Argentine Air Force brigadier flies to the top of the military heap

President Ra'ul Alfons'in completed a major shuffle of Argentina's military last Friday by appointing an Air Force brigadier as the head of the armed forces joint chiefs of staff -- a post traditionally held by an Army general. The move, according to the civilian Ministry of Defense, will ensure the loyalty of the armed forces. But the shuffle may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, say observers here who believe it may create more problems for the democratic government than it can solve.

The appointment of Air Force Brig. Teodoro Waldner is without precedent. Since Mr. Alfons'in came to power in December 1983, the joint chiefs staff slot has become the most important military post in the country, subordinate only to the President and the Defense Ministry. During the former military regime, the joint chiefs of staff was subordinate to the ruling junta, meaning that whoever held the post lacked any real political weight.

Prior to the appointment, the joint chiefs of staff position has been firmly in the hands of the Army. Brigadier Waldner is thus the first Air Force officer ever to command the operations of all three services. This is a radical alteration of the balance of power inside the Argentine military, which has always been dominated by the Army.

Waldner's appointment will probably exacerbate interservice rivalries, which have deepened as a result of the Falklands war and the hefty reduction in defense spending by the current civilian administration.

``The Air Force,'' commented a senior Army officer, ``has a very different view from us and the Navy on the path the armed forces should be taking.''

Both Waldner and his new Air Force chief, Gen. Ernesto Crespo, emerged from the Falklands war convinced that the Air Force should no longer be subjected to the third-class status it has held throughout Argentine military history. They believe that armed forces reform and defense spending ought to reflect the key role the Air Force played in the war with Britain. After all, they reason, Argentine pilots created the greatest problems for the British task force.

The Army and Navy, however, blame the Falklands defeat on the Air Force's failure to provide good cover.

The raging debate over what should go to whom inside the armed forces has been intensified by the government's defense cuts. The military, which during the days of the junta was allowed to spend whatever it wished, has in recent months been forced to suspend part of its reequipment program for lack of funds. Wages of most military personnel have been savagely cut, while the country's conscript army has not had enough resources to do a single exercise. Army and Navy officers fear that the Air Force will attempt to use its new political weight to get a big slice of the smaller cake.

But unrest over defense spending is not the only problem that the military poses for President Alfons'in. There is also dissatisfaction throughout the armed forces with the government's handling of the human rights issue in what promises to be one of the most dramatic trials in Latin American history. The trials, which will charge the former military juntas with responsibility for the ``disapearance'' of at least 9,000 people during the late 1970s, are scheduled to be held early next month.

According to informed sources, growing military criticism of government policies caused last week's purge of the high command. The reshuffle that led to Waldner's appointment also included the ``early retirement'' -- a government euphemism for firing -- of 10 generals, four rear admirals, and two Air Force brigadiers. More than 60 high-ranking officers have been replaced since the civilian government took over in December 1983.

The purge is unlikely to increase military acceptance of the government's policy.

``Human rights is still the one issue that molds the Argentine armed forces in a virtually indestructible `esprit de corps,' ''commented one Western diplomat.

The military asserts that the methods it used following the coup in 1976 were a necessary means to an end: the elimination of what they termed a threat by left-wing guerrillas to ``Western Christian civilization.'' The current military chiefs, say observers, participated as junior officers in what is now called the ``dirty war,'' so there is little chance that last week's shuffle will bring about a revision of military history.

The shuffle was partly caused by the decision of the highest military tribunal here to exonerate Navy Lt. Alfredo Astiz from blame in a human rights violation trial. The decision was a blow to Alfons'in's hope that the military would try those officers accused of having committed ``excesses'' in the line of duty. Human rights groups and the French and Swedish governments had amassed evidence indicating that Lieutenant Astiz was involved in the kidnapping and alleged murder of an Argentine family, a Swedish student, and two French nuns between 1977-80. But Astiz has been returned to active duty on board the Veinticinco de Mayo aircraft carrier.

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