This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina. For three months in the spring of 1982, 40,000 airmen, sailors, soldiers, and marines fought a short, sharp war over a group of South Atlantic islands with no significant resources and a population of more sheep than people. What is the significance of this seemingly anachronistic colonial war in the 21st century? Future budget constraints will require hard choices on procurement, doctrine, deployments, and training. The Falklands War was the first modern anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) war, pitting a joint expeditionary force against a regional power with modern land, air, and sea capabilities fighting over control of territory close to home. As such, it may prove far more relevant for the future U.S. Navy than any conflict in the past two decades.
Whose Islands, Anyway?
The war was the culmination of a 150-year dispute between Britain and Argentina. Britain had occupied the Falkland Islands since 1830, but Argentina never recognized the legitimacy of the British presence and claimed sovereignty. In April 1982 the military junta ruling Argentina took advantage of a perceived window of opportunity to seize the islands and force a resolution. Up to that point, neither nation believed the territorial dispute could erupt into open warfare. Argentina viewed its primary security threats as leftist insurgents and Chile, and Britain was reshaping its forces to fight the Soviet Union within the context of NATO. In fact, the Royal Navy was actually divesting itself of the fixed-wing aviation and amphibious-lift capabilities—which would prove vital in the Falklands—because they were judged superfluous to the Royal Navy’s NATO missions.1
London was genuinely surprised Argentina chose to force the issue militarily; Buenos Aires was equally surprised when London promptly dispatched a naval task force to retake the islands by whatever means necessary. Over time, the British task force encompassed more than 28,000 men, 51 warships, 21 fleet auxiliaries, 54 chartered merchant ships, and nearly 200 aircraft supporting combat operations 8,000 miles from home. The task force’s mission was to defeat the Argentine forces around the islands and retake control prior to the onset of the South Atlantic winter in late June. At that point, deteriorating weather conditions would have made major combat operations nearly impossible and almost certainly forced a political resolution favorable to Argentina. To win, the Royal Navy needed to guarantee access to the Falklands to be able to land ground forces and sustain a campaign to compel the surrender of the occupying Argentine forces.
Once the Argentinians realized the British were willing to fight, they belatedly marshaled their military to hold the islands. Argentina committed more than 11,000 soldiers, deployed more than 120 combat aircraft, and assembled naval forces that included six Exocet antiship cruise-missile-equipped frigates/destroyers, a light cruiser, a light carrier capable of launching A-4 strike aircraft, and two Type 209 diesel submarines. Argentina’s strategy was to deny British access to the Falklands until external political or environmental conditions compelled an agreement on favorable terms.
From Showdown to Shooting War
Major combat operations began on 1 May 1982 with long-range strikes by British Vulcan bombers against the airfield at Port Stanley, the islands’ largest settlement. Those attacks were followed by carrier-launched Harrier strikes against Argentine forces on the islands and Argentine air attacks on the task force. The war escalated when the submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano on 2 May, followed rapidly by the loss of HMS Sheffield to an Argentine Exocet antiship missile. Those two events alone resulted in a combined loss of more than 350 lives only a week into the fighting. Combat intensified through May, leading to an amphibious landing by British forces at San Carlos on 21 May. The campaign culminated with the final assault on the Argentine main body at Port Stanley and the surrender of Argentine forces in mid-June.
In six weeks of combat, more than 900 men were killed in action and more than 1,000 wounded; seven ships were sunk, and nearly 40 percent of the Argentine Air Force was shot down. The British task force was able to successfully counter Argentina’s A2/AD strategy—and that success provides several lessons relevant to future A2/AD conflicts.
Successful attack equals mission kill. Eleven warships were damaged by weapon systems larger than 20-mm cannon; of those, nine were either sunk or immediate mission-kills. Only two ships were able to absorb damage and continue on their missions, and those ships were withdrawn from the theater as quickly as possible. The damaged ships actually consumed additional resources, requiring air-defense coverage, search-and-rescue support, and towing out of the combat zone. Sound damage-control training and procedures allowed the Royal Navy to save several badly damaged ships, but that only prevented their loss, it did not keep them in the fight. The U.S. Navy’s experience with the USS Stark (FFG-31), Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58), and Cole (DDG-67) are consistent with this.
Quantity still has a quality all its own. Limited inventory of key weapon systems was a challenge for both countries. Argentina sank two ships and established a 40-percent kill ratio with its air-launched Exocet missiles; however, it only had five. Despite aggressive efforts, the Argentinians were unable to acquire more of one of their most effective weapons. Argentine air operations also failed to gain the maximum value of their air-to-air refueling capability because of a limited number of tankers.2 This reduced the size of the Argentine strike packages and limited them to a more easily defended-against single-axis approach. Britain had to carefully balance the disposition of its Type 42 air-defense frigates to cover both the task-force carriers and the landing ships at San Carlos. This problem would have been insurmountable after Argentina sank two of the three Type 42s in the original task force, but two additional Type 42s arrived in time to maintain air-defense coverage over both locations.
