The Pentagon has drafted a plan to send B52s loaded with live conventional bombs from the United States to Egypt next month to demonstrate the long reach of American military power.
The plan calls for the bombers to take off from Strategic Air Command bases in North Dakota, drop their bombs on an Egyptian target range and, after refueling in midair, return to the United States nonstop.
"To the extent that by word and deed we can get across that it would not be a good idea to make trouble in Egypt right now, we're going to do that," said one administration official in confirming that the B52 demonstration, which would mark the first time armed B52s have flown over Egypt, is in the planning stage, along with exercises by two battalions of American troops outside Cairo.
At the same time, the Defense Department is pondering ways it could accelerate deliveries of weaponry to Egypt to underscore Washington's continued commitment to the Cairo government in the wake of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. However, defense officials said that they did not want to move too quickly.
"We don't want to crush the Egyptian leadership in our new embrace," said one top planner on the administration's interagency team considering the government's next steps for Egypt.
The death of Sadat may give new impetus to the B52 plan, which had been in the works before the assassination, but defense officials said the run will not be made if the new government in Cairo objects to it.
Backers of the plan said the nonstop bombing flights of the B52s from the United States to the Middle East would make troublemakers in that part of the world think twice about trying to topple a pro-western government or take over Persian Gulf region oil fields.
SAC has designated two fleets of B52H bombers to drop conventional bombs in distant trouble spots such as the Persian Gulf. This new outfit is called SPIF, for Strategic Projection Force. The SPIF motto is "Anytime anywhere."
SAC crews have been working for months on ways to help turn the tide of battle in a distant area with few facilities for American troops. SAC leaders say they believe B52 bombers might be the only way to blunt a heavy Soviet thrust in the Middle East or Persian Gulf, providing time for American ground forces to reach the scene.
Gen. Richard H. Ellis, who championed SPIF before retiring recently as SAC commander, said the B52s might turn out to be the only American force available that an American president would be willing to risk losing in the Persian Gulf.
Sending in the bombers, Ellis contended in an interview with The Washington Post, would send the Soviets an unambiguous message: "You're getting into one of our vital interests. One thing the United States and Soviet Union have not done in a long time is to challenge each other's vital interests."
If the Soviets went ahead with occupying an oil field, Ellis reasoned, the B52 bombers could make it costly for them without sending American troops into an unfair fight.
"When you talk about southwest Asia," he said in making that point, "our chances of stopping the Soviets on the land mass are extremely limited. I think everybody understands that."
SAC has 14 SPIF B52H bombers at Minot Air Force Base and 14 at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota trained to intervene in distant trouble spots with conventional weaponry, primarily the 500- and 750-pound bombs used during the Vietnam war.
The B52 run, if approved by Washington and Cairo, would become part of the exercise planned in November around military training grounds north and west of Cairo.
The United States has conducted one similar training exercise, involving only one battalion of American ground troops maneuvering with Egyptian forces. The November exercise with two battalions would be the largest to date in Egypt.
In some ways, accelerating arms deliveries to Egypt to underscore the U.S. commitment is more difficult to carry out than the upcoming military exercise, Pentagon officials said. One reason is that the only showboat items on Egypt's delivery list are F16 fighters and M60A3 tanks.
The United States just finished delivering 120 F16s of the 311 on order, and the Egyptian Air Force might have trouble absorbing another batch right away.
And the M60A3 tanks are sought by other customers besides Egypt, including the U.S. Army. Accelerating tank deliveries to Cairo, defense officials said, would mean that someone else would have to wait.
Through fiscal 1980 Egypt purchased about $3 billion in U.S. military equipment. For fiscal 1982 the administration is seeking approval of $900 million more in lending authority to Egypt for weaponry.
Given the shaky state of the Egyptian economy, one possibility is that the administration may recommend that Egypt be given some of the U.S. military equipment rather than being forced to buy it. This has been the practice with Israel, as the United States forgave part of the loans extended for U.S. weaponry.