The War of the Falkland Islands began with a successful invasion by Argentine forces on April 2, 1982, and ended with their surrender to British forces ten weeks later. It was a textbook example of a limited war-limited in time, in location, in objectives and in means. Care was taken when it came to the treatment of civilians and prisoners and only in the later stages did noncombatants get caught in the fighting. The military casualties were severe-800 to 1,000 Argentine and 250 British dead-but still only a small proportion of the forces committed.

In the character of the military operations, the clarity of the issues at stake and the unambiguous outcome, it was a curiously old-fashioned war. We have become used to wars of political complexity and strategic confusion. Such modern dramas were underway in the Middle East and Central America in 1982, compared with which the Falklands War came and went like something from the Victorian stage: a simple plot, a small but well-defined cast of characters, a story in three acts with a clear beginning, middle and end, and a straightforward conclusion that everybody could understand.

The limited and old-fashioned nature of the war should caution against trying to draw too much of wider significance out of the experience. Nevertheless, in an age of rapid technological development without regular opportunities to assess the current state of the military art, the details of any war will be picked over by those anxious for guidance on how to prepare for future conflicts. Professional observers expected much from this conflict: two belligerents capable of using advanced military technology properly and, there was reason to believe, the first major sea battles since 1945.

The search is therefore already underway for the lessons of the war. This article is concerned with that search, largely with the objective of encouraging a move away from a narrow preoccupation with the performance of individual items of hardware. My argument is that if there are lessons to be learned, they lie in recognizing that factors neglected in formal presentations of a military balance are often decisive. Britain's victory was only partly based on superior equipment. It depended much more on the professionalism and tactical skill of its forces, and on political conditions, at home and abroad, which allowed the government to prosecute the war in a determined and consistent manner.

The following account of the war is in some ways premature. Evidence is still being collated on key operations. Official secrecy obscures details of decision-making in London and some perplexing mysteries of the campaign. No Argentine sources have been used, so readers should be warned that this is very much a British version of events, though I have tried to be detached. Lastly, there is no attempt to judge the rights and wrongs of the dispute or to analyze fully the diplomatic side of the conflict, except insofar as it was relevant to the military side.


If initially it was difficult to take the conflict seriously, this was because of the unprepossessing nature of the territory at its heart. Nations are expected to go to war over something more than a collection of islands in an inaccessible and inclement part of the South Atlantic.

The islands consist largely of hilly grasslands and shrubs, few trees and barely 60 miles of roads. In addition to over 100 islands in the main group there are also a number of dependencies including South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The population of 1,800 would be barely sufficient to warrant one representative at the lowest level of local government in Britain. The economy was once based on whales and is now based on sheep. There have been rumors of exploitable resources, including oil, in the surrounding waters but, along with the rest of the islands' economic potential, exploitation has been rendered difficult by the persistent dispute over their future between the islands' closest neighbor, Argentina, and their owner, Great Britain.

The dispute's history goes back to the late eighteenth century, when control of the islands passed between Britain and Spain. In 1771 Britain reoccupied West Falkland (having been thrown off by Spain the year before) and it is claimed that Spain then recognized British sovereignty. However, a few years later Spain was back, following a British withdrawal. When Spanish rule in Latin America came to an end, Spain abandoned the Falklands (in 1811). They were occupied by the Government of Buenos Aires for the United Provinces, the forerunner of Argentina, in 1820 and sovereignty was officially claimed in 1829. Britain, which had never renounced its own claim, protested and at the start of 1833 expelled Argentine forces. Since then Britain has maintained a presence. The dependencies have a separate history, with British sovereignty on more certain ground.

Argentina never forgave Britain for this reoccupation, which marred otherwise friendly relations between the two countries. It revived its claim in 1945. In 1965, after much Argentine lobbying, the United Nations urged the two countries to sort out the dispute, "bearing in mind . . . the interests of the population of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas)."

