Most Britons and Argentines would dispute writer Jorge Luis Borges’ characterization of the 1982 war between Great Britain and Argentina as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”1 Years after the war, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would write, “The issue, from the start, was one of purest principle.”2 With equal sentiment, an Argentine admiral addressed a ship’s crew hours before initiating the invasion, saying: “We have been chosen by destiny to carry out one of the dearest ambitions of the Argentine people.”3 That ambition—held by Argentina for 150 years and stirred by distressed contemporary politics—resulted in a gambit to seize the “Malvinas,” the Argentine name for the Falklands, and present the British with a fait accompli. Argentina’s ruling junta never expected Britain to contest the islands’ April 1982 seizure militarily, and the rest of the world remained on the sidelines, ceding Argentina a “gray zone” in which to maneuver.
“Fait accompli gambits” force status quo powers to “engage in brinkmanship over actions others will view, in isolation, as trivial and far from constituting casus belli.”4 Admiral Sir John Forster “Sandy” Woodward, the senior naval officer in the British task force, condensed Britain’s 1982 dilemma: “It’s the ‘if not here, then where?’ bit all over again.”5 Parallels exist between the challenges faced by Britain’s naval force in 1982 and those mounting in front of U.S. naval forces today, as gray zone campaigns by U.S. adversaries suggest these strategies are “becoming the tool of choice for states wanting to reframe the global order in the 21st century.”6 This underscores the relevance of a historical conflict that today’s parlance would label a high-end, near-peer naval fight, sparked to life by a misjudged fait accompli. Its lessons—how a naval force in the missile-age closed with its objective, projected combat power ashore, and delivered the razor-thin staying power needed to win a war seemingly mandated by geopolitics—warrant fresh review.
Preparing for War
The greatest step toward military readiness is preparing the mind to accept the demands of the next conflict—no easy feat. Admiral Woodward understood this when, as a submarine commander in 1969, he forced the normalization of aggressive maneuvers on a crew that previously froze in place “over a routine change of depth.” He hardened his sailors’ mental states for an expected war with the Soviets, noting, “on such psychological tightropes are battles won, or lost.”7
Bloodied by the opening blows of 1982’s unexpected war over the Falklands, “psychological tightropes” on both sides grew slick. The suddenness of near-peer war required what Admiral Woodward called “family discussions” for a generation untested in high-end combat. In one case, a subordinate commander insisted that Harrier pilots needed structured crew rest. Believing greater risk came from thinning the fleet’s Harrier coverage, however, Admiral Woodward decided that overcast days “must suffice for ‘rest’ days.”8
In another instance, the admiral reoriented a Special Air Service (SAS) officer who “required” three weeks to plan a daring raid; he was given five days. Perhaps the most unsettling discussion for unprepared minds concerned entering Falkland Sound. Lacking minesweepers, Admiral Woodward concluded that his most “expendable” warship must use her hull for the task—“the only suitable hardware available.”9 Such discussions were sobering, turning many relationships brittle. Mitigating unacceptable risks to mission by accepting such risks to force was as popular as it was easy.
As one senior British officer put it: “The motto of the Falklands War is: ‘You never know.’”10
Mobilizing the Task Force
Planners often pronounce the demands of past conflicts dead, only to see them resurrected once the fighting starts. Britain’s 1981 Defence Review warrants its own case study. The review proposed selling both Royal Navy aircraft carriers and marked one of two amphibious assault ships for disposal. Also, after naval gunfire was pronounced an “increasingly redundant art,” the guns supporting Royal Marines fighting ashore in May 1982 had been “within three months of dissolution.”11 Argentina’s sudden invasion triggered a historic British mobilization and overturned many budget-shrinking initiatives.
Britain hustled to contend with the first adversary of the Falklands War: time. At every level, challenges mounted with each passing minute. Tactically, Argentine defenses grew stronger; operationally, the fierce South Atlantic winter drew closer; and strategically, global opinion that “Malvinas” might sound better than “Falklands” loomed large.
The task force rushed to load ships, putting things wherever they fit. No fewer than 54 private merchant ships were mobilized and received rapid modifications to lessen naval capability gaps. Training placed a distant second behind getting out the door. Preparation for combat had to occur under way or on reaching Ascension, a remote island midway to the Falklands. Ascension was so important, leaders later claimed, “If [it] had not existed we would have had to create it.” It permitted a hurried force to reorganize despite austere conditions and perceived enemy submarine threats.12 Ascension offers a point of study for today’s expeditionary advanced base operations concept.
