The Defense Department yesterday said an F111 bomber and its two-man crew apparently were lost at sea in the massive 12-minute Monday night raid on Libya, which officials otherwise characterized as a successful and complex mission involving 30 bombers and about 100 support planes.
Libyan fighter jets, cargo planes, airport hangars and military barracks were damaged in the raid on five military targets in the port cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims said. But cloud cover over the areas bombed in "Operation El Dorado Canyon" interfered with U.S. photo reconnaissance missions and the Pentagon yesterday could provide "no assessment" of eyewitness reports that U.S. bombs also damaged embassies and residences and injured civilians, Sims added.
In a possible retaliation for the raid yesterday, Libya may have fired two surface-to-surface missiles at a U.S. Coast Guard navigation station on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, Italian authorities said. There was no report of damage and information about the incident remained sketchy. Details on Page A23
Also yesterday, in an incident that some U.S. officials fear may foreshadow future reprisals against Americans abroad, an employe at the U.S. Embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum was wounded in the head on a residential street during a burst of gunfire from a passing car. The shooting followed an anti-American demonstration by 1,000 protesters and came after U.S. Embassy employes were put on alert following the Libyan raid. Details on Page A24
While Pentagon authorities and U.S. servicemen involved in the Libya attack expressed pride in carrying out the complicated and dangerous raid ordered by President Reagan, officials acknowledged that it could be days before a more complete account of the damage is pieced together -- and that the fate of the missing F111 may never be known.
Some officials said that pilots reported seeing a fireball in the Tripoli area just before the bomber would have reached its target, although there was no official speculation on whether the plane had been shot down by Libyan antiaircraft fire.
U.S. search-and-rescue aircraft and vessels, reportedly including submarines, searched the Mediterranean north of Tripoli yesterday, and a smaller force continued to search last night "with reduced expectations and opportunities," Sims said. He said the searchers did not detect the electronic beeps that the gondola of an F111 automatically emits if its crew is able to eject before a crash.
The Air Force identified the missing crew members as Capt. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci, 33, a native of Puerto Rico and father of a 4-year-old son, and Capt. Paul F. Lorence, 31, a San Francisco native with an 8-month-old son. Their plane flew from the Royal Air Force base at Lakenheath, England.
In interviews with reporters flown to the aircraft carrier USS America yesterday, pilots who participated in Monday night's raid suggested that damage to the French Embassy in Tripoli and other civilian sites was caused by errant missiles fired by the Libyans. But western journalists in Libya reported that the damage appeared to be too widespread to come from antiaircraft missiles.
Sketchy after-action reports reaching Washington yesterday depicted Libyan military response to the raid as weak and befuddled. Commanders at a Libyan air base near Surt, for example, ignored an order to launch their airplanes to repel the U.S. attack and suggested instead that the air base at Benghazi should respond, according to U.S. officials who intercepted Libyan communications.
Eight Navy A6 Intruder attack planes bombed the Benina airfield at Benghazi with 500-pound bombs and 750-pound antipersonnel/antimaterial (APAM) bombs, according to U.S. officials. The APAM cluster bombs scatter about 100 bomblets that can injure or kill people and damage airplanes.
U.S. bombers encountered heavy antiaircraft missile fire, but many missiles were sent astray by U.S. jamming and electronic misdirection, Sims said. In addition, Navy planes circling off the coast fired almost 50 missiles into Libyan targeting radars, while U.S. bombers took advantage of surprise, darkness and low-altitude flying to evade the defenders as the bombers roared in at treetop level at about 400 knots, officials said.
"We think they definitely were confused as well as surprised," Sims said.
Sims also responded to charges that the raid could have been conducted more simply and at less risk with only Navy aircraft rather than the mix of Navy and Air Force warplanes. The carrier-based planes had to travel only several hundred miles, while the 16 Air Force bombers that reached their targets had to fly 5,600 miles, a grueling round trip of 14 hours that required support by about 40 tanker aircraft for mid-flight refueling.
Some Pentagon officials suggested that the Air Force planes based in Britain were included only to give that service a piece of the action or to demonstrate that at least one ally -- Britain -- supported the mission. But Sims said the combined force was necessary.
"There was a military need to use both the Air Force and the Navy planes, or we could not have carried out a coordinated and simultaneous strike," he said. "I just can't get into how we conduct our missions and how we use our aircraft . . . . That was the best way to do it."
Other officials said that although the carriers USS Coral Sea and USS America together carry about 170 warplanes, each has only a dozen planes equipped for nighttime, low-level attack -- the A6 Intruder squadrons. Those planes could not have bombed all five targets simultaneously, officials said.