The question of the interests of the local population dogged the negotiations from the start. As with practically all of the residue of its Empire, Britain has found itself holding on to colonies against its better judgment because of the strong preference of the colonized for British rule as against the most likely alternatives. The islanders have always shown a marked antipathy to Argentina. The principle of self-determination could therefore be interpreted to rule out any transfer of sovereignty. Argentina, on the other hand, argued that the islanders were not necessarily the best judge of their own interests.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office view came to be that the logic of the situation favored Argentina. However, the stubbornness of the islanders, fortified by supporters in the House of Commons, made it impossible to concede the point of principle to Argentina. Yet Britain was not willing to devote resources to the islands because it could not share the population's hope of a long-term future under the British flag. The compromise was an attempt to show good faith in negotiations and push the islanders as gently as possible into cooperation with Argentina, for example by making them dependent on Argentina for communication with the outside world. No special provision was made for the islanders in the British Nationality Act of 1981, which limited citizenship rights in British dependencies; thus many suffered a loss of "Britishness."

By 1980 this compromise had gone about as far as it could go. In that year a junior Foreign Office Minister, Nicholas Ridley, became convinced that the Islands would decline into non-viability unless some settlement were reached with Argentina. The option he favored was to transfer sovereignty of the islands to Argentina but then lease them back. Unfortunately he was not supported in the relevant Cabinet committee. This has been one of those issues where backbench sentiment exceeds ministerial interest. Mr. Ridley was given no mandate to solve the issue by the lease-back method or to give anything away to Argentina. When he visited the islands all he could do was consult over alternative options and acknowledge the local preference for freezing the status quo. When he returned to Parliament the general feeling was that he had no business even suggesting that there were options other than the status quo. Thus when he went back to talk with Argentine representatives he had nothing to offer.

British policy had got dangerously out of kilter. There was a lack of political will in London either to solve the dispute once and for all in some deal with Buenos Aires or else to accept full responsibility for the long-term security and prosperity of the islands. This became evident in June 1981 when it was decided to scrap the ice-patrol ship HMS Endurance. This ship, although sparsely armed, constituted the sole regular British naval presence in the South Atlantic and had taken on a symbolic importance far beyond its military capabilities. The Royal Navy had never attached a high priority to its preservation, offering it as a sacrifice when cuts were sought. If the government found the Navy's suggestions for cuts politically unacceptable, then it was unreasonable to cut elsewhere. In 1981 the Ministry of Defence was determined to reduce naval capabilities even if this meant letting HMS Endurance go. The Foreign Office warned that this could well be misread in Buenos Aires. This left a garrison of some 70 Royal Marines to deter Argentina from attempting to retake the Falkland Islands by force.


Britain now could offer neither compromise to Argentina nor a credible long-term commitment to the Falkland Islands. The only negotiating position left was prevarication. Talks with Argentina in February 1982 produced some agreement on negotiating procedures. British participants appear to have been misled by the accommodating behavior of their Argentine counterparts into believing that matters had not quite reached a head. Unfortunately the feeling in Buenos Aires was quite different.

Prior to April 1982 most people in Britain could not have found the Falkland Islands on a map. Argentines learn from childhood about Las Malvinas. By 1982, patience had run out with Britain. The 150th anniversary in January 1983 of the British seizure of the islands appeared as a sort of deadline. The government of General Leopoldo Galtieri, which had come to power in December 1980, had the issue high on its agenda.

It has been suggested that General Galtieri saw the invasion essentially as a distraction to take his people's minds off political repression and economic calamity. The invasion certainly improved, albeit temporarily, the regime's popularity. But the timing was also determined by international conditions that looked as conducive to invasion as they were ever likely to be. Argentina's links with both superpowers were in good repair. In Washington, the Galtieri regime was judged to represent the acceptable face of military dictatorship. Cooperation was developing on the support of other right-wing regimes in Central America. The Soviet Union had reason to be grateful for supplies of grain at a time of American embargo. The hope was that Washington would not be too cross if Las Malvinas were retrieved, while the Soviet Union would veto any strong action in the U.N. Security Council. As for Britain, it had managed to convey the impression of intransigence in negotiations on the principle of sovereignty but no real interest in holding on to the islands.

All these assumptions turned out to be overoptimistic. The crucial mistake concerned Britain. It may be that the underestimation was not so much of British anger and readiness to take up the challenge as of its actual capacity to retake the islands by military means. The timing of the Argentine invasion indicates a lack of concern for minimizing Britain's ability to respond. Much of the British fleet was home for Easter, which facilitated the rapid assembly of a task force. Two months later and the British position would have been more stretched, with a group of warships including the carrier HMS Invincible in the Indian Ocean. Any force which reached the South Atlantic would only have done so at the height of winter and after a long delay. Furthermore, Argentina was only just starting to take delivery of new arms, including the Exocet-carrying Super-Etendards from France. Within a few months, its own forces would have been much better equipped.