Exploiting Vulnerabilities Early
With the task force closing, Britain struck from the sky and beneath the sea to rupture a great but unrecognized Argentine vulnerability: interservice fault lines. Operation Black Buck—the 8,000-mile roundtrip flight of a Vulcan bomber from Ascension to the Falklands—made history, a logistical feat that often overshadows its operational impact. Although the initial run on 1 May hit Stanley’s airstrip with only one bomb, that single crater “put an end to Argentine ambitions to use the runway for fast-jet attacks on the task force.”13 Forced to fly from the mainland, nearly 400 miles away, with almost no tanker support, Argentine pilots would measure time-on-station in seconds instead of hours.
The following day offered an even more pronounced example of tactical action yielding operational upshot. A controversial decision permitted a nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Conqueror, to engage the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano outside Britain’s maritime exclusion zone. Prioritizing reliability over capability, the Conqueror’s commander attacked with 1940s-era Mark VIII torpedoes rather than newly fielded Tigerfish torpedoes.14 The General Belgrano sank with 323 killed, “the greatest single loss of life during the war.”15 In response, Argentina’s navy recalled its fleet, ceding the South Atlantic when its own psychological tightrope snapped.
With Argentina’s air force fighting on fumes and its navy not fighting at all, conditions were set for a professional joint force to close with a conscripted, disjointed adversary. When an Exocet missile decimated the guided-missile destroyer HMS Sheffield on 4 May, however, it showed Britain’s maritime superiority to be relative, not absolute.
The Defender’s Dilemma
History widely supports Sir Walter Raleigh’s undervalued axiom, “It is more difficult to defend a coast than to invade it.” Argentina’s defense of the Falklands was no exception. Ultimately, this defender’s dilemma—not overwhelming offensive capability—enabled Britain to project power ashore. Argentina had to choose where it would, and would not, defend, with most ground resigned to the latter.
Oriented more on enemy weakness than strength, the British task force sought to intensify the dilemma. By the time the task force reached the South Atlantic, it “had been in the deception game for several thousand miles,”Woodward later wrote, steaming for a time toward Buenos Aires to tease thoughts of a British landing against Argentina proper.16 Tactically, the task force invested in deceiving its opponent by staging false landings while the real one got under way. British commanders chose to land where the enemy chose not to defend. Troops would land at San Carlos Bay, more than 50 rough-going miles from the true objective, Port Stanley. They would still have to “fight their way to the fight.”
Maritime and Air Superiority
Royal Marines landed unopposed on 21 May, backed by a task force that leveraged local maritime superiority to gain windows of air superiority. That leverage hinged on protecting the carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible while their aircraft conducted combat air patrols. Actual air-to-air combat in the Falklands War was short-lived, with the longer time-on-station for Sea Harriers proving fatal to the otherwise faster Mirage jets. Though few in number, Britain’s Harriers dominated a greater Argentine Air Force through seabasing and naval support. Put simply, supported combat power hit harder.
Of course, Harriers could only rule the sky if they were in it. Thus, a layered air defense was critical to protect units as they phased ashore. From a picket line of frigates and destroyers in Falkland Sound, to Rapier air-defense systems in the hilltops, to shoulder-fired Blowpipe missiles in combat and logistics units, the task force kept pressure on Argentine pilots even when Harrier coverage was scarce. This pressure compounded the Argentine pilots’ already valid concern for running out of fuel, compelling them to engage targets of first opportunity.
Superior at sea and in the air, Britain’s landing force ended D-day with zero casualties. The Royal Navy could not say the same, though, as warships had “taken the punishment in order that the troops should land safely.”17 Argentine pilots hit five British warships, with HMS Ardent bearing the brunt. Seven bombs struck the Ardent, blowing men into the air and into the sea, killing 22 and wounding 37 more. The attacks finished the Ardent, damaged the Brilliant and Broadsword, and lodged unexploded 1,000-pound bombs in the Antrim and Argonaut. The violent clash of wills in the Falkland Sound on 21 May emphasized the distinction between air superiority and air supremacy. Unable to completely deny Argentina the right to fight from the sky, Britain’s task force had to fight hard at and from the sea.
Naval Maneuver Warfare
Being forced to outmaneuver a capable enemy in a naval fight blurs the line separating bold from reckless. Admiral Woodward’s employment of an exposed two-ship “missile trap” to defeat Argentine air attacks captured the high-risk, high-reward nature of the Falklands War. HMS Coventry and Broadsword reaped the reward first, downing five enemy aircraft in two days. But Argentina, with time to orient on the warships’ unchanging positions, opted for boldness, too, by massing aircraft for attack. With multiple fighters pressing simultaneously, Britain’s newest shipboard air-defense system became overwhelmed and shut down, turning steel ships into soft targets. Lessons from this maneuver—embrace an ambush mentality, restore surprise through “shoot-and-scoot” tactics, and worry about the cons of untested tech—strike a chord with present-day efforts to deliver concentrated fires from dispersed mass in the littorals.
