How experts view missile strike on British destroyer

Soul-searching and self-doubt in the NATO community over the loss of the British destroyer Sheffield off Argentina are misplaced, say experts in naval warfare.

These experts say the Sheffield's vulnerability to attack by a French-made Exocet missile was predictable. The British force sent to the Falkland Islands, they add, was asked to travel too far to do too much without adequate air cover and technological support that could have stopped or deflected the missile.

The experts also deplore the tendency of the news media to seek instant analyses in the wake of the incident. Too few data are available, some argue, to draw conclusions on what happened and whether it ought to lead to a change in tactics.

But there already are calls in Europe for such change. Said one British Navy source: ''This attack will have naval ship designers rushing back to their drawing boards and weapons systems companies knocking on defense ministry doors throughout NATO.''

Added Canadian Adm. Robert H. Falls, chairman of the NATO military committee, somewhat more circumspectly, ''I hope we will review our tactics not just in the light of tragedies, but in the light of modernization and capabilities of equipment.''

If anything, agree experts contacted by the Monitor, the missile attack on the Sheffield only reinforces the argument that the US Navy needs a larger surface fleet.

But, says Adm. Thomas Moorer (Ret.), former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and now with the Georgetown University Center for Strategic Studies in Washington: ''If you want to send a NATO ship into the Baltic without air cover from, say, West Germany, and you continue to fire enough weapons at it, you're going to destroy it. If ships cannot survive -- and that's what the implication is -- then we're in a fix.

''In every war we've ever had, the advance of technology has increased the rate at which casualties occur,'' Admiral Moorer adds. ''We've got to be prepared for the fact that both sides are going to lose more than they lost by previous standards.''

Michael MccGwire, senior fellow in the foreign policy section of the Brookings Institution in Washington, says his confidence in the NATO naval forces is not shaken by the Sheffield experience. The British would be foolhardy to expect that they would incur no losses in the Falklands, he says.

''All the press wants is to make instant analyses,'' complains Mr. MccGwire. ''But (the Sheffield incident) really is not very relevant to the US Navy. The disparity in power between them is too great.''

The British Navy, he says, is geared to antisubmarine warfare and has been tailored to the assumption that it would be operating alongside US carriers.

If there is a comparison between the British experience and the US, says Admiral Moorer, it is that that both countries have cut back their navies while expecting them to be able to cover more territory.

''But you can't change the NATO strategy on the grounds that all the ships are vulnerable,'' Moorer adds.

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