This leads on to the question of whether the invasion was triggered by the pretext provided by the comic-opera saga of the Argentine scrap metal merchants who raised the Argentine flag on the dependency of South Georgia on March 19, or whether this itself was part of a plan. It may be that this incident did take place with the connivance of Admiral Jorge Anaya, the chief of the Argentine Navy, who seems to have masterminded the eventual invasion. Certainly the invasion option grew in attraction with first, the muted British response to the South Georgia incident, and then the splitting of the limited garrison of marines as some went off on HMS Endurance to South Georgia.

With its Navy at sea and only two days away from the islands, the temptation for the Argentine government to take the historic step at the end of March 1982 seemed irresistible. When the invading forces arrived on April 2, the British marines were in no position to resist and they soon surrendered. Resistance on South Georgia was no more successful, if a little more spirited, and Argentine forces took some casualties. Nowhere were there casualties among the British forces or the civilians, a fact which the Argentine government appeared to believe would make the invasion tolerable.

Without adequate forces in place, British defensive plans had depended on the dispatch of reinforcements by sea at the first sign of trouble. As it takes up to three weeks to cover the 8,000 miles from Britain, this required a generous warning time. Whenever the issue flared up Britain had to decide between taking strong military action while the crisis was still in its early stages, or alternatively, for the sake of quiet diplomacy, delaying preventive military measures until possibly too late. In 1977 the Labour Government responded to an invasion scare by sending some frigates and a nuclear submarine to the area, but the decision was rendered easier by the fact that the vessels were relatively close for quite unconnected reasons. It is still not clear whether Argentina was then either considering invasion or aware that the British were taking action to forestall one.

There would always have to be good reason to send forces specially to the South Atlantic. It would involve taking ships away for a long period from other duties and high expenditure on fuel. Even maintaining two ships in the squadron watching over the Gulf of Oman over the past two years has made a large dent in the Navy's fuel allocation. In March 1982 these considerations created a disposition not to react strongly to the incident on South Georgia. It was reinforced by a desire not to upset by provocation the good work that had gone into improving relations with Latin America, including Argentina, over the previous few years as well as a belief that the problem could be solved through diplomatic channels. Indicators of an intent to invade, such as speculation in the Argentine press, were not judged to be significant in themselves: such indicators had appeared too often before.

The misjudgment was in not recognizing the change in political conditions in Buenos Aires and that the crisis this time was serious. Ministers in Britain had their minds on other things: the Foreign Secretary's visit to Israel and another row over the European Communities' budget. Too late was it realized that sovereign British territory was about to be seized by a foreign power. There was time only for frantic but futile diplomatic activity.


If Argentina had expected a muted and embarrassed British response it was mistaken. Nothing could turn the Falkland Islands themselves into some great strategic and economic asset, but the circumstances of their loss turned their recapture into a popular cause. Here was a clear act of aggression and a disregard of the principle of peaceful settlement of international disputes. The victims were clearly British and the perpetrators fascistic and, fortunately, white and not too wretched. Moreover, there was a need to avenge what Lord Carrington described, in his resignation as Foreign Secretary, as a "national humiliation."

The option of a solely non-military response was not seriously considered though it was recognized from the start that any military operation was likely to be hazardous and without guarantee of success. A large naval task force was dispatched immediately, but it would take a number of weeks to reach the South Atlantic. There was more time than is normally available on these occasions to explore diplomatic solutions to the crisis. To encourage a peaceful withdrawal, Britain sought to maximize pressure on Argentina.

The pressure began at the United Nations where, helped by a Soviet abstention, Resolution 502 was passed calling for withdrawal of all forces prior to negotiation. The European Community's Council of Ministers agreed to economic sanctions, surprising themselves by their alacrity and unanimity. (Needless to say, this did not set a pattern for future decision-making on the matter.) Other friendly nations followed with their own sanctions. The United States, embarrassed at a quarrel between two allies, did not take sides but acted as mediator in the form of Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

In a slow-motion shuttle, Secretary Haig could not reconcile the two countries' positions. Britain hinted at flexibility in future negotiations and began to equivocate over the extent to which the islanders' wishes would be "paramount"; Argentina promised to respect and improve the islanders' current way of life. Neither side could concede anything on the fundamental principle of sovereignty. Britain demanded a return to the status quo ante; Argentina insisted on recognition of the new status quo.

