Israeli military experts with extensive experience in sea missile warfare are giving Britain low marks for the way it has met the challenge of missiles in the Falkland Islands conflict.
''They weren't properly prepared for it,'' says Adm. Benjamin Telem, who commanded the Israeli Navy in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. ''It's not true that ships are helpless before missiles. Missiles can be dealt with.''
Other experts, such as military analyst Zeev Schiff, say that the British had apparently failed to mount a sufficient airborne warning system against the French-made Exocet missiles used by Argentina.
Writing this week in the daily Haaretz, Mr. Schiff said Britain had inadequate electronic means for throwing the missiles off target and failed to provide at least some of its frontline ships with armament that could down an incoming missile.
(According to British and US military intelligence, only one Exocet missile remains in the Argentine arsenal. But Reuters quoted a British government source May 26 as saying Argentina had received, via Peru or Venezuela, a fresh consignment of sea-skimming Exocet missiles. The Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report.
[Military analysts said the French-made Exocet missile, which has destroyed two British ships, could tip the balance in the war because the British fleet has no effective countermeasure to it.
[Only two Argentine attacks with Super Etendard planes and Exocet missiles have been announced. Each was successful; one sank the destroyer HMS Sheffield May 4, the other disabled the support ship Atlantic Conveyor May 25.]
The Israeli Navy was the first in the world to fall victim to missile warfare when the destroyer Eilat was sunk in the Mediterranean. The ship was destroyed several months after the six- day war by Russian-made Styx missiles fired from an Egyptian naval vessel.
Six years later, the Israeli Navy became the first in the world - and thus far the only navy in the world - to successfully fight a missile war when it sank several Syrian and Egyptian craft in missile duels without suffering a single loss.
The Israeli success was based on strategic and tactical concepts of Israel's own devising and involved the use of Israeli-made missiles and electronic warfare systems against Russian-made systems.
Israel began rethinking its naval strategy when the first Russian missile boats were delivered to Egypt in 1962. The Israelis were taken by surprise by the introduction of this powerful weapons system and responded by designing their own Gabriel sea-to-sea missiles and missile boats. The Israeli weapons system was not ready for the 1967 war, but was just ready for operation when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973.
On the first night of the war, five Israeli missile boats sank a Syrian torpedo boat with gunfire. Then the Israeli ships picked up incoming Styx missiles on their radars and began electronic countermeasures aimed at throwing the missiles off course. These measures were largely successful, but when missiles managed to home in on ships they were brought down by gunfire.
Two nights later, the Israelis faced the same scenario off the Egyptian coast. The Egyptians fired a salvo of missiles against an Israeli task force at 48,000 meters. It took the Israelis 20 minutes to narrow the gap to 20,000 meters and fire. Three of the four Egyptian missile boats in the action were sunk. There were no Israeli losses. In all, 54 sea-to-sea missiles were fired at Israeli vessels in the war without a single one hitting.
Since then, Israel has devised a new generation both of sea-to- sea missiles and of antimissile electronic devices to face Arab navies, which have advanced Soviet and Western missiles.