This has been only the briefest overview of the Falklands War. Large aspects of the war, especially the fighting on the ground, have only been mentioned in passing. But we’ve also glossed over large parts of the air war, especially the air-to-air combat between the British Harriers and the Skyhawks and Daggers of the Argentine Air Force. We’ve also only touched on the large mobilization of the British fleet, both support ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, such as the fleet oilers that allowed the task force to stay at see for weeks at a time, and the large number of British merchant ships that served, including the use of passenger liners as improvised troopships.
These aspects of the war, and indeed, the entire war itself, are interesting and worthy of study. If you’ve been at all intrigued by this series, I encourage you to delve further. I thought I had a fair understanding of the actions of the war before I started this series. I did, as it turned out, but the research revealed the topic to be much like an onion. There was always another layer to be uncovered. The challenge to me was to quit reading and start writing!
There are few new lessons to be learned from the war. Indeed, while the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Wars didn’t have to deal with attacking jets, they would have had a clear understanding of the basics of moving a fleet long distances, blockading an objective, and landing a force to wrest control from an enemy.
Some tactical items that navies around the world were starkly reminded of included the danger of fire. With the exception of HMS Coventry, all the British ships lost succumbed to fire. Had they been able to suppress on board fires, most of the ships would have been salvageable, if not promptly able to return to battle. The Royal Navy had thought itself well prepared and well drilled in shipboard firefighting. Indeed, each ship of the task force had been stripped as far as possible of flammable materials, and each crewman wore flame retardant flash hoods and gauntlets to protect him at battle stations. But the heat, toxicity and persistence of shipboard fires came as a surprise to the fleet. Lessons relearned in the Falklands would go a long way to saving the USS Stark 5 years later in the Persian Gulf. In the Marines, it’s “Every man a rifleman.” Likewise, in the Navy, it’s “Every man a firefighter.” Whether our navy has kept up the intense preparation to fight fires aboard ship (and follow through with other critical damage control missions such as maintaining power and internal communications, shoring and dewatering) and relentlessly drilling crews to the point that reaction is automatic is another question.
Likewise, the vulnerability of sophisticated systems such as radars and missile systems to exposure to the harsh elements at sea led to several instances where critical defense systems failed when most needed. Maintenance, both in terms of funding for spare parts, plenty of well trained sailors to perform the maintenance, and in depth knowledge not just of the operation, but the fundamentals of their operation and maintenance , is absolutely critical. The current US fetish for “optimal manning” will leave US ships vulnerable to the same failures at critical moments. Sailors will die needlessly.
The lack of effective point defense against air and missile threats was something of a surprise to the Royal Navy. The fleet had been tailored for an open ocean “blue water” mission. It’s primary area air defense missile, the Sea Dart, was quite effective against medium altitude, long range targets. But the involved steps to identify, localize, track, and engage targets took time, and made it less than effective against low altitude threats and those threats that appeared at very close range. The most common short range air defense missile in the fleet, the ancient Sea Cat missile, was virtually useless. Last ditch weapons such as optically aimed 40mm and 20mm cannon were recognized as obsolete by the end of World War II, and yet they were still the only close in weapons for many RN ships in the Falklands nearly 40 years later. Not surprisingly, almost immediately after the Falklands War, money was found to install the Phalanx Close In Weapon System on most ships. Shortly after, the RN worked to develop its own gun based CIWS, the 30mm Goalkeeper. The Seawolf point defense missile, on the other hand, was quite effective. Engagement times were still too long to maximize its effectiveness. Changes were later made to methods to speed up the engagement, and later variants of the system were even faster to react. With even minimal warning, a Seawolf equipped ship has an excellent chance of defeating a close in attacker, whether missile or jet.
Strategically and operationally, the Falklands War shows the critical importance of having clear political and military goals. The Argentinian invasion was conceived and executed almost without any strategic though of the implications. The junta saw it more as a political move than a military one. The Argentinian forces had long played a central role in domestic politics, and had never fought a modern external enemy. This blinded the junta to the likelihood that Britain, led by a Thatcher government that could not be seen as “appeasing” an opponent, would not only fight, but make every possible exertion to regain the islands. Further, the junta was stunned that the Reagan administration sided with Britain. South America was a hotbed of Communist activity in those days, and the Reagan White House had made a concerted effort to assist South and Central American governments and strengthen diplomatic and military ties throughout the region. How the junta managed to convince itself this would outweigh 70 years of the “special relationship” and an alliance through two world wars as well as the ties of NATO is an open question. The junta thought they were going to negotiate a solution to the standoff, and just possibly had to fight. The British, on the other hand, assumed they would have to fight, and if there was a diplomatic breakthrough, so be it. This mindset clearly gave the British the upper hand in preparation for the coming battle.