Training, aggressiveness, and skill are still force multipliers. Often operating their aircraft at the very edge of their performance envelopes while demonstrating tactical competence, innovation, and courage, Argentine pilots regularly conducted successful long-range strikes with low-level approaches against an opponent with an effective naval integrated air-defense system. Eleven of the 14 British ships lost or heavily damaged by Argentine forces were hit by unguided general-purpose bombs dropped by 20-year-old A-4 Skyhawks or Mirage fighters. Ashore, British land forces swiftly engaged and defeated an Argentine force of the same size, with equal, or in some cases better, equipment in prepared defensive positions. The difference was the superior training and leadership of British forces in comparison with a poorly led and inadequately trained Argentine conscript army.
Submarines punch above their weight. Britain’s aggressive employment of its submarine force and Argentina’s lack of a meaningful antisubmarine-warfare capability had a major impact on the course of the war. The sinking of the General Belgrano prompted the withdrawal of Argentina’s surface fleet to port for the duration of the war, preventing seaborne resupply of Argentine forces on the Falklands and eliminating the threat of Argentina’s Exocet-capable ships and A-4 Skyhawk–equipped aircraft carrier. Even though neither of the Argentine Type 209 diesel subs was employed successfully, concern over their potential threat remained an important consideration in the planning and timing of the British amphibious landing.3
Casualties accrue quickly. Although nearly 20,000 troops were ultimately involved in the ground fighting on the Falklands, nearly half the casualties came from losses at sea. Of Argentina’s approximately 650 killed in action, half were lost with the General Belgrano. The majority of British casualties also happened at sea, usually in double-digit numbers for every attack: 49 killed in the attack on amphibious ships at Fitzroy, 20 killed on the Sheffield, 19 killed on the Coventry, etc. Modern naval-combat dynamics involve a large number of personnel in a compact space; that combined with the effectiveness of modern antiship weapons guarantees that any meaningful hit on a warship will inflict a significant number of casualties. It took nine years of fighting in Afghanistan to inflict the same number of British casualties as six weeks of fighting in the Falklands. (British casualties in the Falklands totaled 255; the 256th British casualty in Afghanistan occurred in February 2010.)
War can be a total surprise. Neither Britain nor Argentina began 1982 expecting to fight a war in the Falklands. Even after seizing the islands, Buenos Aires thought London either would accept a fait accompli or negotiate a resolution. The Argentine military’s belated preparations to defend the islands and the improvised, ad hoc nature of its command structure created after the dispatch of the British task force are clear evidence that the junta was surprised at the results of its handiwork.4 Britain can claim no better foresight. Although the Falklands’ sovereignty had long been an issue, London clearly did not expect to have to fight to protect it. The standing naval patrols in the region were reduced, and the Ministry of Defence was basing its procurement plans around the Soviet threat and Britain’s planned role within NATO. The Royal Navy was planning to battle Soviet submarines and bombers as part of a large allied fleet, leading to the presumed abandonment of the kind of expeditionary capability required to retake the islands.5 In fact, had Buenos Aires been a bit more patient, the two carriers essential to British efforts, HMS Hermes and Invincible, would have been unavailable.
Future Falklands-like Scenarios?
In the post-9/11 world, how are these lessons relevant? The Falklands War has similarities to many potential flashpoints facing the U.S. Navy in the next few decades: territorial disputes in the western Pacific, ensuring freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz, or even supporting Western allies against a resurgent Russia in the Baltic or Black Sea. In these circumstances, mission accomplishment would require the U.S. and allied forces to achieve victory through expeditionary operations at sea before shifts in the political, environmental, or economic situation force a settlement on the opponent’s terms. With this in mind, the implications of the Falklands War’s lessons should be considered as we design and procure future weapon systems, develop doctrine, plan for contingencies, and train our forces.
