Falklands defeat could speed Argentine A-bomb

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Defeat in the Falklands war could turn Argentina's military eyes in a new direction -- a nuclear bomb.

Western arms-control experts say Argentina probably could build its first A-bomb within two to three years. The Falklands defeat may give Argentina the incentive to push ahead.

Explosion of a nuclear weapon by Buenos Aires would be viewed with great concern by the United States. It would make Argentina the world's seventh nuclear power -- and the first to join that exclusive club since India detonated a crude atomic device in 1974.

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An Argentine bomb would put pressure on neighboring Brazil to move ahead with its own weapon. Until now, Argentina and Brazil have been engaged in an ''arms walk'' rather than an arms race. Brazil is believed to be at least four years away from developing a nuclear weapon.

Despite Argentina's ability to develop an atomic bomb rather quickly, arms-control experts in the US say they are hopeful Buenos Aires can yet be dissuaded.

Argentina is developing its own independent fuel cycle for atomic power. The country has supported a program of nuclear research since the 1940s. But a rush to build a bomb could cut off Argentina from technical aid from such nations as West Germany and Switzerland.

In 1977, Argentine officials promised President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that they were ready to sign a Latin American nuclear nonproliferation treaty. To date, however, Buenos Aires has managed to avoid actually signing the document.

US experts say Argentina is one of two nations currently close to a nuclear capability for the first time. The other is Pakistan. Israel is believed to have a small stockpile of atomic weapons, even though it has never test-fired one. South Africa may also have a secret nuclear weapons capability. Test-firing of atomic weapons, by the way, isn't always essential. The first atom bomb dropped in war, the one that fell on Hiroshima, was of a type never test-fired by the US.

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