NATO Navy -- 'determined' in face of strong Soviet fleet

As usual, NATO's annual fall naval exercises, soon to start in the Mediterranean, are code-named, "Display Determination." Determination is a quality the allied commanders here at NATO's southern headquarters feel is especially needed to meet increasingly complex defense challenges to the West.

Greece's six-year absence from NATO's integrated military command is still unresolved. This, despite the best efforts of the NATO supreme commander, US Army Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, to ease the Greek- Turkish suspicious and mistrust that have prevented resolution so far.

Patient efforts by General Rogers from his Belgian headquarters and by Adm. William Crowe Jr., the scholarly US submariner and former top Pentagon Strategist who commands all NATO southern region land, sea, and air forces here, still have not overcome the conflicting claims of Greece and Turkey to control of Aegean sea and air space.

Whether Greek ships and planes would join Turkish, United States, British, and Italian forces in the September maneuvers was still uncertain as the month began.

Another problem for NATO was the departure last spring for the Indian Ocean-Iran crisis region of one US aircraft carrier group. That group, with its tactical planes and sea escorts, was from the US Sixth Fleet, homeported at Gaeta, Italy.

This has left the Italian Navy the strongest single allied force after the Sixth Fleet facing the Soviet Fifth Eskadra, the Russian Mediterranean task force.

The eskadra now includes about 20 submarines, two of which carry cruise missiles and are nuclear-propelled, thus virtually independent of their Black Sea bases behind the Turkish straits.

"Soviet submarines," says Italian Adm. Angelo Monassi, a veteran of Italy's World War II naval operations and now commander, allied naval forces, southern Europe, "are our biggest headache."

During a short sea trip through Naples' outer bay, where Italian smugglers in swift motorboats match wits with the Guardia Finanza, Italy's coast guard, Admiral Monassi discussed how his command hopes to meet the Soviet challenge in the Mediterranean.

Italy's 42,000-man Navy is the smallest but in many ways the most elite of the Italian armed services. By 1983, it plans to have its new light aircraft carrier, the Monfalcone, in service with vertical takeoff aircraft, to back up the Italian helicopter cruiser Vittorio Veneto and its squadron of Augusta-Bell helicopters in their antisubmarine role.

Italy's nine submarines, two Andrea Doria-class cruisers, three destroyers, and 12 swift Lupo-class frigates -- the kind the US recently approved for sale to Iraq, with US General Electric engines -- are strongly oriented toward the Soviet submarine threat.

Though 1,500 Italian Navy personnel are assigned to flight operations, mostly on the helicopters, "Italy needs to go back to the concept of naval aviation, of having a real fleet air arm," says Admiral Monassi.

World flying records were once set by pioneer Italian naval flyers, such as Italo Balbo. Italy's naval aviation, which once bombed the Allied-controlled Gulf oil fields on behalf of the Axis during World War II, together with its naval commandos and frogmen, were among the proudest and most daring of Italian fighting units.

Today, Italian maritime air reconnaissance is carried out mainly by 18 Atlantic aircraft of the 311-plane, separately commanded Italian Air Force.

When Japanese and other contractors complete widening and deepening of Egypt's Suez Canal next spring, both the superpowers will for the first time be able to shift big aircraft carriers directly between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, eliminating the 10,000- mile journey around Africa. The same will be true for Britain and France, with standing French Mediterranean and Indian Ocean naval forces independent of NATO command.

After Egypt's President Sadat expelled Soviet personnel in 1972, the Soviets lost their land-based naval surveillance capabilities in the Mediterranean. US ships now have taken the Soviets' place in calls to Egyptian ports such as Alexandria. US planes operate from Egyptian bases, and the US is going to spend Saudi Arabia.

But allied naval problems along the arc extending 2,500 miles from the Strait of Gibraltar in the west to the Turkish straits -- a key target of Soviet forces in case of war -- are compounded by Libya's obliging provision to the Soviets of facilities they lost in Egypt.

Libyan crews, disadvantages in training by their often low educational level, still cannot cope adequately with the sophisticated French and Soviet aircraft and gunboats, or with the Italian Otomat anti-ship missile system they have bought or ordered, say allied analysts here.

Nevertheless, Col. Muammar Qaddafi's modestly sized armed forces do operate, with purely Libyan crews, three ex-Soviet F-class submarines, Colonel Qaddafi once ordered to torpedo the British liner Queen Elizabeth during a voyage to Israel. When the captain contacted Cairo, President Sadat has said, he countermanded the order). Three more submarines are on order.

More disturbing for Admiral Manossi and the allied command are Libya's MIG-23 fighters, Tu-22 bombers, and especially its five Soviet piloted MIG-25 reconnaissance planes. These can flash over the Mediterranean in seconds, watching exercises like Display Determination, and probably relaying blow-by- blow accounts to Soviet Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov as well as to Colonel Qaddafi.

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