The Naval War in the Falklands- Part 13

Part 1 in the series is here. 

Softening Up

After the attack on HMS Sheffield until the first landings of the main body of troops, the war mostly consisted of the British task force attempting to soften up the Argentinian forces on the islands. The carrier task force operated to the east of the islands, launching series of Harrier attacks on known and suspected positions, attempting to shut down Stanley airfield (they were never wholly successful) and inserting Special Air Service and Special Boat Service teams. The SAS is vaguely analogous to our Special Forces, and the SBS is roughly equivalent to our Navy SEALs. The SAS and SBS teams had a two fold mission.

The first was reconnaissance. Now, the obvious part of this is attempting to locate the Argentinian forces, their battle positions, strength and order of battle. A thorough topographical understanding of the islands was also needed, and SAS teams could confirm that available maps represented reality. But as important was a complete hydrographic survey of the possible landing beaches. Britain had a fair idea of some hydrographic features of the islands, such as tides, but amphibious landings leave little room for error, and call for special knowledge of local conditions that even long-time residents would not think to look for. The gradient and composition of beaches, roads and exits from beaches, localized currents in possible landing sites, and the ability of sites to bear military traffic would all be critical information in any landing. Further, even if the teams lucked out and found perfect landing beaches, reconnaissance of all beaches had to be conducted. This would prevent the enemy from determining beforehand which beaches the Brits would land from. After all, why sacrifice the great element  of surprise that maneuver from the sea gives you? Secondly, other factors beside the quality of the beaches might dictate landings on less optimal beaches. For instance, if the Argentinians had fortified the best beaches to land on, prudence would dictate landing on less appealing, but less deadly, beaches.  The wise practitioner of amphibious warfare knows to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” and then use your freedom of maneuver to hit the enemy at the time and place of your own choosing. The German Army used to say, “Time spent on reconnaissance is never time wasted.” In this case, time spent in reconnaissance would allow the British to do just that.

The second role of these SAS and SBS teams would be to conduct raids. A raid is a surprise attack on a fixed enemy position, with no intent to seize and hold the position for any length of time. That is, get in, hit ‘em, and get out. Raids by these special operators would yield several benefits. First, they were used to shape the battlefield. By destroying enemy assets before the main body of the landing, the Brits would be tailoring the conditions of the coming battle to their own needs. One such raid was on 14 May, at an early warning site on Pebble Island, denying the Argentines the ability to spot the British fleet as it closed in to its preferred landing sites. Further, these raids gathered intelligence about the enemy, both hard intel, such as his locations and strength and equipment, but also soft intel such as how hard the Argentinian conscript was willing to fight, and his level of training and proficiency. Finally, they established a “moral superiority” over the defenders. With the seeming ability to strike anywhere, any time he chose, the attacker left the defender discouraged and uncertain. If nothing else, it kept the Argentinians up all night looking for the SAS and SBS.

These raids were not without great risk. On 19 May, a helicopter loaded with SAS troops crashed, killing 21 troopers.

During this time, the Argentinian Air Force continued to attempt to locate and attack the British naval forces. The two P-2 Neptunes were withdrawn from service on 10 May due to a lack of spare parts, greatly frustrating their ability to locate the task force. Attempts to use other platforms as maritime patrol aircraft were not very successful. For instance, C-130s were pressed into service as patrol planes.  Without proper equipment and training, they struggled to find the Brits, and one was shot down by British Harriers on 1 June. Until the British closed in on the Falklands for the landings, the Argentinians could do little to attack the task force. When the British did finally make their main effort at San Carlos on the 21st of May, the Argentinian Air Force would strike with suicidal courage.

Next, Part 14.

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