The political and economic pressures faced by Buenos Aires were severe but resistible, given the domestic popularity of the government's positions. Nor was there reason initially to believe that the military pressures were irresistible. Time was on Argentina's side. If Britain failed to get quick results, then its military operation would become difficult to sustain and it would be forced to retreat. By then the immediate fuss would have passed over. The international community would soon come to terms with the new situation and economic sanctions would fall into disrepair.

The British assessment was not that different. There was little confidence in economic sanctions as a means of solving the dispute, though an arms embargo would be helpful if fighting began in earnest. The international support for Britain's stance was gratifying and probably important in terms of maintaining domestic support, but could not be decisive in solving the dispute. It was irritating to watch a display of American evenhandedness between aggressor and aggrieved. There was some feeling that this hid from Buenos Aires the extent of its isolation, without producing commensurate benefits in the process of mediation. If anything could impress the Argentine leaders, it was likely to be the military power to be faced if they failed to back down peacefully and gracefully.

On both military and diplomatic grounds, it was therefore pointless for Britain to send a token force. From the start the task force had to look capable in principle of retaking the islands. But even then it was not obviously and overwhelmingly superior to the force it would meet. As no outcome could be predicted from an analysis of the balance of the forces, battle would have to be joined before either side need feel obliged to make significant concessions. Furthermore, while it was in Argentina's interests to prevaricate, Britain could not really allow too long for a diplomacy unaccompanied by military action.

On April 30 the task force reached its destination, and a total exclusion zone was imposed around the Falkland Islands. On the same day Secretary Haig announced that after a month of effort his mediation had failed and that the United States was now coming down firmly on the side of Britain. U.N. Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar tried to pick up the diplomatic pieces in May, but without success. By then it was evident that the impasse could now only be broken by a clash of arms.


The quality of the British military response was a function of the numbers of men and matériel that could be transported 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic and then sustained in operational condition over an extended period. The extent to which this was achieved is one of the most remarkable logistical feats of modern times. The bulk of the task force was prepared for departure virtually over a weekend. Not only were warships fitted out and equipped but also civilian ships were transformed to take helicopters and to refuel at sea. The success of this operation was due to sheer hard work at the dockyards and other naval establishments, laws which facilitated the requisitioning and chartering of civilian ships, and detailed contingency plans drawn up for a European emergency which guided all this activity.

The task force did not quite exhaust Britain's naval resources. It did require the services of both of the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, both of its assault ships (recently reprieved from being scrapped) and practically all of the fleet auxiliaries. However, during the campaign the total number of destroyers and frigates sent to the South Atlantic was 23, under half those readily available at the time. Contrary to popular suspicions, only two of these ships were scheduled for disposal. The four nuclear-powered and one diesel-powered submarines on patrol in the South Atlantic were only a portion of Britain's submarine fleet. Fifty-one warships were involved in all, and the maximum number active at any one time was 26 (in the second half of May). The crucial factor was the number of civilian ships which were mobilized-some 54 in total. The most celebrated were the luxury liners, Canberra and Queen Elizabeth 2, which served as troopships, but others played critical roles from tankers to hospitals.

The second important factor in the logistical effort was Ascension Island, owned by Britain but normally used only by the United States. Some 3,500 miles from the Falkland Islands, it was too far back to be used as an operating base but it was invaluable as a staging post, with personnel and freight being taken there by air to continue their journey by sea.

The troops sent with the first wave of the task force were by and large made up of the highly trained specialist units-Royal Marine commandos, the Parachute battalions and the Special Air Services. They were joined later on by soldiers from Guards Divisions and the Nepalese Gurkha troops, who were less well suited to the particular demands of this campaign. In all the land forces totaled some 9,000 men (6,000 Army and 3,000 Marines).

The task force was most limited by the lack of air power it could carry. Deployed in the South Atlantic were 22 Sea Harriers, joined later by six more and by ten Royal Air Force Harrier GR3 combat support aircraft, and 140 sundry helicopters of which the majority were either Sea Kings or Wessex. There were none of the wide-ranging fighter aircraft which would have been found on earlier generations of aircraft carriers.

