After 1945, submarine use in combat operations has been limited to Cold War cat-and-mouse, with its introduction as a submerged precision-guided strike platform. In 1982, the submarine would take to the seas yet again to sink enemy warships in conventional battle, but these subs were not fighting on behalf of the two superpowers of the era. Argentina’s military junta, under the leadership of General Leopoldo Gualtieri, sought to unite the nation and distract its people from internal turmoil by looking to the National cause to take back the Malvinas, or, as they were known to the British, the Falkland Islands.
After much diplomatic pressure from Argentina and recognized economic and political strains in Great Britain to cut its military spending, the junta launched its invasion of the South Atlantic archipelago on 2 April 1982. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a naval task force, the size of which had not been seen since the Suez Crisis of 1956. The Argentines, after securing the islands with little resistance from a light unit of 69 Royal Marines, had to prepare their defense against a possible attempt by Great Britain to take the islands back.
The likelihood of war escalated as the Royal Navy task force inched further south. The three British nuclear-powered submarines stationed in the area raised alarms for Admiral Jorge Isaac Anaya’s Argentine fleet. Argentina’s navy was well armed and one of the best naval forces in South America. Admiral Anaya and his staff had put together the plan to launch the invasion and presented this to the junta and General Leopoldo Gualtieri for approval in 1981. The introduction of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines to the South Atlantic necessitated the immediate implementation of the invasion to 2 April.
Order of Battle
Many who study the 1982 Falklands War understand the exploits of the ARA Santa Fe, a former World War II–era US Navy Guppy-class submarine that was heavily damaged and ran aground during the British assault on the island of South Georgia on 25 April. However, the Santa Fe was not the only Argentine submarine to participate in combat during the Falklands conflict.
Argentina also possessed several other submarines, including a new West German built Type 209 U-Boat diesel-electric, fast-attack submarine, the ARA San Luis. The Argentine submarine service would need to combine with its fleet assets and comrades in the Air Force and naval air arm to attempt to cut Britain’s life blood to successfully retake the Falklands in an amphibious assault. Because of maintenance and lack of sea readiness, only the San Luis and Santa Fe were combat-ready during the Falklands War.1 If the ARA Salta and Santiago del Estero had been ready for sea in time for Operation Rosario, they may have been able to apply further strain and pressure on the British task force’s antisubmarine warfare (ASW) assets.
Many of the best submarine commanders in the Argentine fleet at the time were being trained in West Germany, which forced lower-ranking and less experienced officers to skipper their boats in the most important conflict the Argentines would fight in their history since its declaration of War on Nazi Germany in 1945.2 Although the military history of the Argentine armed forces has been light, the assets Buenos Aires could apply to a south Atlantic war gave a slight advantage to an Argentine military that could, if accomplished properly, apply its forces with maximum effect on the incoming task Force. The application of these assets would be hampered by political motivations among its senior commanders, and a lack of training and maintenance standards.
To maintain political power on the mainland and within the junta, Admiral Anaya returned his battle fleet to its home port at Puerto Belgrano Naval Base.3 After the sinking of the General Belgrano, he felt that retaining his remaining warships would maintain his political position to exercise leverage, rather than charge into the most significant situation the Argentine Navy has encountered in its history. It is easy to say that the Royal Navy would have annihilated the Argentine fleet; however, the combination of land-based Argentine strike aircraft, air-, sea-, and land-based Exocet missiles, and a carrier, Thatcher’s task force could have seen a much more costly outcome for the recapture of the Falklands than it experienced. Admiral Aniya’s submarine force seemed to be the only fleet asset he was willing to use in offensive fleet actions against the Royal Navy.
The San Luis’ war patrol in the south Atlantic war has been marked by controversy. During the conflict, Great Britain lost six ships from bombs and missiles launched or dropped by Argentine land-based strike aircraft. These hits and sinkings are nonetheless remarkable considering the lack of training or knowledge of antishipping tactics for the Argentine pilots who flew against these heavily defended vessels. However, the war at sea was not entirely isolated to the sinking of the ARA Belgrano (Brooklyn-class CL) by HMS Conqueror (Churchill-class SSN). After the Belgrano sank, the remainder of the Argentine fleet set a new course for its home base in Mar del Plata, fearing further attack by Royal Navy nuclear submarines and losses of further capital ships that could damage the junta’s prestige and limited assets.
The War Patrol
The San Luis began her patrol with the intention of striking the task force north of the Falkland Islands. During her one continuous patrol she claimed three torpedo attacks against British shipping. She claimed to have fired two German-manufactured SST-4 antisurface ship torpedoes and one American Mark 37 antisubmarine torpedo. Her first engagement was against HMS Yarmouth (Type 12 frigate) and HMS Brilliant (Type 22 frigate). The San Luis’ attack did not result in any hits and she sustained a determined ASW battle for 20 hours, surviving depth charges and one torpedo. The San Luis broke contact and began her second run on 8 May against a British submarine. Twelve minutes after firing her torpedo, the San Luis heard an explosion from her target’s same bearing; however, the Royal Navy claimed no losses of any submarines during the conflict, and it is speculated that the San Luis’ torpedo may have struck the bottom. Her final run was conducted on 10 May against two more warships, firing one torpedo against HMS Arrow (Type 21 frigate) and HMS Alacrity (Type 21 frigate). After six minutes, a small explosion was heard on the frigate’s bearing, and when HMS Arrow retrieved her towed countermeasure, it was evident that she had been hit.4
What Went Wrong?
