The Naval War in the Falklands, Part 6

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Let’s take a look at some of the major operations in the Falklands

2 April- Argentinian forces invade the Falkland Islands.

The Argentinian Navy was the major force behind the invasion of the Falklands. At a time of major domestic unrest, and the potential for a shooting war with Chile over disputed territories in the Beagle Channel, the ruling junta expected the seizure of the Falklands to be perceived as more of a diplomatic matter than an actual military conquest. The initial occupation was reasonably well planned, but the follow on actions displayed a disbelief that the British would actually fight for the islands.

The initial invasion of the islands was carried out both by special operations forces landed from a destroyer,  a submarine (mostly to reconnoiter the main invasion beaches) and by Argentinian marine infantry landed via amphibious assault vehicles launched from an LST similar the the old US De Soto County class.  About 100 special operations troops, and 400 or so marines landed. They were opposed by a force of about 84 Royal Marines. The normal garrison of the Falklands was a token force of 40 Royal Marines, but the invasion happened just as one force was being replaced by another garrison, so the force on hand was double the normal.

The British guessed correctly that the invasion was coming, and alerted the defenders. They failed to properly guess where the landings would come, however, and the bulk of the garrison was out of place to resist. In any event, it was unlikely that the garrison, greatly outnumbered, with only small arms and the most token  anti-armor weapons, could have long withstood the Argentinians. Having said that, they did resist. Early on, the message was sent that British forces would fight. But there would be no fight to the death. Soon after the initial clashes, the Argentinians had seized Government House in Stanley, and Governor Hunt, the senior British official in the islands, arranged a surrender. There were no British casualties in the invasion, and only one Argentinian fatality. Governor Hunt and the Royal Marine garrison would be evacuated to Argentina, and via Uruguay, quickly repatriated to Britain.

The Argentinian assault showed the flexibility of what our Marines today would call “Operational Maneuver From the Sea” or OMFS. The attacking force, having control of the seas surrounding the objective, had the option to maneuver their force out of contact with the British, and choose their time and place of attack so as to avoid his defenses, and strike from an unexpected and undefended direction. Thus, freedom of maneuver at sea gives the attacker freedom of maneuver ashore. Had the Argentinians landed against the prepared defenses of the garrison, they still likely would have prevailed, but the cost, both to them and the British, would have been higher.

The vast majority of humanity and thus militarily significant objectives is located near a coastline. Ports, river inlets, cities, manufacturing and transportation hubs are abundant near the sea.  Not surprisingly, the defenses of the world tend to be concentrated near these points as well.  But the coastlines of the world are so vast that not every inch can be strongly defended. Indeed, most cannot be defended at all. This gives an attacker an opportunity to bypass defended positions, and strike a vulnerable location.

To be sure, this isn’t always the case. In France in 1944, almost the entire coast was defended to one degree or another. The choice of Normandy as the invasion site was a deliberate choice to avoid the far stronger defenses in the Pas de Calais.

In the Pacific campaigns of WWII, many objectives were so small that there was virtually no point that wasn’t strongly defended. Any assault would almost by definition be a frontal assault. Yet even here, judicious use of the freedom of maneuver at sea meant that many island strongholds of the Japanese were simply bypassed, and other locations seized instead. Rabaul is the classic example of this, but several times a similar tactic was used in the New Guinea campaign. As you can see, control of the sea is often key to control of the land.

Britain, having lost the Falklands for lack of control of the sea, was determined to regain the islands. To do so, she would need control of the seas surrounding them. But before she could do that, she had to deny that control to the Argentinians.

4 April- HMS Conqueror, a nuclear attack submarine, sorties from England toward the Falklands. Two more sail within days.

Few vessels are more suited to denying an enemy the freedom of the seas than the nuclear powered attack submarine. The SSN is the ultimate stealth fighter. It goes about unseen by eye or radar, and can only be heard by the most sensitive sonars, and then only at a modest range. Not only did the deployment of SSNs give the British the ability to deny sea communications to the Argentinians, they could perform other important roles. They could intercept communications, eavesdrop on Argentinian airfields (this let them give some warning to the fleet when airstrikes might be underway), land SAS and SBS troops to perform reconnaissance, and even perform reconnaissance of the islands themselves via periscope photography.

When the British declared an exclusion zone around the Falklands, a large part of the enforcement of that zone was to be on the shoulders of the sub skippers. And we’ll see more of HMS Conqueror soon.

5 April- HMS Invincible and Hermes sail from England toward the Falklands. The carriers form the core of the British task force.

Since World War II, it has been clear to every modern navy that you cannot control the seas if you cannot control the skies above them. The sinking of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales on 10 December, 1941 drove this lesson home to every sailor.

The aircraft carrier is the means to provide this control of the air over a fleet. In our modern usage, most US carriers have been used more for “power projection,” that is, strikes against land targets, than “sea control,” or controlling the skies above the fleet. But that doesn’t mean the need to control the skies is obsolete. It just means we haven’t faced an opponent lately with the airpower to challenge us. Unfortunately for Britain, the small Harrier squadrons of the task force would barely be enough to provide a bubble of protection over the main body of the fleet. And as good as the Harrier was, it wasn’t really an air superiority fighter.

For many years, it was accepted dogma that carrier forces could not operate within range of enemy shore based airpower. The advantage would lie with the enemy, and losses of carriers would be prohibitive. But battles such as the Great Marianas Turkey shoot led to a new school of thought. Carrier forces could operate against land based air forces, under certain circumstances. But the risk would be higher. Hit and run raids would exploit the ability to maneuver at sea. After all, the carriers knew the enemy airfields weren’t going to move. But the enemy ashore would first have to find the carriers before they could counterattack. And that’s not always the easiest task.

In this case, the war would ultimately come down to who could control the seas around the Falklands, and that meant it came down to who could wrest control of the skies above them. We’ll take a deeper look at the operations of the task force and the Argentinian struggle for air and sea superiority later in part 7.