As part of the effort to compensate for this deficiency, great strides were made in the art of in-flight refueling. This was used to get Harrier GR3s to Ascension Island (and for four to fly directly on to a carrier), as well as four Vulcan bombers, Nimrod maritime surveillance aircraft, and Hercules transport aircraft. The 16 Victor tankers based at Wideawake Airport on Ascension Island were kept busy but their military impact was limited. As it took ten Victors to keep one Vulcan in the air for the raids on the islands, only one bomber could be used at a time. Nimrod air warning and control aircraft did not really get close to the combat zone. It was only through individual pilots being willing to fly excessive numbers of sorties and the maintenance crews attaining impressive levels of availability (of up to 90 per cent) that effective patrols could be maintained. With aircraft and helicopters of limited range and staying power, the capability that was missed the most was for early warning of enemy attack.

The Argentine forces awaiting Britain benefited from geography-home ports and air bases. Nevertheless, the Islands were some 400 miles from the mainland, which meant that Argentine aircraft had to operate at the limits of their range while an awkward supply line had to be set up to service the garrison defending the newly won territory.

Argentine forces when compared with those of Britain looked impressive enough, with many weapons of comparable quality and similar type-often, embarrassingly enough, bought from Britain. The Navy was smaller than that of the British task force and many elements of it were of World War II vintage. But other elements such as British destroyers, French frigates and German submarines, and much of the armament, were quite modern. In the air there was a clear advantage in numbers if not in quality with some 120 Mirages, Skyhawks, Super-Etendards and Canberras. The other advantage derived from being the defending force. By the end of April 12,000 troops-a mixture of regulars and conscripts-had been transferred to the islands and positions had been fortified.


The commander of the task force was charged with bringing about the withdrawal of the Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands and reestablishing British administration there with the minimum loss of life. A prerequisite for most of the strategic alternatives was to blockade the defending forces. A maritime exclusion zone of 200 miles was declared on April 12, as soon as Buenos Aires could reasonably expect a nuclear submarine to have reached the area. This was turned into a total exclusion zone once the main task force arrived.

The only diversion was to retake the dependency of South Georgia. This was not part of the original plan, but the opportunity to demonstrate military prowess, probably without interference from the Argentine Navy or Air Force because of the distance from the mainland, was too tempting. In the event the operation was almost a disaster. An advance party was helicoptered onto a glacier on which it got stuck. Two helicopters crashed trying to rescue it but a third succeeded. Eventually, sufficient men were landed to provide keen observation of Argentine activity. On April 25, they observed a submarine reinforcing the garrison. The operation was immediately brought forward. The submarine Santa Fe was severely damaged by missiles and depth charges from helicopters and was forced to ditch on land. Marines landed and surprised the garrison, which surrendered without much resistance, providing the desired impression of effortless British victory.

Enforcing the exclusion zone proved more taxing. There was reasonable success on the naval side as a result of the first major engagement of the war and the one that involved the most casualties. On May 2, the cruiser General Belgrano, while accompanied by two destroyer escorts, was torpedoed by the submarine HMS Conqueror. The cruiser sank with the loss of 360 lives. The destroyers did not wait around to pick up survivors. They were looking either for the submarine or simply for cover. The large cruiser may have been picked on instead of the more capable destroyers as an easier target for the submarines' relatively unsophisticated Mark-8 torpedoes.

Politically the incident was damaging to Britain, as the victim was just outside the 200-mile exclusion zone. Although Britain had been very careful not to suggest that this was a combat-inclusive zone it had been widely understood as such. Such a dramatic transformation of the crisis led to accusations of unwarranted escalation. The counter was that the Argentine ships were well armed and heading toward elements of the task force on something other than a goodwill mission.

That being said, it is doubtful that the British commanders were dismayed that such a target presented itself, allowing for an awesome display of the power of modern submarines. The lesson was underlined when it was announced a few days later that any Argentine warships or aircraft found further than 12 miles from the Argentine coast would be treated as hostile. No Argentine surface warships took up the challenge, though a number of patrol boats and supply ships were caught attempting to break the blockade.

The anticipated large-scale naval battle never materialized. Of the Argentine submarines, one of the old ones was cannibalized for its twin which was caught at South Georgia. Of the two modern German submarines little was seen. There were rumors of problems in their operation. Once Harriers attacked what might have been a submarine with no evident results. At any rate, as the U.K. fleet is now largely designed for anti-submarine warfare, it would have been scandalous if its ASW net had been penetrated. All Argentina could do was to avenge the loss of the General Belgrano. The destroyer HMS Sheffield was surprised on May 4 by an air-launched Exocet missile. The missile failed to detonate but its spare fuel ignited and a fire soon engulfed the ship. Twenty sailors were killed, and the ship abandoned to sink.

