WASHINGTON — The Navy is launching flight operations from two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, exercising what one Pentagon official Thursday called its right to fly in the region "anytime we feel like it."
The carriers Coral Sea and Saratoga have moved into position in the central Mediterranean, along with their battle groups, in a concentrated show of force that another official said could lead to "increasing . . . penetration" of the airspace near Libya and the Gulf of Sidra.
But officials said the maneuvers do not reflect preparations for an attack on the North African nation. Similar exercises involving two aircraft carriers have taken place in the past--most recently, one year ago, they said.
Still, the weeklong operations bring the Navy into potentially close contact with Libyan forces, which in recent days have been backed up by Soviet intelligence-gathering ships serving as early-warning posts, during a period of continuing tension in the region.
Bush Assails Kadafi
Meanwhile, Vice President George Bush, in a speech to the New York Conservative Party, resumed the Reagan Administration's public campaign against Col. Moammar Kadafi, in the wake of its assertion that the Libyan leader supported terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna on Dec. 27. The violence took 19 lives, including those of five Americans.
"We know that he's a liar when he says he had nothing to do with the slaughter. We know that Kadafi has the blood of an 11-year-old girl on his hands, a pretty little American girl with a bright future who died in her father's arms in Rome, riddled by bullets that Kadafi bought and paid for," the vice president said, referring to one of the victims, Natasha Simpson.
Turning his anger on the United Nations, where he once served as the U.S. representative, Bush said, "The U.N. would be a lot more effective if it would can some of that rhetoric pandering to every petty tyrant with a plane ticket to New York."
The Navy announced its plans--formulated by U.S. military headquarters in Europe but said by officials to have been approved in Washington--in a "Notice to Conduct Flight Operations" issued to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
With the Reagan Administration unsuccessful in winning European support for its effort to isolate Kadafi's regime economically, officials portrayed the Navy's operations as an effort to apply pressure through other means.
"I'm not going to tell you there isn't an element of psychological pressure," said a senior Administration official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified by name. "It isn't a threatening gesture. But if this puts their teeth on edge, OK."
The notice from the Navy is considered a courtesy that is not required by international aviation or maritime law if no weapons are to be fired--and no such operations are planned. It said the exercise was to begin at 4:01 p.m. PST Thursday and would run for one week. Last year's exercise, involving the Enterprise and the Kennedy, lasted two days.
The operations will be carried out in what is known as the Tripoli Flight Information Region, which Pentagon officials said runs along the Libyan coast north to an imaginary lateral line running just south of Crete and encompassing about one-third of the central Mediterranean.
They were to begin in the South Ionian Sea, which is the body of water between Crete and Sicily. Officials reported speculation that they would then move south toward Libya.
"Our primary message is, we intend to exercise our right to operate in international airspace in the Mediterranean anytime we feel like it," said one Administration official, who asked that he not be identified by name.
The pilots of the F-14 fighters based on the Saratoga and the FA-18 fighter-attack aircraft based on the Coral Sea will be flying under standard peacetime "rules of engagement," which allow them to defend themselves if attacked, a Pentagon official said.
Soviet Jets Downed
In August, 1981, two F-14s from the carrier Nimitz shot down two Soviet-made Libyan Sukhoi 22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. Libya claims the entire gulf as its territorial water, while the United States considers any water 12 miles beyond a coastline as international territory.
On Jan. 13, an EA3-B "Sky Warrior" reconnaissance aircraft from the Coral Sea encountered two Soviet-built MIG-25s from the Libyan air force while flying over the Mediterranean north of the gulf. The incident, considered non-threatening, brought two FA-18s scrambling to the area.
The Saratoga joined the Coral Sea in the Mediterranean last week on a temporary deployment. Each ship is accompanied by a battle group of about six to eight ships, including a mix of cruisers, guided missile destroyers and frigates.
The Navy said that the 6th Fleet is operating 20 warships in the Mediterranean and 11 support vessels. It said six Soviet warships and 22 support vessels are sailing there.