Testing Argentine arms and British statesmanship

With one bold move last Friday Britain has gained the upper hand in the ground war on the Falkland Islands. It should be able to go on to military victory if the Royal Navy can continue to provide supplies and air support. Thus , the contest in the Falklands has become primarily one of Argentine air power vs. British sea power. The battle on land will command a lot of attention, but the handwriting is on the wall.

This is because the British have placed the Argentine commander in Port Stanley in an untenable position. After almost four days ashore they had established a firm foothold on San Carlos on the western side of the East Falkland Island. Whether they have 5,000 men ashore or only half that number, they almost certainly outnumber the Argentine defenders in that area of the island. If the Argentine commander is to contain the British force on San Carlos he must send reinforcements to San Carlos quickly. His principal reserves are at Port Stanley and Darwhn.

To get to San Carlos from Darwin involves traversing narrow mountain passes in which the British might well challenge the Argentinians. To get there from Port Stanley involves covering some 55 miles of difficult terrain over which there are no roads worthy of the name. A recent resident of San Carlos has said that under good conditions it takes about half a day to make that short journey. In addition, the British have more hel)copters and have more mobility for fighting in this wet and boggy countryside.

Even more importantly, if General Menendez, the Argentine commander on the scene, contemplates drawing down his garrisons at either Port Stanley or Darwin, he must worry about the possibility of the British conducting an end run. The British amphibious force should be able to conduct a landing at or near either Port Stanley or Darwin to take advantage of any weakening of the Argentine positions there. After all, 3,500 fresh troops are nearing the area in the QE 2 and can be reloaded onto amphibious ships.

Thus the Argentine commander will be damned if he does not go forth to intercept the enemy; but he will also be damned if by dividing his force he ends up being defeated piecemeal. The chances are that he will opt to stay put. If so , the British will in time close in on Port Stanley. If the British army lays siege to the Port Stanley peninsula from the landward side and the Royal Navy blockades it from the seaward side, Argentines will be cut off from all support and supplies. The British could either harass the Argentine defenders from the mountain height above Port Stanley or descend in a full and, doubtless bloody, assault.

The British can do this, however, only if the Royal Navy can continue to keep the forces ashore adequately supplied with beans, bullets, fuel, etc. This iS the reason that our attention is now focused on the air-sea battle that continues to rage over Falklands South. The performance of the Argentine Air Force has been credible, but not outstanding, thus far. In the first three days of battle they sank one British destroyer-type warship, disabled another and damaged four to five more. In turn they lost in the neighborhood of 20 aircraft. While these report%d numbers are undoubtedly subject to error, they give us a feel for the attrition ratio in these exchanges. Early reports on Monday's action seemed to be similar. What do these combat results tell us?

At these rates the British can hold out longer than the Argentines, assuming two things. First, that the Argentines do not begin disabling British ships of higher value: the aircraft carriers, the amphibious transports or loaded troop transports, such as the QE 2. Second, that public reaction in Great Britain to the loss of British lives does not force the prime minister to back off. Neither of these seems likely to come to pass right now. The Argentine Air Force would not only have to sustain at least its present level of air activity but would have to improve its performance by reaching out even farther to seaward in order to attack the more valuable ships; and British public opinion polls for the moment seem prepared to accept continued losses.

What may be tested most in Britain is Mrs. Thatcher's statesmanship. If her ground forces do lay siege to Port Stanley, will she insist on attacking the city and forcing an Argentine capitulation? Press reports of talk of ''unconditional surrender'' in London are ominous in this regard.

If Mrs. Thatcher does force Argentina into surrender, and at the cost of added Dloodshed, it will make the nsuing peace more difficult for everyone. For Argentina it will mean a deeper lingering animosity toward Great Britain, and the United States, than is necessary. For Britain it would mean having to garrison the islands into the indefinite future lest the Argentines simply return to occupy them once again. It is to be hoped that Mrs. Thatcher will recognize the time may not be far off when a military pause might permit the Argentines to compromise on a cease-fire without losing too much face.

How soon the Argentines might recognize their plight and be willing to compromise will depend on how they view the readiness of their Air Force to continue the battle. As long as Argenzz/om leaders hold hope that they can smash the British fleet they may choose to ignore the near impossibility of the situation on the ground. All eyes, then, are on the continuing air-sea battle.

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