The attempt to impose the exclusion zone in the air was less successful. The key to this operation was the closure of the airfield at Port Stanley. There were five long-range air strikes mounted against this and related targets by Vulcans from Ascension Island using gravity bombs, with follow-up raids by Harriers. The first, on May 1, was the most successful, with one bomb leaving a crater in the center of the runway. This prevented it from being used by high-performance combat aircraft but not by lighter aircraft and transports. Argentine transports managed to get through until the end, largely by taking risks flying onto an inadequate airfield at night. Reconnaissance was unsatisfactory, as a result of cloud cover and a shortage of aircraft. The British were kidded by sand placed on strategic points in the runway pretending to be craters.

Given the difficulties of putting a crude airfield out of action, it was surprising that there was any interest in attempting to bomb air bases on the Argentine mainland. The possibility of an attack on a carefully delineated target, for example the base of the Super-Etendards, was not ruled out but the general view was that the political costs of this sort of escalation, combined with the practical problems of making it a success, rendered it unattractive.

The other part of the air strategy was to destroy Argentine air resources wherever possible. On May 1, a Sea Harrier shot down a Mirage while others successfully took on two Canberras. Thereafter the Argentine Air Force avoided dogfights with the Sea Harriers to conserve resources for a British landing on the islands. On being spotted by Harriers, Argentine aircraft returned home. More success was achieved by a commando raid on a small airstrip at Pebble Island on May 15. Eleven aircraft, mainly light ground-attack Pucaras, were destroyed. However, despite these and a few other losses, the bulk of the Argentine Air Force was still intact.

It became clear to the British command that a blockade would not work. There were no signs that the military pressure exerted thus far was encouraging Argentine compromise on the sovereignty issue. There was no reason to believe that the state of the garrison on the islands was dire, or that it had less staying power than the task force. Only one Harrier had been lost in combat (attacking Port Stanley) but two others and three helicopters had been lost in accidents. This plus the destruction of HMS Sheffield created the prospect of gradual attrition that would lower morale. The greatest problem was of sustaining the task force in increasingly stormy and inclement weather over an extended period. Stuck on board ships the soldiers would lose combat readiness. Options to harass the enemy by small-scale raids or even troop landings on remote parts of the islands would not inconvenience the enemy sufficiently. There was little choice but to attempt a landing.

Those with a knowledge of the history of British amphibious landings could feel nothing but trepidation. The calculation was made that, in military terms, substantial losses were tolerable if the land forces could establish a beachhead. On May 21, there was a dawn landing at Port San Carlos off the Falkland Sound which divides the two main islands, just to the west of East Falkland, 50 miles from Port Stanley. It succeeded beyond the expectations of the British command.

It was important that no enemy forces were sufficiently close to provide opposition. At the start of May, at the earliest possible opportunity, special forces had been landed on the islands to keep a close watch on Argentine positions. The islands offered lots of alternative landing sites, most of which would be undefended. However, because of the lack of an internal road network and the limited number of heavy-lift helicopters, it had to be feasible to move forces to Port Stanley. One advantage of Port San Carlos was that the Argentine command probably assumed that it was just too far away for British forces. The other advantage was that the layout of the bay made it very difficult to mount air attacks on the landing forces. With the attacking aircraft coming from the west, they would have to first pass a Harrier cordon, then a picket line of ships with a variety of anti-air defenses and eventually the antiaircraft weapons of the ground forces. The disadvantage was that many warships would have to sit for a number of days in highly vulnerable positions. The only compensation was that the Sound allowed for reasonable protection against Exocets and submarines (because of the narrow entrance at each end).

With the help of a series of diversionary raids, surprise was achieved. By the time Argentine forces had realized what was going on, three separate beachheads had been established and 4,000 men were ashore.

Then the air raids came. In the intensive duels four ships-two frigates, a destroyer and one merchantman (the Atlantic Conveyor)-were lost. Contrary to repeated claims from Buenos Aires, neither aircraft carrier was hit, nor was the most valuable target to venture into Falkland Sound, the troopship Canberra.

