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Argentina restocks arsenal with tip-top fighters, missiles

Argentina is rapidly replacing military equipment lost during the 10-week Falklands war - and is investing in new weaponry that battle experience has shown to be indispensable in modern warfare.

Foreign military experts estimate that Argentina lost about $800 million worth of equipment in the Falklands conflict with Britain last spring. This included a cruiser, a submarine, two naval support vessels, more than 100 aircraft, and the entire equipment of three Army brigades.

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The losses, as well as the humiliation of defeat, had a profound impact here. They have not been made easier to bear by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's triumphant visit this week to the Falkland Islands.

Although the country is close to bankruptcy, the military is hurriedly placing orders for new battle equipment before handing the country back to elected government, which is expected at year's end.

In addition to replacing jets, ships, and supplies lost in the Falklands, military leaders are keen to buy advanced equipment to fill large, long-existing gaps in Argentina's battle capability. They are looking to build a stock of anti-aircraft weapons, transport and attack helicopters, and maritime patrol aircraft.

According to military sources, Argentina has purchased an estimated four Lockheed Electra airliners in the United States for conversion into maritime patrol planes. It was able to duck under the US ban on arms sales to Argentina (the 1977 Humphrey-Kennedy amendment) because the four-engined turbo-prop Electras are classified as civil aircraft.

The Electras reportedly are being fitted with state-of-the-art surface detection radar, which Argentina obtained separately from theElectra deal. They also will carry torpedoes and other weapons, and their main task will be to detect and, if necessary, attack surface ships. According to sources, they are not intended for antisubmarine warfare.

The purchases undoubtedly will put a big dent in the nation's budget. But military purchases generally account for a large chunk of Argentina's foreign purchases. Central bank sources estimate that about $5 billion of Argentina's $ 43 billion external debt relates to arms purchases since 1978.

Argentina woke up to the fact that it had no suitable maritime patrol aircraft when Britain's 110-ship task force steamed into the South Atlantic last April. An Air Force Boeing 707 was sent out on long-range reconnaissance missions and the military hastily arranged the loan of two Bandeirante maritime patrol planes from Brazil.

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Civilian executive jets were also pressed into service to help patrol the sea area between Argentina and the Falklands.

Last September, the official Air Force magazine, Aeroespacio, complained that Air Force fighter bombers had been unable to operate against the British fleet on 13 of the 45 days between Britain's first bombing raid on the Port Stanley airfield May 1 and the surrender of Argentine forces June 14. The article stated the Air Force had been hindered by lack of information about targets.

Besides the Electras, Argentina purchased a new Lockheed C-130 Hercules cargo plane from the United States toward the end of 1982 to replace an Air Force plane that crashed at Port Stanley during battle.

A civil version of the military transport plane was purchased by the domestic airline LADE, a subsidiary of the Air Force. The domestic company is run by military personnel.

The Reagan administration appears to be anxious to lift the US arms embargo on Argentina. The Hercules deal went through with the knowledge of the US Embassy here.

The arms ban was imposed by Jimmy Carter in protest of human-rights violations, but Argentine diplomats hope President Reagan will ask Congress to lift it later this year.

Of Argentina's three armed forces, the Air Force suffered the heaviest loss of equipment during the Falklands conflict. Dozens of its Mirage 111 and A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers were shot down by missiles from British warships and Harrier jumpjets.

The Air Force reportedly has purchased 10 more Mirage 111s from Argentina's ally Peru, and about 24 Israeli-built Daggers (an Israeli version of the Mirage). However, the Air Force is still looking for a new fighter-bomber to replace its aging subsonic Skyhawks.

The French Mirage 2000 is reported to be under evaluation for this purpose, but US arms salesmen are trying to interest Argentina in the F-5G Tigershark for delivery once the arms ban is lifted. Meanwhile the Air Force is reportedly on the verge of completing a $25 million deal with Brazil for the purchase of 15 Xavante jet trainers.

Argentina lost 22 helicopters in the Falklands. Britain's successful use of large helicopters to move troops over difficult terrain rapidly has convinced the Argentine Army of the need for more heavy transport helicopters, according to arms trade sources. The armed forces also are keen to buy French-built Pumas and want some ground attack helicopters for use against infantry.

During the Falklands conflict, Argentine ground forces found their Swiss Oerlikon radar-guided anti-aircraft guns and the Franco-German Roland ground-to-air missile to be the most effective defense against air attack. The military is expected to place large orders shortly for more of these weapons.

France is reported to have shipped nine Super Etendard naval attack aircraft and their complement of Exocet anti-ship missiles to Buenos Aires last November.

Although this delivery would enhance Argentina's offensive capability in any future Falklands conflict, the planes were part of a longstanding order for 14 Super Etendards to equip Argentina's only aircraft carrier.

Five Super Etendards were delivered before Argentina's invasion of the islands, and Exocets from them sank two British ships.

In 1983 Argentina is also due to get the first of four frigates being built in West Germany and the first of two submarines. More submarines and six Meko 130 Corvettes are being built in Argentina with West German help.

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