El Salvador's military establishment, faced with a mounting terrorist challenge, is floundering. It is short of officers, poorly equipped, and poorly trained.
Yet its Army, National Guard, and National Police are strong enough to keep terrorists at bay -- at least until the left-leaning guerrillas get foreign assistance.
This is the assessment of a variety of military observers, domestic and foreign, who say that El Salvador's military is committed to weathering the present storm.
The small group of colonels who run the military cannot, howeveR, seem to make up their minds on how to cope with the terrorists. Left-wing terrorists have occupied embassies, government ministries, and churches, and have kidnapped and assassinated military men, government officials, and businessmen.
Right-wing terrorists pose even more problems. Many of them are said to be former military men.
Together, the groups are responsible for hundreds of deaths, such as the 40 killed Jan. 22 when rightist militants opened fire on a demonstration of leftists marching on San Salvador.
Officers have been wrestling with these problems since Oct. 14, when moderate , reform-minded military forces ousted the government of Carlos Humberto Romero.
At the helm are two military members of the junta formed Oct. 15: Colonels Jaime Abdul Gutierrez and Adolfo Armando Majano. In addition, Col. Jose Guillermo Garcia, the minister of defense, is close to the colonels on the junta.
Actually, formation of the junta was the military's first answer to its dilemma.
But the next steps remain uncertain. The military's own weaknesses are part of the problem.
The shortage of officers stems in part from the October coup, when close to 100 of the 600 or so officers were nudged aside and put on inactive status because they represented the more conservative wing of the military. They remain on the sidelines since they do not reflect the mainsteam of Salvadorean Army thinking.
Will some of the sidelined officers, however, join or support the rightist militant groups? That is an unknown, but it is a worry.
Since a majority of the displaced officers were colonels and majors, the Army's top echelon is spread thin.This is particularly so because of the practice of putting Army officers in charge of the National Guard and National Police. Officers move back and forth between the military branches on their tours of duty. On Oct. 15, the guard and police got a completely fresh set of officers.
Countering this problem, however, is the loyalty expressed by the lieutenants and captains to Colonels Gutierrez and Majano.
Colonel Majano was head of the nation's military academy for five years. Colonel Gutierrez has long been a respected officer, and he is better known in the military than Colonel Majano.
Colonel Gutierrez's current absence due to illness compounds the military's problem. He has been in the United States for medical treatment for several weeks.
Many of El Salvador's officers won their spurs in the El Salvador-Honduras war of 1969. This is particularly true of the colonels and majors and some of the captains. That war created a close loyalty among the men.
Some of the military's equipment was used during the war 11 years ago.
"It was old when we used it then," a highly placed colonel says.
There could be a shortage of arms if the military decides to beef up its numbers.
At the moment, El Salvador's Army totals 10,000, with the National Guard, National Police, and Treasury Police adding another 7,000.
Recent recruitments suggest that El Salvador may increse these totals. The population of the country hovers around 5 million, which means there is one soldier for every 300 Salvadoreans.