Much has been made of the good fortune of another six ships hit by bombs or missiles which failed to explode. The failure was a direct result of the low altitude at which the Argentine aircraft was forced to attack in order to get under British air defenses, which allowed insufficient time for the delayed action fuses on the bombs. An Exocet missile was diverted on to the Atlantic Conveyor from the carrier HMS Invincible by the use of chaff, one of a number of countermeasures that were developed against this missile during the campaign. Later on, a ground-launched Exocet from Port Stanley struck the HMS Glamorgan a glancing blow.

The Argentine Air Force suffered dreadful attrition. The pilots flew bravely and skillfully with, at times, barely a one in two chance of survival. In the three days of May 21 to May 24, almost 40 aircraft were lost, including 15 Mirages and 19 A-4 Skyhawks. This can be compared with Argentina's total air losses during the campaign of over 90 (including 26 Mirages and 31 Skyhawks). This number excludes those caught on the ground. The effort left the Argentine Air Force severely depleted and exhausted. The only aircraft able to bother the British ground forces were the Pucaras still on the islands. Toward the end of the campaign, aircraft were mustered for a last raid on June 8. This succeeded in inflicting the heaviest British casualties of the war on two landing ships in Port Fitzroy. In this raid eight Mirages and three Skyhawks were shot down.

Harriers achieved most "kills" of Argentine aircraft (though not always en route to a raid). Naval air defense missiles performed reasonably well, shooting down 20 aircraft during the whole campaign, with close range weapons accounting for another five, but, as mentioned earlier, the consequences of the diversionary action they forced onto attacking aircraft must also be taken into account. Land-based missiles, including the Rapier and hand-held weapons such as the Blowpipe, shot down about 20 aircraft. Argentina also used the Blowpipe to shoot down two helicopters but was unable to make its sophisticated Franco-German Roland work at all.

The land campaign which followed was neither as spectacular nor as interesting to those addicted to modern technology. With air power playing a limited role on either side, conditions unconducive to armored warfare, and an absence of urban sprawl and modern roadways, it was almost a throwback to 1914-16. For the British such thoughts were disturbing, for their task was to dislodge a well-armed enemy from entrenched positions. The methods were not dissimilar to those of the Great War-artillery bombardment combined with determined infantry assaults on vulnerable points with a hope that surprise, training and morale could compensate for the natural advantages accruing to the defense. Formulas offering guidance on the necessary numerical superiority for a successful offense were irrelevant.

As stores were unloaded at Port San Carlos, advance patrols determined enemy dispositions. The breakout from the beaches began on May 27. The next day came the first battle at the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin, where 600 men of the 2nd Parachute Brigade took on 1,000 Argentine troops. Pucara aircraft with the Argentine garrison were shot down before they did much damage. Argentine troops fought fiercely at first but became demoralized by their inability to hold on to forward positions. Before surrender, some 50 had been killed (not 250 as originally reported) as against 17 on the British side.

The Argentine Command had not expected an attack from the West. It had anticipated a landing reasonably close to Port Stanley on either the north or the south and had prepared accordingly, for example by laying minefields astride the likely attack route. Now hasty adjustments were required, including some frantic mine-laying that will plague the islanders for years to come. Another adjustment was to move troops from Mount Kent, some five miles inland from Port Stanley, to reinforce the garrison at Goose Green.

When it was realized that Mount Kent had been vacated, Royal Marines moved forward in appalling conditions to occupy it. This may have been a mistake, for Mount Kent was more suited to defense than for launching attack and the troops there were bitterly exposed to the elements. It required the use of scarce helicopter resources to attend to their needs. This, plus the fact that three valuable Chinook heavy-lift helicopters had been lost on the Atlantic Conveyor, created a helicopter shortage.

This had important consequences for the 3,000 men of the British 5th Infantry Brigade who had by now arrived at Port San Carlos. They lacked the wherewithal for movement in sub-Arctic conditions and were in danger of getting stuck. The troops had therefore to be moved by sea. An advance party established, by telephoning one of the local residents, that Bluff Cove (just to the south of Port Stanley) was not occupied by Argentine forces. The Second Parachute Regiment was quickly helicoptered to Bluff Cove and the neighboring Port Fitzroy to take advantage. Then over the next few nights landing ships brought first the Ghurkhas, Blues and Royals, then Scots Guards and finally Welsh Guards around from Port San Carlos. The operation went wrong only at the final stage. Two landing ships, Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad, arrived at Port Fitzroy in clear daylight on June 8 to the surprise of those already there. They were spotted, an air attack was launched, and the two ships were hit leaving 50 men dead.

