Because of an editing error, a reference in Thursday's editions to Soviet-built SA5 antiaircraft missiles in Syria performing poorly against Israeli-piloted aircraft in 1982 was incorrect. The SA5s installations in Syria were first reported by the Israelis in January 1983, in the aftermath of the 1982 war in Lebanon.
The U.S. military "learned something we didn't know before" when Soviet-built SA5 missiles were fired at American aircraft for the first time Monday, 6th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso II said here today.
"It's a very fast and capable missile for what it was designed to do," he said of the surface-to-air weapon. Although the half dozen SA5s fired by Libya two days ago missed patrolling American planes, Kelso said, "I would like to think that it's because there were skilled people" aboard the U.S. aircraft "who were ready to take the proper action to make sure it didn't hurt them."
The combat in the Gulf of Sidra marked the first time that U.S.-piloted jets have been fired on by the SA5, which is a relatively old missile but which nevertheless remains a mainstay of current Soviet air defenses. The missile has only been deployed outside the Soviet Union in Syria and Libya. In Syria, SA5s performed poorly against Israeli-piloted aircraft in 1982, raising questions of the missile's capabilities. But officers here made clear the weapons are a definite threat that must be taken seriously.
Kelso's comments aboard this ship, one of three aircraft carriers taking part in U.S. naval maneuvers off the coast of Libya, were the first to American correspondents in the aftermath of 16 hours of air-naval combat between the two countries from Monday afternoon until early Tuesday morning. They echoed those of Navy flyers aboard the carrier, who described the adrenalin rush of "finally doing what you've been trained to do, and doing it right" in what for many of them was their first combat engagement.
In a detailed chronology beginning with the initial Libyan missile attack at 2 p.m. Monday afternoon (8 a.m. EST), the fleet commander and airmen who participated in the action described U.S. retaliatory strikes against the Libyan surface-to-air missile installations near Surt and strikes against five Libyan missile-carrying patrol ships.
"Some of us here have seen surface-to-air missiles before in other parts of the world, so it's not a new experience for the old hands," said one of a group of six air crew members who spoke on grounds that they not be identified by name.
"The new guys hadn't seen it before. It's typically a bright ball of fire . . . coming at you and it's getting brighter and brighter. You must do something, and you must do it very fast."
The last engagement, an attack by U.S. A6 bombers at 6:30 a.m. local time yesterday (12:30 a.m. EST), inflicted "severe damage" on a Libyan ship, Kelso said. Although the Libyans began a new series of coastal patrols this afternoon, all of their ships stayed within 12 miles of their shore, the internationally recognized and U.S.-accepted territorial limit.
U.S. ships and aircraft continued to patrol inside the Gulf of Sidra, below the "line of death" designated by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. But "it has essentially been a quiet day, with no action on either side," Kelso said this afternoon. Assuming no further Libyan hostility, Saratoga commander Capt. Jerry Unruh said, "we're hoping to roll it up in the next few days and head for home."
The Saratoga sailed calmly this morning under sunny skies about 130 miles north of the line. The ship was maintained on alert. By the time a small group of reporters arrived, flown aboard by the Navy from the U.S. support base at Naples for a seven-hour visit, the crew was nearing the end of a 16-hour cycle of flight operations -- constant takeoffs and landings that had begun at 8 the previous evening.
"We're numb," said Cmdr. Guy Myslivy, the Saratoga's "air boss" or chief air traffic controller. As he spoke, a line of aircraft, including F14 Tomcat jet fighters and A6 and A7 bombers, moved into position in front of the carrier's hydraulic catapults. The planes shot into the air about every 90 seconds for patrols inside the gulf. Behind them went other components of the Saratoga's 70-aircraft complement, including refueling craft and the E2C Hawkeye surveillance planes.
"We're past the point of being tired," Myslivy said. Within minutes after a two-hour launch phase was completed, returning aircraft began screeching down, jerked to a halt as hooks from their undercarriages caught the thick, braided steel cable stretched across the deck.
Like the rest of the crew, Myslivy spoke of the general feeling of exhilaration aboard. In seven months at sea, the carrier's aircraft have been engaged in daily flight operations but, as seamen and officers repeatedly noted today, all was merely practice until Monday.
"The high-level interest makes the job much more exciting," Myslivy said. "You're really pumped up. Folks are really excited."
