The US naval exercise off the Libyan coast that led to an air-to-air shoot-out was part of a tougher, more aggresssive American posture in the world, defense experts say.
The US Defense Department is not saying so publicly, but according to these experts, the United States mounted the just ended naval exercise partly to test Libyan reactions.
Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and other US officials deny, however, that there was any testing or provocation involved in what they described as a "routine" naval exercise. Mr. Weinberger insists that had US planes failed to shot down, thus encouraging the Libyans to expand their activities.
The Libyans, for their part, argue that the US naval exercise took place in their national waters, which they claim extend for 200 miles offshore.
The US recognizes only a three-mile limit.
A Pentagon statement said that during the exercise, on Aug. 19, two Soviet-built Libyan SU-22 fighters attacked two US F-14 fighters over international waters off the Libyan coast.
After being hired upon, the two American fighters from tge aircraft carrier Nimitz returnd the fire with heat-seeking Sidewinter missiles, the statement said, shooting down both Libyan planes. It further said that the Us was protesting through diplomatic channels "this unprovoked attacked." The State Department issued an additional statement saying that further attacks over international waters would be resisted by force if necessary.
The US is apparently not displeased with the message this action has sent to Libya, to the Soviet Union, and to other nations around the world.The message seems to be this: the Reagan administration is prepared vigorously to defend American interests wherever they might be challenged. The "Vietnam syndrome" -- a post-Vietnam reluctance to use force to defend those interests -- is part of the past.
The US-Libyan clash comes against a background of deteriorating relations. The US expelled the entire Libyan diplomatic mission to the United States some three months ago after the FBI found evidence that the mission was involved in murder plots against Libyan dissidents in exile. One Libyan studying at colorado State University was shot and wounded last year by an American gunman whom the FBI suspects was hired by the Libyans.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., has singled out Libya for condemnation in State Department deliberations. The Reagan administration has made combatting of terroism one of its highest priorities, and it has accused Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, of financig and supporting any number of terrorist organization. The US was disturbed Chad, and the Reagan administration has offered military aid to those African nation wishing to resist Libyan advances.
One of the ironies of the situation is that Libya continues to be America's third largest supplier of oil, providing as much as 10 percent of US petroleum imports. Following the incident, the State Department issued an advisory to oils firms eploying many of the estimated 2,500 Americans in Libya to leave because of the "deteriorating conditions" between Washington and Tripoli. The companies have had a good relationship with Colonel Qaddafi. Some sources think that the oil may have been a factor in restraining the Carter administration when it came to Libya.
Washington sources say that Egypt's President Anwar Sadat expressed concern more than once to the Carter administration over action taken by Qaddafi.
The Reagan administration has from the start indicated that it was adopting a tougher policy, with Secretary Haig apparently taking the lead in designing a program of gradually escalating pressure against Qaddafi. On Aug. 3, Newsweek magazine published a report asserting that the US Central Intellegence Agency had formulated, with White House approval, a large-scale, multiphase scheme to overthrow Qaddafi.
But overthrowing Qaddafi might be a difficult proposition. More than five thousand East bloc military and civilian personnel are believed to be stationed in Libya. The East Germans among them are said to be partly responsible for Qaddafi's security. Qaddafi's armed forces are mostly Soviet supplied.
Libyan officials have denied, meanwhile, that they have anything to do with "exporting" terrorism to other nations.
Disputes between the US and Libya over American naval and air exercises are not completely unprecedented. In August 1979, American plans to hold naval exercise in the Mediterranean sea triggered Libyan protests. On Sept. 16, 1980, Libyan aircraft approached a US reconnaissance plane flying off the Libyan coast. On Sept. 21, 1980, Libyan aircraft again approached American aircraft according to Defense Department sources. They were chased away by US Navy F-14 s.