The task force learned equally important lessons on naval maneuver warfare from its fight ashore. Desperate for progress of any sort following the landing, politicians in London fixed their sights on Goose Green, an enemy-occupied settlement south of San Carlos but of no apparent value to recapturing Stanley, 50 miles east. In hindsight, however, a lesson earned in the fight for Goose Green was subsequently learned when the task force better postured itself to dominate the climactic battle for the mountains surrounding Stanley. That lesson: Fighting as a naval force should not end simply because the fight ashore began.
Second Battalion, Parachute Regiment (2 Para), stepped off to assault Goose Green without adequate supporting arms, unknowingly outnumbered three-to-one. Fighting against prepared enemy defenses, artillery, and air attacks, the battle for Goose Green paralleled earlier violence at sea. In just moments, 2 Para lost its commanding officer, adjutant, a company executive officer, and nine other men.18 Showcasing the combined-arms effect, however, the late-arriving Harriers quickly “demoralized the Argentines, who soon abandoned their artillery and air defence weapons.”19 With surrendered formations providing a clear metric of success in maneuver warfare, 2 Para’s capture of 1,000 Argentines—three times the British unit’s strength—spoke volumes.20 This collapse set a precedent of surrender for the British task force to exploit if it could stay the course.
Lines of Communication
Militaries that fail to stay inevitably fail to win. Brigadier Julian Thompson, the senior Royal Marine ashore during the initial weeks of the Falklands War, expressed Britain’s steep logistic challenge as “a quintessential amphibious operation where you have to take everything you need with you, or capture it after arrival.”21 Thus, the first task was identifying what to bring. Despite pressure to load ships now and plan logistics later, staffs conducted physical network analysis of the Falklands, noting that lines of communication (LOCs) by ground (GLOCs) were nearly nonexistent across the rugged landscapes. With
hours to act, 3 Commando Brigade cut its fleet of ground vehicles from more than 1,000 to fewer than 60, using the limited shipping space for better-suited equipment.
With marginal GLOCs, the task force sustained its combat power by projecting macrologistics by sea and micrologistics by air. In general, LOCs thinned considerably as units moved inland. Assault support helicopters became beasts of burden, with pilots recalling “pulling at the stick to see if the aircraft would come up. If not, we threw off a box and tried again.”22 Refueling thousands of gallons each day for units and air-defense systems dispersed along mountainsides required spreading finite jerrycans across infinitely humbling terrain, showing just how thin staying power can stretch without snapping.
When Iron Mountains Lay Soft
On 25 May, Argentina celebrated its National Day while Britain reeled from its heaviest logistics setback of the war. Hoping to sink a British carrier and win the Malvinas outright, Argentine pilots launched two Exocets at the task force from 20 miles out. Having learned from the Sheffield’s demise weeks before, Royal Navy warships immediately fired chaff, deflecting both missiles. One of the Exocets acquired a target in its new path, sinking the defenseless civilian container ship Atlantic Conveyor, taking to the bottom her captain, 11 other men, 3 Chinook and 6 Wessex helicopters, and several thousand tons of supplies. On hearing the news, a Royal Marine still 50 miles from Stanley concluded correctly, “We’ll have to bloody well walk.”23
Two days later, Argentine pilots again struck British logistics. This time, sights were set on the “appallingly vulnerable” stockpiles amassed ashore at Ajax Bay.24 A direct hit to the ammunition storage area started a fire that engulfed surrounding stocks. The Commando Logistic Regiment could only watch.
The Atlantic Conveyor and Ajax Bay strikes underscore the short shelf life of exposed materiel in a near-peer fight. Seeing the ruined stocks at Ajax Bay for himself, Brigadier Thompson purportedly wondered, “Where else could they go? . . . The answer was nowhere.”25 The task force would have to harden its stockpiles. Later in the war, Argentine pilots failed to hit a known distribution point because they could not find its well-camouflaged position.26
Too Much of a Good Thing
Knowing 3 Commando Brigade would be up against an Argentine land force at least twice its size, 5 Infantry Brigade also mobilized for the Falklands, arriving in early June. The new brigade upset the task force’s combat-to-staying-power ratios, however, as 5 Infantry Brigade lacked internal support comparable to 3 Commando Brigade’s logistic regiment. In effect, this “spread the jam twice as thin and resupply took twice as long.”27 With air transportation at a premium, some units marched across the island for Stanley carrying 120 pounds per man while others boarded ships, opting to hazard unsupported landings at Fitzroy, a settlement south of Stanley. The settlement’s name was fated to signify Britain’s greatest disaster in the Falklands.