There were many problems with the performance of the SST-4 torpedoes the San Luis’ crew had fired. According to a postwar analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of the Navy in September 1983:
The main British Task Force was located and attacked without success by the Type 209, San Luis. That submarine was at sea, and at times in the area of the British force, for an estimated 36 days. The threat from Argentine submarines was a continuous concern for the British Task Force commander, and numerous attacks were made against suspected submarine contacts, with a large number of ASW weapons being expended. In any event, San Luis survived all British ASW efforts, but at the same time was unable to inflict damage on the British force because of materiel problems.”
The submarine has been identified as firing its munitions too deep, having an outdated fire-control system that required the crew to calculate their solutions manually; broken wires after the torpedoes were fired, which denied the ability to steer the fish to their targets; lack of preparation of the SST-4s in the torpedo room’s tubes; which did not allow the torpedoes to arm themselves after firing, and an inexperienced crew.5 All these factors combined to allow the targeted ships to escape the San Luis’ attacks. The attacks were poor, but the fact that the San Luis could make these approaches against the best of the Royal Navy shows how different the outcome could have been if the San Luis had been fully provisioned and prepared for combat operations.
It is significant, however, that these attacks and ASW battles took place. A German designed and manufactured U-boat had fired live torpedoes in anger against warships of her majesty’s Royal Navy for the third time in the Atlantic during the 20th century. This time, the submariners in this Latin American version of Das Boot had encountered a stroke of luck as they managed to slip past the Royal Navy’s determined depth charge and torpedo attacks and returned home without a scratch.
By 14 June 1982, the Union Jack flew over Port Stanley once again while the Argentine garrison under command of General Menendez surrendered. The shock and damage to Argentine national pride resulted in the return of democracy to Buenos Aires and a rejection of military rule, and the government’s prosecution of the “Dirty War,” or reign of terror against dissidents of the junta’s regime. Although Argentina lost the war, it had won its democracy back. For Prime Minister Thatcher’s government, its political survival was secured, and the war prompted a lift in British pride and prestige.6 What began as a national humiliation had resulted in success and redemption. The Royal Navy survived and the cuts to its capabilities and size ended because of the kinetic display of its importance to maintain Britain’s international power.
What Could Have Been
The outcome of the Falklands War would have been very different if the San Luis’ torpedoes had run and hit properly can only be speculated. Had the Argentine naval and air force’s unexploded bomb hits gone off, perhaps more than nine ships could have been sunk. Had the light carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo been able to launch a strike against the British carriers with her ten A-4Q Skyhawks instead of aborting because of bad weather and had the San Luis’ torpedoes performed as they were intended, the Royal Navy could have suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Argentines. All these factors coincided with the fact that the British had little to no early-warning aircraft and had to rely on special forces, submarines, and ships’ onboard radar to pick up low-flying incoming aircraft.
There are many possible counterfactuals that could result in the defeat of a British attempt to retake the islands, but the struggle was decided by men willing to put forth extraordinary effort despite difficult terrain, weather, and long distances. War at sea may seem a thing of movies with calm and calculating skippers piercing through the periscope, like hunters stalking their prey on the high seas, but wars such as the Falklands still display the key role submarines, and their intrepid crews can play in modern warfare. Today, as we look to the future of submerged combat, great powers and their navies may find themselves learning valuable lessons from the south Atlantic and exploits from its veterans like the San Luis.
Looking Forward from the Falklands
In the future, submarines will continue to play a critical role in expeditionary warfare as well as in antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) environments. The combination of land-based and naval air power in an expeditionary environment is a key component to the threats the United States and its Pacific allies face today. U.S. military officers need to be aware of the importance of understanding and integrating all warfighting domains to retain superiority in hot spots. The South China Sea, western Pacific, and waters of the Persian Gulf may provide future opportunities for diesel electrics, along with more modern SSNs, to demonstrate the importance of maintaining well-oiled ASW, logistics, maintenance, and early-warning procedures in peacetime to prepare for possible encounter actions and wider-ranged conflicts. Just as the Duke of Wellington described his victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo, the Falklands war was indeed, “It has been a damned nice thing—the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.”
1. Steven R. Harper, “Submarine Operations during the Falklands War,” Department of Operations Paper, Naval War College, 1994.
2.Harper, “Submarine Operations during the Falklands War.”
3. Maciej Jonasz “Falklands War: Why Did Argentina Fail?” Modern War, n.d.
4. Harper, “Submarine Operations during the Falklands War.”
5. Harper, “Submarine Operations during the Falklands War.”
6. Bogdanor, Vernon. “The Falklands War, 1982 .” Gresham College, 6 April 2016.