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Strategic focus shifts as British troops land

By James Nelson GoodsellLatin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 1982

Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina

As the shooting starts, Argentines are trying to assess with growing anxiety just how prepared they are for war.

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Up to now, Argentine conventional wisdom has held that there would be little contest in any battle with British forces. The Argentine Air Force, it argues, is superior in numbers, firepower, and nearby home bases.

The British, an Argentine Air Force official says, ''will be no match.''

But that sort of optimism has faded as the British armada has sailed ever nearer, as the first reports of actual hostilities on the island of South Georgia came in Sunday, and as intelligence reports on the British fleet, air cover, and Royal Marine elements are analyzed here.

The British may well have tremendous problems in supply and in some areas of manpower and firepower. But, analysts here point out, so do the Argentines. The growing feeling in military circles here is that the two forces are more evenly matched than was previously thought.

By extending its frontiers some 1,500 miles out into the South Atlantic - occupying not only the Falklands, but also the more remote South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands -- Argentina is described as facing an extremely tenuous strategic position.

For instance, supplying forces even in the closer Falklands, some 350 miles from the mainland, is a heavy expense. Indeed, the overall cost of Argentina's Falklands adventure, since seizure of the islands from the British April 2, is formidable -- perhaps as much as $200 million already. It is bound to soar in the days ahead.

Can the battered Argentine economy -- with inflation clipping along at 100 to 200 percent a year, and with unemployment at 15 percent -- absorb such a cost? President Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri admits that the military budget for 1982, already $4 billion, will have to be increased.

Beyond such financial considerations, there are other worries here. The British fleet, although far from home, is admittedly superior to the Argentine Navy.

''The English can dominate the sea,'' admits a classified Argentine security report. The Argentine fleet probably will have to limit itself to only sporadic operations.

The flagship of the Argentine Navy is the aircraft carrier 25 de Mayo, originally a British carrier of the Colossus class, which Argentina bought from the Netherlands and modernized in 1968. She is not in good shape and has had to return to port twice in April for repairs.

The 25 de Mayo carries 29 aircraft - 14 A-4 Skyhawks, a sea version of the Skyhawks now at Comodoro Rivadavia's airport, six S-2 antisubmarine Trackers, four S-61 Sea King helicopters, and five French Super Etentards.

Other ships include the cruiser Belgrano (the pre-World War II United States cruiser Phoenix, which survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) and armed with Seacat anti-aircraft missiles.

The most modern ships in the Argentine fleet are two British-made destroyers, the Santisima Trinidad and the Hercules, armed with even longer-range Sea Dart antiship missiles. There are seven other destroyers of varying age and size, three French-made frigates, and four conventional submarines.

The Air Force is much more impressive. Many of the planes flown by the airmen here in Comodoro Rivadavia are modern and thought to be effective. But here, too , the Argentines have problems.