On the afternoon of 8 June, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary transports Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram sat in a cove near Fitzroy as a thick overcast around them faded into clear, sunny skies. With no Harriers above, escort ships nearby, or Rapiers ashore, the cloud cover had been their best defense. The task force lost 49 men to a single air attack with another 115 wounded, because British leaders were determined to project combat power without the staying power to do it well. Uncoordinated and reckless, amphibious operations at Fitzroy stood in contrast to the integrated and deliberate efforts at San Carlos a few weeks earlier.
Given the many logistical challenges the task force faced, it may come as a surprise to realize Argentina had it worse. The country’s commanding general in the Falklands came to recognize the mobilization of another brigade for his defense as “the start of a lot of new problems, fundamentally logistic problems.”28 Those problems only compounded once British sea control severed Argentine sea lines of communication. Overwhelmed by British superiority in night and naval tactics, Argentine soldiers fled from the frozen mountains in the last days of the war, returning to Stanley “very thin and hungry” only to find “containers full of food at the edge of the harbour” with no means of distribution.29 One side had failed to stay, and the 74-day war was all but over.
Thinking Back While Looking Ahead
From small-unit tactics to geopolitics, the Falklands War has rich relevance for the United States—and its present adversaries. The naval mind-set of both Britain and Argentina proved fragile in the face of sharp early losses; the first fractured while the other shattered. The war also exposed a strategic frailty: Argentina’s gambit failed outright, providing substance to the claim that gray zone campaigns are, fundamentally, “strategies of the weak.”30 Nations employing them cannot afford to have their bluff called, which Argentina illustrated by stumbling into a war it had wanted to avoid.
Revisionist powers today seem more discerning, knowing that if they fail to “salami-slice” their actions, a naval task force could pay an untimely visit. Thus, U.S. naval readiness largely governs their brashness, especially readiness to counter aggression in littoral areas that may lack apparent value—the bald man’s comb—but are critical to preserving the rules-based order. A 1984 book on the war noted: “This battle by land and sea for a cluster of South Atlantic islands fascinated the world. It was a freak of history.”31 It will remain a freak only so long as U.S. adversaries’ gray zone strategies are deterred.
Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1983).
Peter Calvert, “Sovereignty and the Falklands Crisis,” Oxford University Journals, 59, no. 3 (March 1983): 405–413.
“The Falklands War: Timeline,” The Telegraph, 14 June 2016.
“The Falklands War: A Chronology of Events,” www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-falklands-war-a-chronology-of-events/.
1. “Falkland Islands: Imperial Pride,” The Guardian (19 February 2010).
2. Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis, MD: Bluejacket Books, 1997), xii.
3. Martin Middlebrook, The Argentine Fight for the Falklands (South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword, 2003), 25.
4. Robert Haddick, “America Has No Answer to China’s Salami-Slicing,” War on the Rocks (6 February 2014).
5. Woodward, One Hundred Days, 81.
6. Michael Mazarr, “Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict,” U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute (December 2015): 4.
7. Woodward, One Hundred Days, 48–49.
8. Woodward, 175.
9. Woodward, 202–3.
10. Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, Battle for the Falklands (New York: Norton & Company, 1984), 322.
11. Hastings and Jenkins, Battle, 186.
12. Hastings and Jenkins, 60.
13. “First Strike of the Falklands War,” Documentary, October 2014, 44:55; Middlebrook, Argentine Fight, 78.
14. Woodward, One Hundred Days, 150–51, 159.
15. Middlebrook, Argentine Fight, 104, 283.
16. Woodward, One Hundred Days, 131.
17. Woodward, 263.
18. Woodward, 245.
19. Kenneth Privratsky, Logistics in the Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare (South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword, 2016), 139.
20. Hastings and Jenkins, Battle, 251.
21. Privratsky, Logistics, vii.
22. Privratsky, 208.
23. Privratsky, 127.
24. Hastings and Jenkins, Battle, 222.
25. Hastings and Jenkins.
26. Privratsky, Logistics, 199.
27. Privratsky, 166.
28. Middlebrook, Argentine Fight, 56.
29. Middlebrook, 275.
30. Mazarr, “Mastering the Gray Zone,” 70.
31. Hastings and Jenkins, Battle, 316.