US Navy officers: Britain unready for Falklands mission

Britain has maneuvered itself into a difficult military position in the Falkland Islands for which it is not prepared, many United States Navy officials say.

US Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said May 11 that he has not been surprised so far by the events in the Falklands, in which one Argentine cruiser was torpedoed and sunk, and a new British destroyer was demolished by an Argentine Exocet missile.

Lehman implied Britain should not have been caught off guard by the Exocet missile attack on the HMS Sheffield. ''We have felt for a long time that there is no longer any area of the world that is a low-threat area,'' Lehman said.

''So many modern missiles like the Exocet and the Sidewinder have been sold to so many countries,'' Lehman continued, ''So wherever we send our Navy Marine Corps forces, whether it's the South Atlantic or virtually any corner of the world, they have to be able to defend themselves against those kinds of systems.''

Commodore William Zirbel, commanding officer of the NATO amphibious task force, said a minute would be sufficient to detect and deter an oncoming Exocet missile aimed at the USS Nassau, the task force's flagship.

According to Lehman, Britain does not have in the Falklands the air defense capabilities necessary to control the seas. ''Britain's Harrier jets are very useful when you have nothing else,'' Lehman told journalists aboard the USS Nassau. ''But they cannot do many missions necessary to insure superiority of the seas.''

The chief of the American Navy also emphasized that American military policy would never permit the deployment of forces ''when we cannot assure absolute air superiority.''

Most top officers with the amphibious task force unit of the US Navy's Sixth Fleet agree that air superiority is crucial to a successful amphibious landing assault.

The task force is currently participating in Sardinia in an amphibious landing as part of NATO's southern command spring exercises, and officers made frequent comparisons to the exercises and the possibility that Britain may soon be conducting a similar assault in the Falklands.

Although the basic strategy of the amphibious landing has remained unchanged since World War II, using boats in the pre-dawn hours continues to be the best way to land large numbers of invasion troops quickly.

Modern equipment and technology has of course improved the ability of an amphibious landing force to move ashore more troops and more equipment faster from points over the horizon, out of radar range.

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