Having looked at the seizure of the Falklands as a political ploy, the Argentinian junta therefore failed to approach the matter from a sound operational basis. While seizing the islands defended by 80 or so Royal Marines was one thing, holding them was another. Like the dog that chased a car, the Argentinians weren’t quite sure what to do when they caught it. A properly planned operation would have mobilized not just the Argentine Navy (ironically, the driving political force behind the seizure), but all elements of Argentine maritime power. Had plans been in place to move large amounts of equipment by sea, the Falklands might well have been made impenetrable to any task force the British might have raised. The Argentine fleet was hardly large enough to go toe to toe with the Royal Navy, but it had plenty of time to escort merchant shipping to the islands without any possible opposition. Further, even after RN subs arrived on station, the modern Type 42 destroyers, and the anti-submarine assets of the ARA could have given respectable defense to convoys dashing back and forth. It would have been high risk, but no more high risk than having three World War II era ships stooging around to the south with virtually no defense against modern submarines.
The Argentine decision to occupy the Falklands with large numbers of infantry, at the expense of a smaller, balanced combined arms force showed a fundamental lack of understanding of modern warfare by the Argentine leadership. Had the Argentine government studied MacArthur’s campaign in the Pacific at all, they would have realized that MacArthur only landed infantry, not to destroy Japanese forces, but instead to seize airfields. The failure of the junta to improve Stanley Airfield to take strike aircraft is stunning, especially given the aggressiveness and intrepidity of their aviators. Basing the strike elements of the FAA there may not have prevented the British from retaking the islands, but failure to do so virtually guaranteed that the British eventually would.
Seapower gives mobility. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of a fleet in being was clearly demonstrated to still hold true. Having a fleet may not have exercised the deterrent effect desired, but it did give Britain the ability to promptly set about regaining control of its islands. While the RN was a mere shadow of its former self, it was still a much larger force than any the Argentinians could field. The RN also used its mobility to build up a forward operating base at Ascension Island that would shuttle tankers and other replenishment ships to the task force, allowing it to stay at sea around the Falklands. This persistence allowed the RN to “shape the battlefield” in the Falklands and set the conditions of the coming battle in favor of their forces. By using the inherent mobility of seapower, the RN was able to engage in battle when it chose, and deny the Argentinians targets when they attempted to strike back. Further, this operational mobility allowed the British to make their landings at a time and place of their own choosing. This prevented the Argentinian forces from massing against a force that was vulnerable while landing, and eventually allowed the British to engage Argentinian ground forces piecemeal and destroy them in detail.
The flip side is, once a fleet has landed its landing force, it is tied to its objective. It has to remain on station to defend the logistical lifeline for those forces. This negates the operational mobility, and in effect leaves them tactically immobile. Argentina seized upon this to launch its heaviest strikes, sending up to 75 sorties to smash the invasion. While the aviators were stunningly aggressive, they paid an awful price, with losses of up to 15% in one day. No air force can long withstand that. And their attacks on the supporting warships meant that they failed to destroy the real threat- the amphibious ships that were actually landing the landing force. Still, the RN wasn’t operating in a political vacuum. Had enough RN ships been sunk, political and popular support from the home front might have evaporated. The failure of the Argentinians to realize their bombs were not exploding meant they didn’t correct their tactics until the very end of the war. Had they changed tactics even slightly early on, they might have sunk as many as twice as many British ships. The ability of Britain to sustain those losses must be questioned.
Ultimately, seapower’s value lies in its ability to influence events ashore. Eventually, even blue water fleets must enter the littorals, that band where sea meets shore. The littorals have historically been, and likely will remain, the most dangerous waters around. Mines, sea and shore based airpower, missiles, gunboats and land based sensors and defenses all conspire to make ships vulnerable. Navies must be equipped, trained, and prepared to operate in this cluttered, often confusing environment, and understand that losses will be taken. The current US Navy doctrinal push to be the dominant power in any littoral environment makes sense. Whether the equipment and training to support this does is another matter entirely. We have our doubts.
The entire series of posts may be found here:
Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – British order of battle
Part 3 – Argentinian order of battle – naval and ground forces
Part 4 – Argentinian order of battle – air force
Part 5 – Barebones timeline of the war
Part 6 – Argentinian forces invade the Falklands, Britain reacts.
Part 7 – Troop carriers and the Total Exclusion Zone
Part 8 – Britain assembles their task force
Part 9 – Argentina reinforces
Part 10 – May 1, first major combat operations
Part 11 – Sinking of ARA General Belgrano
Part 12 – Sinking of HMS Sheffield
Part 13 – Softening up prior to landings
Part 14 – May 21, landings begin
Part 15 – May 26 through June 14, combat continues until the war ends