September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

It was a cloudless Mediterranean morning last month as the U.S. Navy’s Black Aces squadron took off from the carrier Nimitz for the Gulf of Sidra. The elite unit was conducting maneuvers when two Libyan Soviet-made SU-22 fighters appeared at 11 o’clock low. The flight recording of those tense moments has been impounded, but the chatter over their radios is burned indelibly on the pilots’ memories.

“Hey! Skipper, I saw them fire a missile at you!” Lieut. Larry Muczynski shouted into his mouthpiece.

“SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT!” Commander Henry Kleemann barked moments later. Shortly afterward the F-14 off Kleemann’s wing brought down one Libyan fighter with a heat-seeking Sidewinder missile. Kleemann, swinging his fighter into a diversionary turn, then followed his own order and squeezed the trigger on his flight control stick, unleashing another Sidewinder. His target bursting into flames, Kleemann reported calmly: “I’ve got two confirmed kills.”

Thus ended the drama in the air, but 5,200 miles away, a long night of tension was only beginning for the lords of E-Ring, the Pentagon’s outermost and foremost corridor of power. There, surrounded by a solicitous horde of aides and deputies, sits the top command of the American military establishment: the Chiefs of the four branches, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the civilian Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. By dawn of this day, lights were blazing all around E-Ring, and in the heavily guarded National Military Command Center, better known as the “War Room,” a quorum of its members were gathered to monitor events—and in effect to mark a new military hard line. No American had met hostile fire with fire since the Mayaguez incident in May 1975, and the sense of the room was that the Black Aces’ engagement over the Gulf of Sidra had importantly demonstrated the potency and new willingness of U.S. military might. “The mood was calm and deliberate in the Command Center,” recalls Gen. David C. Jones, 60, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “I wouldn’t even call it tense. We felt it was unfortunate that the Libyans had fired, but we were happy that our people responded in such a professional manner. There wasn’t any gloating—just quiet satisfaction that we were challenged and that we met that challenge.”

In a time of fiscal cuts, the officials of E-Ring are unique in American government, the only administrators whose budgets are still increasing. “In essence,” says Weinberger, “we are rearming America. There is a lot of excitement and eagerness to get going on this job. It’s been neglected too long.” The men of E-Ring categorically deny that the Black Aces were sent up to pick a fight over Libya’s claim to territorial rights over the Gulf of Sidra, but they are plainly eager to prove the nation’s new military resolve. “I did not become Secretary of the Army to go around hangdog and half ashamed,” declares John O. Marsh Jr., 55, a former conservative Democratic Congressman from Virginia. “The best way to avoid conflict is to develop American strength.”

That attitude is unanimous among Reagan’s Service Secretaries—and it signals a closer relationship between the civilian and military leadership in the Pentagon than has been the case in most recent Administrations. A certain amount of conflict between the military leaders and their civilian managers is natural. As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas B. Hay-ward puts it: “Some Secretaries have never seen the sharp end of a boat before.” Still, in Reagan’s Pentagon, the Chiefs can at least take heart in the knowledge that the Secretaries, like themselves, believe in a greatly strengthened military.

The Secretaries bring vastly different degrees of involvement and experience to their jobs. Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr, 65, is a former government finance professor and auto dealer who served in the Navy and candidly admits: “I didn’t know what a joystick [airplane control lever] was before I got here.” Marsh, on the other hand, was an Army lieutenant in World War II who served as an Assistant Defense Secretary under President Nixon and a Security Adviser to President Ford.

Perhaps the best credentialed Secretary is also the youngest: John F. Lehman Jr., 38, an international affairs Ph.D. who was serving on Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council by the time he was 26. Now responsible for both the Navy and the Marines, he also continues to serve as a bombardier-navigator in the Naval Reserve with the rank of lieutenant commander. Perhaps because of his previous experience in the executive branch, he is given to controversial public statements most of his colleagues in uniform would never make. “The Carter people went away disillusioned because nothing worked,” says Lehman. “But this town works like a Stradivarius if you learn the skills and work hard at understanding the organism.” Lehman’s shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements on foreign policy have landed him in hot water with the State Department—and led his more seasoned military aides to throw up a protective cordon around him. “We’re here just to make sure he doesn’t shoot himself in the foot,” says one brass hat bluntly.

Surprisingly, some of the more low-key talk at the Pentagon comes from the uniformed Chiefs. Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Robert H. Barrow, 59, is a much-decorated hero of three wars who has argued forcefully with his colleagues that his service should be given exclusive control of operations like last year’s failed raid on Iran. But otherwise, he is a soft-spoken, courtly Southerner who talks like the Tulane-trained historian he is; his hobbies include bird-watching, art-collecting and playing the guitar, and he speaks wistfully of retirement in two years. “I look forward to a life of sanity and peace,” he admits. Air Force Chief Gen. Lew Allen Jr., 55, a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, has a similar scholarly temperament and the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Edward C. Meyer, has collaborated on two academic books about national defense. Their colleague Hayward believes that a certain intellectual remove is a great asset in the job. “We have to be very matter-of-fact so that we can advise well under the tension and stress of an attack,” he says. “You cannot deal emotionally with a nuclear situation.”

Fortunately, occasions like the Libyan incident—severe enough to bring the denizens of E-Ring into their War Room—are few and far between. Command Center personnel spend most of their time scanning radar screens and computer printouts for signs of trouble in the world—while, in one corner, a Russian-speaking technician transmits messages to Moscow once an hour simply to ensure that the hot line remains in working order. Most of the missives are not codes but recipes and gardening tips. Says one aide: “The Russians are apparently very good at growing mushrooms.”

Even the normal operations of E-Ring are about that mundane; with its 22,954 employees stretched out over 17½ miles of interior corridors, the Pentagon is nothing if not an enormous bureaucracy. But Secretary Weinberger has already taken steps to curtail red tape drastically, and Pentagon morale is clearly on the rise. In the next five years the lords of E-Ring will have some $1.5 trillion in their budgets, much of that to be invested in the MX missile program, the B-1 bomber, the development of the neutron bomb and the launching of 150 new naval vessels.

And yet the most important of the new U.S. weapons may be the attitude of the E-Ring members themselves. “The determination of the United States not to be browbeaten by terrorists is great,” General Allen insists. “The Libyan action shows that.” Echoes Chairman Jones: “People around the world are beginning to understand that the United States has military capabilities, and the will to act.”

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