WASHINGTON — Two FA-18 fighter jets scrambled from the deck of the aircraft carrier Coral Sea to protect a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that encountered two Libyan jets over international waters north of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
The incident, which occurred at midday Monday just north of the Gulf of Sidra, represented the first direct encounter between Libyan and American forces in the volatile region in the wake of the stepped-up U.S. campaign to isolate the regime of Col. Moammar Kadafi.
The Libyans meanwhile have been installing Soviet-supplied SAM-5 surface-to-air missiles in the town of Surt, southeast of Tripoli on the shore of the Gulf of Sidra, and the weapons may be operational within days, a senior Pentagon official disclosed. The new missiles, with a range of up to 150 miles, greatly extend the reach of Libyan defenses and represent what the Pentagon spokesman called a "significant and dangerous escalation."
In addition, the Soviet Union has deployed several vessels in an early-warning line off Libya, setting up what one official described as a strip of "little radar stations on the ocean," and has stationed the flagship of its Mediterranean fleet in the port of Tripoli. U.S. officials believe that this maneuver is intended to provide electronically gathered intelligence for Libya.
The United States is beefing up its fleet in the region, officials said. The aircraft carrier Saratoga was expected to have passed through the Suez Canal by early today and is to join the Coral Sea in the Mediterranean.
The Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed that no hostile intent was detected in the actions of the Libyan pilots, who flew Soviet-built MIG-25 fighters, known in the West by the designation "Foxbat." Late Tuesday, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger confirmed the incident but said in a television interview that he saw nothing remarkable about it because the Libyans frequently patrol their coast.
Packed With Electronics
One official said the MIGs "came out over international waters and took a look at an EA3-B Sky Warrior reconnaissance airplane" assigned to the Coral Sea, which at the time was stationed east of Sicily in the Ionian Sea. The jet, the largest based on a carrier, was originally built as a nuclear bomber. As currently deployed, it is packed with electronic intelligence gear.
The airplane that encountered the Libyan jets was flying on what was described as a routine patrol when its radar picked up "initial indications of MIG activity" before the approaching jets were spotted, the source said. The jets eventually flew "close enough for visual identification," according to another source.
Although the FA-18s aboard the Coral Sea were sent aloft immediately, they arrived after the Libyans had headed home, officials said. The MIGs--with an operating radius of somewhat more than 500 miles, according to Jane's All the World's Aircraft--turned back when they were low on fuel, a senior Pentagon official said.
Officials said their assessment of no hostile Libyan intent was based on the electronic interception of broadcast information, as well as the ability of U.S. air crews to determine electronically whether an opposing airplane's missile-aiming gear has been "locked on" to the American plane.
"All these conversations are monitored," said one military source, referring to the ability to intercept other pilots' communications with ground controllers and other aircraft.
"You really get scared if radar shows they've locked on," one Pentagon official said. "If there was any lock-on, that would have been hostile intent."
He said an E-2C Hawkeye early warning and control aircraft, based on the Coral Sea, also was flying in the region at the time.
'Soaring Over the Gulf'
The source said that since 1981, U.S. carrier-based airplanes periodically have been "soaring over the Gulf of Sidra" on repeated patrols. It was in August, 1981, that U.S. and Libyan jets confronted each other over the gulf and the two Libyan planes were shot down. The United States refuses to recognize Libya's claim that the gulf is Libyan territory.
In addition, the source said, daily interceptions involving U.S. and Iranian aircraft are not uncommon over the Gulf of Oman near Iran.
Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims said the Soviets are operating 26 ships in the Mediterranean--their standard fleet of six warships plus 20 support vessels carrying supplies and ammunition.
However, in a departure from normal operations, they have operated the radar "picket line" off Libya since earlier this month. In addition, the Soviets have dispatched IL-38 maritime patrol airplanes in the region.