London — Britain is pressing forward to retake control of the Falkland Islands, undeterred by the loss of 24 more men killed and of a fourth warship and a merchant marine supply ship.
The Thatcher government brushes aside doves who call for an immediate cease-fire and talks, and hawks who urge strikes on air bases on the Argentine mainland.
At the same time, pressure for a quick victory, with a minimum of extra loss, is intense.
Twenty men killed on the destroyer Coventry and four on the container ship Atlantic Conveyor bring the total number of British men lost at this writing to about 100.
Defense Secretary John Nott told the House of Commons May 26 that the government had expected ''substantial attrition,'' that 10 more destroyers and frigates had joined the task force in recent days, and that Harrier jet losses had been much fewer than anticipated.
Neither ''undue pessimism'' nor ''needless euphoria'' was justified now. The 5,000 British forces reportedly on East Falkland seem poised to take Port Stanley, and behind them were another 3,000 men (on the liner Queen Elizabeth 2 ). There might be more losses but government resolve was ''undiminished.''
Military analysts contacted by this newspaper said that heavy losses on both sides had reduced military options.
Argentina had lost half its Mirage jet fighter force and one-quarter of its Skyhawks. The British have lost five ships.
''The question now is which side can hang on the longest,'' said one analyst.
''My feeling is that the British will do so. They've gone a long way and they're not about to give up now.''
Three questioners in the House of Commons May 26 raised the issue of whether attacks should now be made on Argentine mainland air bases to stop air attacks on the task force. Mr. Nott indicated that such attacks were simply not feasible.
Behind his words lay the military reality that any such attacks would have to be carried out by Vulcan bombers from Ascension Island, refueled during their 6, 000-mile round trip flight.
Raids would have to be repeated again and again to prevent repairs. Such raids would constitute a drastic widening of the war and would lead to strong criticism in the United Nations.
Besides, the government hopes that Argentine losses in the air have been so heavy that it will not be able to mount many more full-scale attacks.
As government officials see it, Britain has to keep its nerve and to keep attacking.
Meanwhile, a major new debate has broken out here about how best to protect British warships in the unprecedented air and naval battles going on in Falkland waters.
So far, three Exocet French-built missiles skimming the waves at hundreds of miles an hour have sunk the British destroyer Sheffield and the supply ship Atlantic Conveyor.
The British task force grievously lacks one kind of protection that any American task force would have - E-2 long-range reconnaissance jets, carried on large aircraft carriers, able to pick up distant enemy aircraft in a complete sweep of 360 degrees.
According to military sources here, such E-2s would have been able to detect the Super Etendard jets that surprised and sank the 16,000-ton Atlantic Conveyor , destroying a large load of supplies intended for British troops on the Falklands. Precise details of the attack, and of the supplies, were still secret at this writing.
All Britain has is long-range Nimrod antisubmarine aircraft flying out of Ascension Island 3,000 miles to the north, and short-range Sea King helicopters as well as its 36 Harrier fighter jets.
British aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible are too small to launch aircraft of the E-2 type. This leaves a gap in British defenses which Argentine planes have managed to exploit.
In another intense argument, British experts are charging that the Type 21 frigates Ardent and Antelope, both sunk, contained too much aluminum in their tall superstructures.
Aluminum melts at 700 degrees C., compared to 1,500 C. for steel. It was used in the ships because of its light weight, to make the long, narrow hulls more stable at sea.
But the Navy may be forced to go back to steel for its new generation of Type 23 ships.
Each of the sunk British ships contained 120 tons of aluminum, as well as 750 tons of steel.
The United States Navy discovered that aluminum burns and melts when the carrier John F. Kennedy collided at night with the destroyer Belknap off Sicily Nov. 22, 1975. The destroyer's 5-inch gun fell through melting decks and at least eight men were killed. The destroyer's hull was towed back to the US East Coast and rebuilt at a cost of $235 million.
The naval warfare lessons the British are learning in the Falkland waters are being followed with rapt attention by navies around the world, especially in the US and other NATO countries.
Clearly, the Exocet is a devastating weapon. The captain of the first ship to be sunk, the Sheffield, (a sister ship to the just-lost Coventry) has just said in a film interview on television here that his crew had literally only seconds to act before the missile hit amidships. The control room filled with black smoke from wiring and paint work.
Whether wiring and paint should be changed is one of the questions the British Navy may be considering after the war.
Only two British ships carry the Sea Wolf defense system designed to guard against the Exocet. Other British ships armed with the Sea Wolf system were said to be on their way to the Falklands. In theory, the Sea Wolf detects the incoming missile with radar and fires another missile at it. The British would like to equip more ships with the same defense but have not done so yet.
On the Argentine side, air losses have been extremely heavy, and despite the bravery of pilots who have come down to mast height to bomb British ships, Argentina has lost many of its best pilots already.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher believes that, with recent reinforcements, her task force is still able to protect the 5,000 British forces reported to be on East Falkland itself until they retake Port Stanley.