Military logrolling

WERE both American and Libyan lives lost in the April 15 bombing attacks on Libya because of interservice rivalry between the US Air Force and the US Navy? The answer, unfortunately, is very likely yes. The facts are that Navy aircraft from two aircraft carriers poised only a few hundred miles off Libya attacked Benghazi. At the same time, US Air Force bombers from airfields in Britain, some 2,800 miles from Libya, attacked Tripoli. It was truly a magnificent accomplishment for the Air Force pilots to fly more than a 12-hour round trip in their cramped cockpits, let alone conduct a combat mission in the middle. We'll never know whether fatigue led to bombing errors that took lives of Libyan civilians or resulted in the loss of one Air Force aircraft with its crew of two.

Was there any reason to put the Air Force pilots to such a test? In my opinion, absolutely not. Two reasons have been given. The first is that there were insufficient night-capable bombers on the two carriers. That is true, but only if we assume that both targets had to be struck at the same moment. The Navy could have hit Tripoli; returned the aircraft to the carriers for a new set of pilots, bombs, and fuel; and then attacked Benghazi a few hours later. There would have been little risk in this spacing of the attacks, since there was no surprise anyway. And, on learning of the attack at Tripoli, the defenders at Benghazi might even have been lulled into the complacency of believing that they had been spared.

Alternatively, there was ample time to send more night-capable bombers to the carriers from the United States. After all, 30 Air Force aerial tankers were sent to Britain from bases in the US to make the Air Force mission against Libya possible.

The other explanation for using bombers from Britain is that we wanted deliberately to involve at least one European ally. If that's the reason, we ought to be ashamed of duping our closest ally into believing such support was essential to the mission. And such a questionable political objective hardly warrants placing either American or Libyan lives at greater risk than necessary.

What does this tell us? First, that our military command system needs changing. Permitting the Air Force to insert itself, as happened, at an avoidable cost in operational effectiveness and safety of life is inexcusable. And this is hardly the first time we have seen this: Witness the Grenada invasion, in which all of the military services found a reason to be included in a simple operation against fewer than 1,000 Cubans. The Congress is considering legislation that would enlarge the authority of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and enable him to offer the president his own advice, rather than just that of the committee he heads. We need such legislation urgently.

Beyond that, the Pentagon should recognize that these kinds of shenanigans may well distort public and congressional response to their programs. We do, for instance, need aircraft carriers for operations outside the reach of land-based air power. But if it appears that two large carriers, costing some $3.5 billion each, cannot handle as few targets as we hit in Libya and against a country that is only a second-rate military power, will the public and the Congress support our Navy and its carriers? This rampant parochialism of the Pentagon, then, can be costly not only in lives and effectiveness today, but in decisions for tomorrow.

Stansfield Turner, author of ``Secrecy and Democracy -- the CIA in Transition,'' was director of central intelligence from 1977 to 1981.

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