WASHINGTON — U.S. Navy jets flying north of the Gulf of Sidra encountered Libyan aircraft more than a dozen times Wednesday as Libyan forces stepped up their aerial activity while the Navy conducted maneuvers in the central Mediterranean Sea, Pentagon officials said.
The officials said that Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi sent more planes into the air Wednesday to meet the F-14s and FA-18s than at any time during another U.S. exercise two weeks ago.
Yet officials, speaking on the condition that they not be named, emphasized that they saw no threat to the U.S. aircraft, which are operating under plans that call for them to remain north of the mouth of the gulf.
The Libyans, flying Soviet-built MIG-23s, MIG-25s and transports, as well as French-built Mirage jets, have restricted their missions to daylight hours, and U.S. officials asserted that the pilots lack enough confidence to fly in the dark.
"They're lucky they don't bump into each other, they're so bad," one official said.
Pentagon officials said the Navy pilots reported no indications of hostile action by the Libyans, who turned back toward shore before the intercepts became anything more than routine. Electronic equipment in the U.S. planes can determine whether an approaching aircraft has aimed its missiles, a step that would be considered hostile.
One official placed the number of intercepts at 12 to 20 and said that the Libyans never came close to the fleet.
The U.S. jets are based on the carriers Saratoga and Coral Sea. Operating with their battle groups, the carriers were accompanied by the Yorktown, a guided-missile cruiser packed with high-technology electronic gear that Navy sources say can spot aircraft approaching at distances of 200 to 300 miles.
Libyans Head Home
As flight controllers, using information relayed by the Yorktown, directed the Navy fighters toward the approaching Libyan aircraft, the Libyans headed home, an official said.
Libya claims the entire Gulf of Sidra as its territory, but the United States recognizes as international all water beyond 12 miles from shore. The mouth of the gulf is about 150 miles north of the Libyan coastline.
Pentagon officials have said the exercises are intended to assert the United States' right to operate in international waters. President Reagan said at his news conference Tuesday that the Libyan claim to the entire gulf is "akin to us claiming all of the waters from the tip of Florida over to the border of Mexico and Texas."
A senior Pentagon official said that 26 Soviet vessels, including seven warships, are operating in the Mediterranean. Four of those ships were off the Libyan coast, and a Soviet submarine tender that serves as the flagship of the Soviet Mediterranean fleet was in port in Tripoli.
"We have to assume the Soviets are providing (electronic guidance) information," an official said.
The U.S. Mediterranean fleet includes more than 30 vessels, most of them warships, according to the Pentagon. They are to be joined by the America, another aircraft carrier, in mid-March.
Although the encounters reported Wednesday were greater in number than at any similar point during the exercise two weeks ago, the Libyan activity is no greater than on other occasions in the past, "as far back as 1981," a Pentagon official said. In August, 1981, two Navy jets shot down two Libyan fighters in a confrontation over the gulf.