Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told President Reagan yesterday that the United States should not start escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf without an administration commitment to retaliate for any attacks on American ships, according to informed sources.
The four-star admiral also warned the president that the administration should commit itself to a long-term U.S. military presence in the gulf to strengthen relations with the Arab world, sources said.
Reagan agreed with Crowe on both counts, according to Pentagon officials, and also approved the chiefs' recommendation to increase the Middle East Force in the gulf by three ships, to nine in the gulf. The increase will include a cruiser, to move in and out of the gulf, providing extra firepower and radar to watch for threatening aircraft.
The nuclear-powered cruiser USS Virginia may soon sail for the gulf to share duty with another cruiser equipped with the elaborate Aegis antiaircraft system, military sources said.
An aircraft carrier will remain outside the gulf's Strait of Hormuz but close enough to provide air cover on occasion and retaliatory bombing capability if U.S. ships are attacked. Navy P3 antisubmarine planes based in Oman and Air Force AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft based in Saudi Arabia will continue to watch the gulf, Pentagon officials added.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has criticized the Navy for not deploying heavier ships in the gulf; Nunn argued that patrol frigates such as the USS Stark are too small and vulnerable to handle the threat posed by modern antiship missiles possessed by both Iraq and Iran. Thirty-seven crewmen were killed and the Stark was disabled by two Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi F1 fighter bomber.
Crowe told the president that the joint chiefs believe the escort of Kuwaiti tankers could be done safely without U.S. fighter planes flying overhead to provide protective cover, sources said. Crowe also said that while the Iranians have test-fired Chinese-supplied Silkworm antiship missiles into the gulf, they have not yet deployed them, sources said.
The chiefs -- heads of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines -- are less concerned about escorting Kuwaiti tankers than they are about long-term entanglement in the region, according to Pentagon officials.
Crowe is most worried, they said, that the Reagan administration will cut its losses and withdraw from the gulf if the U.S. convoys draw fire, creating another image of "cut and run," as was the case when the Marines were withdrawn from Lebanon in 1984.
To avoid another Lebanon, sources said, Crowe yesterday outlined for the president the kind of retaliatory action the United States might have to take if its warships or merchant ships flying the American flag are attacked. Reagan directed the National Security Council to sift through the various plans for retaliatory action over the next several days.
Naval experts said that if retaliatory action were carried out by carrier aircraft, at least two carriers would have to be deployed near the entrance of the gulf. But unless or until an attack on U.S. shipping is made, Pentagon officials said, the plan is to rotate one carrier at a time to the station in the Indian Ocean.
The joint chiefs still would like access to airfields near the gulf, sources said. After studying the most likely military threats to shipping, sources said, the chiefs agreed that Saudi air bases are most suitable for F15s and other American aircraft. Pentagon officials intend to continue to seek access to bases in the Persian Gulf but are not optimistic, sources said.
While some officials have argued that Kuwait should give the United States access to its air bases in return for the U.S. Navy's escort, the chiefs concluded that these facilities are too far from the highest threat areas, sources said. Oman already allows the Navy to use its territory for P3 antisubmarine planes but is sensitive about high-profile links to the American military.
Before becoming the nation's top-ranking officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Crowe had extensive service in the Persian Gulf area and knows many Arab leaders.