Effective militaries balance training, technology, and numbers. The Argentine Air Force was well trained and equipped with effective weapon systems; however, shortfalls in a number of selected systems (Exocets, air-to-air tankers) had a critical impact on the service’s ability to accomplish its mission. The Argentine Army was well equipped and equivalent to its opponent in size, but was poorly trained and led. The British task force was well trained, technologically well equipped, and had a sufficient order of battle to accomplish its mission (although in certain areas that was a near-run thing). Retaking the Falklands required the commitment of all of the Royal Navy’s carrier strength and as it was, the Hermes and Invincible were just enough. Protection of the carriers was a constant concern, and the task-force commander acknowledged that had either carrier been badly damaged or sunk it would have meant defeat.6 The benefits of a “deeper bench” are clear if one looks at the British escort fleet. The frigates, destroyers, and their crews were able to protect the carriers and the landing forces while absorbing the loss of ten ships from their order of battle. The enduring American temptation is to push the boundaries of technology while accepting trade-offs in training, and especially in numbers. The challenge is to not let “the best” become the enemy of “good enough” if the cost of developing “the best” leaves nothing for procurement, training, and sustainment. The most advanced warship in the world still cannot be in two places at once, and it cannot perform as advertised if its crew is poorly trained.
Do not assume strategic warning. If a possible flashpoint exists, potential enemy capabilities should be the planning metric rather than far more transient political intentions. The presence of a Royal Marine contingent and a naval-security patrol shows that Britain recognized a latent threat to the Falklands but never seriously considered the requirements of fighting a campaign in the South Atlantic, or they would not have been planning to divest themselves of the capabilities (carrier aviation, amphibious lift) that proved essential to win the war, simply because such elements had no apparent utility in a war with the Soviet Union. Far more egregious was Argentina’s lack of preparation for a forceful British response to its actions, especially given history and the reputation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Defense planners must not become bore-sighted on a single contingency, nor should they assume that preparing for their worst-case scenario will leave them prepared for all the missions they may be tasked to execute. This is not a justification for every item on a planner’s wish list, but it does mean that prudent preparation will consider all potential flashpoints, not just the most likely ones.
Plans must consider the impact of casualties, both in matériel and personnel. Any engagement at sea is likely to produce significant casualties very quickly. Commanders at the component and theater levels need to consider the casualties’ potential impact both on the execution of their plans and on the political value of the conflict. As any damaged ship is likely to be at least temporarily a mission-kill, commanders will need branch plans that simultaneously shift missions to alternate platforms while providing other assets to support the damaged ships until they can either leave the combat zone or return to the fight. This will require a deeper theater reserve than in recent wars. Rapid personnel casualties also will impact the political commitment to the conflict. The American response to a punch in the nose is as often to double down as it is to fold, but in either case, it is likely that commanders will receive radical shifts in guidance immediately following the first engagement at sea. They need to have branch plans for escalation and de-escalation.
Submarine warfare is very hard, but properly done, very rewarding. With a single torpedo attack, three British nuclear submarines eliminated the Argentine navy as a threat, allowing the task force to focus on dealing with a one-dimensional, single-axis, land-based air threat. Conversely, Argentina’s failure to effectively employ its submarine force was a prime missed opportunity. That country’s two operational Type 209 diesel subs had the potential to inflict serious damage or at least disruption on the British task force if they had been aggressively employed. Undersea warfare is an easy area to underfund and underemphasize. It is a complex, expensive capability, with limited utility in low-intensity, non-traditional naval missions, or when conducting unhindered power projection ashore. For the past two decades, submarines have largely supported carriers and surface-launched Tomahawks in order to project power on land, but as we move into an environment where what can be seen, can be hit, and what is hit is likely out of action, the benefits of a truly stealthy multimission platform are clear. In future wars at sea, it may well be the carriers and surface ships supporting power projection by submarine.
The World of Yesterday, Tomorrow
The U.S. Navy faces myriad challenges as it adjusts to a rapidly changing international environment. The rise of China, ongoing tensions with Iran and North Korea, continued turmoil in Central and South Asia, and a more assertive, resurgent Russia make it likely that the challenges the Navy will face in 2020 will be different from the operations of the last decade. While terrorism will remain an enduring concern, our potential enemies at sea will present us with a more traditional threat. Future wars at sea are more likely to involve submarine warfare, antiship missile defense, and higher-technology threats from other nation-states over political issues.
It may seem strange to argue that a 30-year-old war between two Western nations is more relevant for the Navy of tomorrow than the last ten years of counterterrorism operations, but that is the most likely reality. The greatest challenge facing the future Navy is a regional power employing advanced weapon systems in an effort to conduct a successful A2/AD campaign. The Falklands War was the first, and so far, only, modern naval anti-access war. We ignore its lessons at our peril.
2. Dr. James S. Corum, “Argentine Airpower in the Falklands War: An Operational View,” Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2002, www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj02/fal02/corum.html.
3. Michael Clapp and Ewen Southby-Tailyour, Amphibious Assault Falklands: The Battle of San Carlos Water (London: Orion Books, 1996), p. 111.
4. Corum, “Argentine Airpower.”
5. Hastings and Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands, pp. 10–11.
6. Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institiute Press, 1992), p. 5.