According to Kelso, the sequence of events leading to action began Monday afternoon, when U.S. planes "were fired upon by the SA5 site" at Surt. Although Soviet technicians reportedly man the on-shore missile radar positions, the Saratoga sea and air crew had no way of knowing who was operating them at the time. Whoever it was, Kelso said, "I don't think we've seen enough of their action to evaluate their performance."
Although several Soviet naval vessels were in operation around the U.S. force today, Kelso said that "Soviet naval activity in the area is, from our point of view, normal . . . . They have every right to operate in international water, as we do. They tend to observe our operations and we tend to observe their operations. There's been no reaction, other than that, that I can see."
The commander said that he had had "no communications with Soviet ships whatsoever" during the U.S. exercise, which began Saturday.
Kelso emphatically denied speculation in the U.S. press that the Americans wanted to provoke an attack by the SA5s, reportedly installed in Libya by the Soviets last December, to gain intelligence and evaluate their operations.
"That's completely wrong," he said. "There's no way in the world that I, as a military man, would go trolling with my people for SAMs to be shot at them. We were given a job, which I support, to operate our ships in international water and airspace. We did that.
"We hoped nobody would take a shot at us. We're not stupid," knowing that the Libyans have said that any American ships or aircraft passing the so-called "line of death" risked being fired at. "But we didn't know what they would do if we did it. We certainly did nothing to provoke such an action."
At the time the Libyans fired, Kelso said, patrolling U.S. aircraft were "70 or 80 miles" from the Libyan coast.
Back on board the Saratoga, only the pilots themselves and senior commanders knew that the Libyan missiles had been fired. "The first thing we knew," said one officer on the flight deck at the time, "was when we started getting orders from the bridge asking how much we had of things up on the deck" -- how many of the HARM, Harpoon, Sidewinder and other missiles were ready for mounting on aircraft.
Word quickly spread around the ship that something was happening. Nothing, however, was announced. Several hours later, after consulting with Washington, Kelso, who had standing orders during the exercise to make a "proportionate" response to any Libyan action, ordered a group of A6s, armed with HARMs (for High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile), to retaliate against the Libyan on-shore radar at Surt.
For the flight deck crew, still uninformed officially, "the only difference between" the actual attack and "what we do every day is what comes back under the wings" of the aircraft, where the missiles are mounted, said a senior deck crew member. When the first group of bombers came back empty, he said, a cheer went up on deck. "I've been in the Navy for 15 years," said the crew member, "and it was the high point of my career.
"Our desire from the start was that we were not going to permit them to attack our forces. They committed a hostile act. One of my major responsibilities is to protect the American kids that operate these ships and fly these airplanes."
That afternoon, two Libyan ships also were hit by A6s and A7s armed with Harpoon air-to-surface missiles and Rockeye cluster bombs. Meanwhile, Kelso said, although there was no further launching from the SA5 site, "my evaluation is that it has probably been repaired" and is again operational.
Kelso referred to the attack on the site as a single engagement, although the Pentagon described two HARM missile firings separated by almost four hours.
Through Monday night, until 6:30 Tuesday morning, U.S. aircraft attacked three additional Libyan ships. Kelso said the ships were presumed to have a "hostile" intent. "They were closing on our forces, around our ships. They were closing to within their missile range, roughly between 40 and 50 miles."
Although the Pentagon reported that at least one, and perhaps two, of the Libyan ships had sunk, Kelso said only that two of the ships had been "severely damaged" and the rest were "being evaluated."
Throughout the engagements, Kelso and the airmen said, U.S. aircraft and missiles performed without a hitch. "We haven't had an aircraft incident or aircraft accident," Kelso said. "It's a fantastic record, to put three carriers together and operate like that. Knock on wood, I hope it continues."
Flight crew members said they were particularly anxious to publicize what they said was the good performance of the HARM and Harpoon missiles. Deployed within the last several years, both were subjects of controversy in Washington because of high cost and questionable performance.
"The weapons we shot here are very expensive," said one airman. "But it is very clear to everybody that we have demonstrated without a doubt that they work."
One airman called it "regrettable that Libyans have been killed" as a result of "the actions of their government."
Numerous Saratoga crew members, who said they were isolated from news from home since the engagements, asked reporters how the American public had reacted to events of the last several days. All seemed eager for reassurance.
The airmen were asked what they wanted the American public to know about the action.
"America got shot at" by Libya, one said simply, "and that's wrong. And they paid the price."