Washington — As the heavy loss of ships and aircraft continues in the South Atlantic, sharp questions are being asked about the best way to fight at sea.
The debate no doubt will continue for years, but the short answer is that airplanes inevitably will play a much more prominent role, whether or not the large aircraft carriers survive.
Among many defense experts, there is the growing feeling that heavy, long-range bombers could be used more effectively and efficiently to challenge and defeat enemy fleets. Armed with precision-guided munitions that can be launched from a standoff point more than 100 miles away, even the relatively venerable B-52 could pose a serious threat to the rapidly growing Soviet Navy and add significantly to the ''maritime superiority'' sought by the Pentagon, it is argued.
According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, ''Some proposals for the next-generation bomber, the B-1B, have included a much wider range of maritime roles, encompassing virtually all the 'sea control' missions heretofore conducted primarily by the Navy.''
Such notions sharpen interservice rivalries, and add to the debate over the administration's plan to build a 600-ship Navy centered on 15 carrier groups and hundreds of top-line fighters and attack aircraft, costing billions of dollars.
But the Pentagon itself is pushing the Air Force to accelerate and broaden its maritime role, and in Congress there is parallel interest in emphasizing this task for the Air Force as well.
Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma has estimated that 24 B-1B bombers, armed with antiship cruise missiles, could provide equivalent firepower to the two new planned carrier battle groups, but at a cost of $5 billion compared with $27 billion for the carriers and their support vessels.
''B-1s based in the United States could reach targets in the Middle East long before an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea was in range to launch its planes, '' says Representative Synar.
Part of this thinking is in response to how the Soviet Union has shaped its naval aviation forces. US officials expect the Soviet Union to begin building its first relatively big carrier within the next few years.
But the emphasis there has been on large and medium bombers armed with air-to-surface missiles. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Soviet Navy includes 380 Backfire and Badger bombers.
Another reason for renewed interest in using the Air Force in a maritime role is the relative vulnerability of surface ships, a lesson being painfully learned by the British in the war over the Falkland Islands.
''I'm very comfortable with the kind of navy we've built,'' Adm. Thomas Hayward, the Chief of Naval Operations, told reporters recently. But in speaking of the future of surface navies, he conceded that ''the average good American has a lot of doubt in his mind as a result of the events of the past weeks.''
In the current issue of the Proceedings (which is published by the US Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md.), Comdr. John Byron writes: ''Operating a submarine against a carrier is too easy; the carrier's ASW (antisubmarine warfare) protection often resembles Swiss cheese. Fleet exercises demonstrate this time and time again.''
Commander Byron is a former submarine commander now studying at the National War College.
''Let me be the first to acknowledge that air power can come from either land or sea - and perhaps someday from space,'' Admiral Hayward said in a speech aboard the nuclear carrier USS Nimitz earlier this year. ''But the time when air superiority can be achieved and maintained in vital ocean areas from either land or space is decades away.''
''The true 'sitting duck' is the fixed land base, not the mobile, sea-based airfield,'' argues Admiral Hayward, a naval aviator and former carrier captain.
Navy Secretary John Lehman (himself a reserve naval flight officer) notes that large carriers, protected by F-14 Tomcat fighters, attack submarines, and other ships armed with accurate and long-range antiaircraft missiles, can be adequately protected out to several hundred miles beyond the task force.
Each carrier air wing now includes a squadron of E-2 Hawkeye radar and communications planes which can detect and track enemy ships and planes over 150 ,000 square miles while directing friendly aircraft to their targets.
''Air superiority,'' says Admiral Hayward, ''is the sine qua non for battle area control.''