily to patrol the border, observing changes in fortifications and troop movements, Sims said. He added that the pilot of the Cobra had flown 681 hours, including 250 hours in the border section where the incident occurred.
The Pentagon spokesman said that there had been no communication between the Czech jet and the U.S. helicopter, and that the jet had not issued any warning before firing.
Although the West German-Czechoslovak border has not been an area of great international tension in recent years, there has been friction there between East and West.
In the April 20, 1984, incident, a Cobra was attacked by two MIG-21s, more sophisticated than the L-39 trainers, but escaped without being hit by the cannon fire, rockets or missiles employed by the jets. The MIGs pursued the helicopter to the border but did not cross into West German airspace, officials said.
Pentagon officials said Tuesday that they were satisfied that the Cobra attacked Saturday was over West German territory.
In addition, a series of incidents in East Germany has disrupted U.S.-Soviet relations in Central Europe. In the most serious occurrence, Army Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr. was shot and killed by a Soviet soldier last March while on a mission of the U.S. military liaison team.
One Pentagon official who has visited the region said that Czechoslovakia is more protective of its border than several of its Warsaw Pact allies and has built a system of tighter border security than the others--even along its frontier with other East European nations.
"The Czechs are hard-bitten," he observed.