Strategic focus shifts as British troops land
Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina — As the shooting starts, Argentines are trying to assess with growing anxiety just how prepared they are for war.
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.
Although the Air Force has 78 A-4 Skyhawks, a number of them are not operational due to lack of spare parts. Additionally, it has 21 French Mirage IIIs, 27 Israeli-made Daggers (a version of the Mirage III), and some 65 other jets of earlier vintage and not in the best of repair.
The C-130 Hercules transports are the backbone of the Air Force transport fleet. But there are only seven of them, hardly enough to adequately supply the Falkland Islands. That explains the use of an increasing number of civilian aircraft -- a situation that is putting a heavy strain on commercial aviation in Argentina.
Moreover, these craft can make no more than two flights a day between General Mosconi Airport here and the extended, but somewhat inadequate runway at Port Stanley, which the Argentines have renamed Puerto Argentino, in the Falkland Islands.
Bad weather, which struck the islands over the weekend, cut the number of flights. Several of the big Hercules were reportedly in for repair anyway.
But the provisioning of the island must continue at a good pace because Argentina now has 10,000 of its soldiers there. In numbers of troops, the Argentines have not only an edge, but a clear superiority, over the British.
The Argentine Army as a whole has 130,000 men - 90,000 of whom at any time are fulfilling the obligatory one-year service required of all Argentine men. Many of these young men now are bivouacked on the Falklands, housed in makeshift camps near Comodoro Rivadavia or at Rio Gallegos to the south, or quartered elsewhere in the country.
But the Falklands invasion has left many Army bases around the country manpower-short as the buildup continues around this city and around the Bahia Blanca, and Rio Gallegos.
Garrisons in the south and along the Andes are operating on much reduced manpower -- leaving great stretches of Argentina's border with Chile unprotected. Some Argentinians wonder whether this leaves open the door to a Chilean attack. Argentina and Chile are locked in a bitter dispute over the Beagle Channel at the tip of South America.
That issue of a Chilean attack, mentioned in a classified Argentine security report, must send shivers through many an Argentine general, including General Galtieri, whose position as president is not thought to be very strong.
The intelligence report even admits that war with Britain ''could provoke the fall of the present military government of General Galtieri and drag down the military junta.''
Such thoughts, perhaps more common in Buenos Aires, where the military has its headquarters, are beginning to surface here.
Comodoro Rivadavia's 100,000-or-so residents, many of whom are in one way or another connected with the oil that is pumped from wells dotting the desert around here, are concerned about the Falkland's adventure. Few of them question Argentina's long-claimed sovereignty over the island that Britain held for 149 years until the Argentine seizure April 2. But many wonder if the seizure is now , or will ever be, worth the cost.
That concern is believed to be shared by some of the airmen here, too. Most of them, however, refuse all comment to questions about the Falklands operation.
But one said: ''We've got so many other problems, I'm not sure why we added one more.''