Argentina gives high marks to its air force

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Argentina's Air Force continues to rack up victory after victory over British forces, particulary the vaunted Royal Navy in the 10-week-old South Atlantic war over the Falkland Islands, say top Argentine military officers.

But, these officers point out, the Argentine Army on the Falklands, led by Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez, has done poorly in encounters with the British this week along the coast of East Falkland and near the island's capital, Port Stanley. And the Argentines admit their Navy might as well be counted out of the race.

After a week in which few serious clashes took place, due in part to the extremely inclement weather, the Port Fitzroy engagement at Pleasant Bay was one of the most bitter battles of the 10-week-long Falkland's war. Argentina says its forces sank the British frigate HMS Plymouth, although Britain has yet to admit the loss.

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The battle was a hard-fought engagement with Britain suffering heavy losses in both manpower and weaponry, even though British troops attempting the landing at Port Fitzroy were eventually successful in establishing a beachhead. Argentina now admits to losing six of its aircraft, with the British claiming to have shot down twice or more that number.

The latest losses to the Air Force are serious. More than half the Argentine Air Force is out of action. Then there is the more irreparable loss of some of Argentina's best pilots, most of whom are US trained.

At the moment, Argentina can probably count on no more than 10 French Mirage IIIs, a similar number of Israeli-built Daggers, and 25 or so other aircraft. That is enough to continue doing serious damage to the British. But it gives Argentina very little back-up strength, particularly when it is noted that in the air, sea, and land battles this week, Britain was able to shoot down 15 Argentine planes.

Argentina simply cannot stand such losses for long.

Against the Argentine planes, most of them supersonic jets, the British subsonic Harrier jumpjets have clearly proven their worth. Many of the Argentine losses have resulted from the Harriers' unusual maneuverability -- a situation that Argentine Air Force officials find hard to counter.

But the badly battered Air Force has clearly shown its capacity to fight and do damage to the British -- with nearly 10 British ships out of action or sunk. That is a heavy toll, for it includes the sophisticated destryoyer HMS Sheffield , the frigates Ardent and Antelope, and the cargo vessel Atlantic Conveyor. It could also include the HMS Plymouth.

Loss of the Atlantic Conveyor with its cargo of weaponry and helicopters, according to Argentine officials, may explain why Britain has not made its long-awaited assault on the Port Stanley perimeter where General Menendez has concentrated the bulk of his soldiers.

In the long run, it is felt here that the Air Force has taken a big leap in Argentine military thinking, easily passing the lackluster naval performance and moving into second position behind the Army in importance.

Argentine officials are much less enthusiastic about their ability to maintain ultimate control of the Falklands. There is some embarrassment in military circles here over General Menendez's strategy and that of the Army in general.

These officials question, for example:

* Why Argentine forces were not prepared for the British landing in San Carlos Bay three weeks ago.

* Why Argentine forces did not rush to the scene and resist establishment of the British beachhead.

* Why there was so little effort to reinforce the Argentine garrison at Goose Green and Port Darwin in the face of an expected British attack.

* And finally, why the Argentines at Port Stanley allowed the British to march along the trails and peat bogs toward Port Stanley without a fight, and then to gain control of all the high ground around the city.

This minor action, together with the costly but successful landing at Port Fitzroy, has completely isolated General Menendez and some 6,000 Argentine troops in and around Port Stanley. General Menendez now has his back to the sea.

The Navy, for its part, remains largely tied to its bases, unwilling to venture into the South Atlantic, a situation particulary evident since the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano by a British submarine. The only reserve the Navy apparently has are three submarines, none of which have been in battle recently, and a handful of French Etendard jets, which carry the deadly Exocet missiles responsible for the sinking of the HMS Sheffield.

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