Argentina and Britain are going into a military confrontation over the Falkland Islands like two blindfolded boxers, U.S. naval experts said yesterday.
Argentina has the advantage--in boxing terms--of the longer reach, they agreed, while Britain stands the best chance of shaking off its blindfold and landing lethal punches, given enough time.
Argentina's longer reach comes mainly from American-built A4 Skyhawk fighter bombers that can take 3,000 pounds of bombs 700 miles and return to either the nation's single aircraft carrier or an airfield.
Although the two British aircraft carriers being sent to the Falklands--the Invincible and the Hermes--are carrying the more modern Harrier jump-jets, those planes have a combat radius of only about 100 miles when loaded with bombs. So the single Argentine carrier, The 25th of May, could stay out of bombing range of the Harriers while launching A4 Skyhawks against British ships.
This longer reach provided by the A4s would be doubly advantageous if the Argentine military equips the airfield at Stanley, East Falkland, to handle attack planes. The A4s then could attack the British flotilla from the sea, the Falklands and perhaps even the Argentine mainland, depending on how close the ships come to land.
The Argentine navy has 14 A4 Skyhawks aboard its carrier and an additional 68 on land under air force control. The Argentine air force also is believed to have nine Canberra bombers and 21 Mirage III fighters for aerial dogfighting.
If the Argentine planes managed to sink or disable the British carriers, it would be all over for the Royal Navy as far as reversing the Falklands takeover, U.S. Navy experts agreed. But the British are more experienced than the Argentines at hiding their ships from hunter aircraft, the experts hastily added.
"The real key is experience," said one of the U.S. Navy's most respected sea dogs, retired Adm. I. C. (Ike) Kidd, former commander of the Atlantic Fleet who retired in 1978 after a long acquaintance with British and Argentine naval leaders. "You've got to find what you're looking for; you've got to get those eyes out in front because it isn't easy to find ships on the ocean. The question becomes, what does each side have to find the other."
Here, the experts said, the advantage swings to the British, especially if they do the expected and fly their equivalent of the American down-looking, radar-hunting plane, the AWACS, to their South Atlantic Ascension Island. From Ascension, the British long-range hunter plane, the Nimrod, could help guard the British task force and perhaps find Argentine ships and submarines.
Kidd acknowledged that the British would be trying to operate at the end of a 8,000-mile-long umbilical cord--the distance between the United Kingdom and the Falklands--and that operating from Ascension only cuts that distance in half. Those distances impose on the British the same kind of stresses and strains the United States faces in trying to bring force to bear in the Persian Gulf.
"You have to travel so far from the locker room to the playing field that you're exhausted when you get there," Kidd said, "while the other fellow's locker room is right under the stadium."
Even so, he said, "on the basis of operational experience, the British navy is in a different category" than the Argentine navy. But he said the risks for both navies are so high if they go to war that if he were involved "I'd be praying for a breakthrough in diplomacy."
Although the Argentine navy has some anti-submarine warfare capability, the British have the better eyes and ears here, too, as well as more sophisticated equipment for finding surface ships.
Retired Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., chief of naval operations from 1970 to 1974, said British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher risks "a debacle" if she opts for war. He put the odds of the British winning at 55 to 45 in their favor, primarily because the experience and cunning of British navy commanders should offset the Argentine advantages of being close to home and having land-based warplanes.
If it came to war and he was the British commander, Zumwalt said he first would decrease the air threat by going all-out to find and sink the Argentine carrier, perhaps with the nuclear-powered attack submarine Superb; blockade the Falklands to keep ammunition and fuel from reaching the Argentine invasion force there; consider landing Marines at night by helicopter at a remote island of the Falklands, and build a temporary air strip for strike fighters, World War II style.
"But it's a darn tough situation," Zumwalt said in joining Kidd in hoping for a diplomatic, rather than military, solution. "It's a logistical nightmare for the British. They have paid the price of letting their conventional forces deteriorate. This is a classic example" of what happens when naval priorities are misplaced. "Here are the British seeking to defend their interests and getting zero use out of their nuclear forces."
Kidd philosophized that if diplomacy averts a war over the Falklands, the bright glare the controversy puts on the shortcomings of the British navy for conducting conventional operations "could be a blessing in disguise."