The original bombing plan, worked out during the past week by military officials in Europe and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, called for 18 F111 bombers to take off from Lakenheath and Upper Heyford as darkness fell in Britain. They would be accompanied by EF111 electronic jamming planes.
One F111 had to turn back, however, and one -- the plane that is missing -- never reached its target. A third F111 completed its bombing mission but had to land in Spain, where it is now awaiting repairs, because of mechanical troubles on the return journey.
A fleet of about 20 large KC10 refueling planes and 22 KC135 tankers, some of which apparently took off from other allied bases in the region, kept the F111s flying with four refuelings each on their way to Libya.
Their flying time -- six hours down and eight hours back -- was lengthened by French refusal to permit overflight, U.S. officials said. Configured more like a fighter than a bomber, the F111 does not permit its two-man crew to stand or move about in flight.
As the F111s reached their targets around Tripoli in western Libya, a fleet of 14 A6 Intruders -- a planned 15th had to abort its mission -- were approaching targets in the east. Meanwhile, other carrier-based aircraft were supporting the mission: A7 Corsairs firing a dozen Shrike antiradar missiles and F/A18 Hornets firing three dozen High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) into Libyan radars; E2C Hawkeye command planes scanning the skies for hostile aircraft that never appeared; EA6B Prowlers jamming Libyan radars and communications; F14 Tomcats and other F/A18s, equipped with air-to-air missiles, flying in circles in case the bombers needed protection from hostile fighters, and Navy and Air Force helicopters hovering nearby in case downed pilots had to be rescued.
The Navy and Air Force attacks began simultaneously at 2 a.m. Tuesday Libyan time (7 p.m. Monday EST), Sims said:
*According to knowledgeable officials, five F111s, each carrying a dozen 500-pound bombs, attacked the military side of the Tripoli airport. Sims, offering what he called "very conservative" preliminary assessments, said that three to five IL76 Soviet-built cargo planes were damaged there.
*Eight F111s, each carrying four 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, attacked the Bab Azizzia Barracks in Tripoli, which U.S. officials called a center of Libyan terrorism planning. Sims said the barracks there suffered "structural damage," and a State Department official said the intelligence service headquarters was "virtually destroyed."
*Three F111s, also equipped with four laser-guided bombs each, attacked the Sidi Bilal port west of Tripoli, officials said. Sims offered no damage assessment.
*In eastern Libya, meanwhile, eight A6s, carrying both unguided 500-pound bombs and 750-pound cluster bombs, attacked the Benina military airfield. Sims said the bombers met virtually no opposition and damaged five to 12 MiG23 fighters and several spare parts hangars.
*Six other A6s, encountering heavy antiaircraft fire, bombed the Jamahiriyah Barracks, described as an alternate command post, with 500-pound bombs. The Pentagon provided no damage assessment.
All attacks ended by 2:12 a.m. Libyan time, Sims said. But the Libyans continued firing for some time thereafter, officials said, and radars at the SA5 site at Surt, which was not attacked, were turned on only after U.S. planes had departed.
U.S. officials said the targets were chosen to hamper Libya's terrorist operations overseas while minimizing risk to U.S. pilots and possible harm to Libyan civilians. Attacks against inland oil facilities were considered and rejected, for example, both because they would expose pilots to more antiaircraft fire and because Washington did not want to hit general economic targets, officials said.
Officials also stressed in briefings to members of Congress that attacks on the Bab Azizzia Barracks, where Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi frequently stays, were not intended to kill him.
"We were trying to send him a very clear message," one administration official said. "We were trying to make it clear that we would carry this directly to him and that we were prepared to impose the cost on him and his support operation, and thereby expose his ultimate vulnerability . . . ."
Targets also were chosen in an effort to damage military units loyal to Qaddafi without inflicting as much harm on regular military troops, officials said. Some administration officials hope that the attacks will encourage military leaders, some of whom may already be disenchanted with Qaddafi, to challenge him or his policies abroad.
Sims cautioned reporters not to accept all Libyan claims about damage to civilian areas. He displayed a photograph of an aircraft part that Libya had claimed was from a downed U.S. plane, but that Sims said was a section of a Soviet-made SA3 rocket.
"The Libyans have been quick to discuss those areas," Sims said, referring to damaged residences. "They haven't discussed the military target areas."
Officials also said that the missing F111, even if down in the Gulf of Sidra, may not have been the victim of hostile fire. One of its bombs could have exploded on board, the officials said, or it could have crashed for other reasons.
No other planes were hit and there were no other U.S. casualties, officials said. Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, 6th Fleet commander aboard the America, said he was surprised that no Libyan planes challenged the U.S. force.