Despite this calamity, land forces were now in position around Port Stanley for the campaign's finale. Argentine defenses were based on the high ground on the outskirts of Port Stanley overlooking one of the few roads boasted by the islands which led into the capital, on the erroneous assumption that the British would wish to launch their main attack along this road. Instead, the defending forces were unhinged by a series of nighttime attacks on their exposed flanks. The battles were sharp, with stubborn Argentine resistance in some cases and disarray elsewhere. The loss of the defensive perimeter and the wearing down caused by intense bombardment from the sea as well as land (6,000 shells over the last 12 hours) took its toll. On June 14 white flags went up and the next day General Mario Menendez, commander of the Argentine garrison, surrendered on behalf of all his forces on the Falkland Islands.


The key difference between the two sides was in the organization of their military forces and their professionalism. Argentine forces were riven by conflicts between officers and men, regulars and conscripts, which impaired their performance. At the end General Menendez did not even have an accurate picture of all the forces under his command. The British forces had the advantage in training, stamina and leadership and so demonstrated the virtues of military professionalism. In a war in which physical elements such as terrain and climate loomed as large as the technical factors, the traditional military virtues could be decisive. In this sense, the important lessons of the war were old ones that had been neglected in the fixation on technological prowess and weapon inventories.

The technical side of the conflict was once again shown to depend on competence and skill in using equipment, and a capacity for improvisation, as well as the basic reliability of the equipment. It also depends on a tactical appreciation. For example, Argentine troops were surprised at night despite excellent nightfighting equipment. As the capability of a modern weapon is very much a function of what it is up against, variations in conditions of challenges can have lasting consequences for a weapon's reputation. Circumstances can flatter: for example Harriers were often taking on Argentine aircraft which had no reserves of fuel to allow maneuver. A weapon such as the long-range air defense weapon Sea Dart can be effective if the enemy avoids it out of respect-but this will reduce the "kills" to its credit.

Notorious successes create reputations. Exocet, for example, was in fact only moderately successful. Its major success was achieved despite a failure in the warhead and its second success was a result of a diversion. Cumbersome but effective counter-measures were developed to cope with it.

The focus today is on the most advanced weapons, but most forces are a mixture of the old and the new and it is important to know how well the more elderly items cope. A good eye can sometimes compensate for a lack of precision guidance but nothing can compensate for a lack of range.

Obsolescence turns out also to be a function of circumstance-a 4.5-inch gun shot down a Skyhawk. Air attack is no occasion for sophisticated disdain of primitive weapons.

High rates of ammunition usage were recorded and at the end some of the British units had virtually exhausted their supplies. The readiness to use up resources-be they shells or aircraft-could well have been linked to expectations of how long the battle would last. Lastly, Britain gained enormously by plans to mobilize civilian assets, particularly shipping, in the event of war.

By and large what was suspected was confirmed. Submarines may be of little use for showing the flag or carrying supplies but they are lethal instruments. Surface ships are extremely vulnerable to dedicated air attacks. The British fleet lacked sufficient air cover and early warning, spent much of the time in a confined space, and still shot down many attacking aircraft, so its losses may not have been excessive. But the Argentine Air Force was neither particularly modern nor designed for anti-shipping purposes.

The technical lessons are thus ambiguous and the revived old lessons may only be relevant if future wars are to be fought in such unmodern conditions. At the very least the experience serves as a correction to notions of electronic battlefields where human qualities are redundant and it can all be explained by cybernetics. The political lessons may be more interesting. They stem from relating the experience of a modern industrial power fighting alone in a limited war to the war it plans with its allies in the center of Europe.

The first concerns military management. The Royal Navy was assigned overall command responsibility which it exercised from its headquarters on the outskirts of London, transmitting orders to the commander of the task force. Operations on land were the responsibility of the senior Army officer. The decision-making was by and large successful but there were still misunderstandings between the two services: the Army did not always understand why naval gunfire support had to be withdrawn at crucial moments or key ships kept back when they might have been useful. The central staffs at the Ministry of Defence busied themselves with attending to requests from the commanders and considering the broad policy options and the rules of engagement. The Prime Minister's small "war cabinet" took the fundamental decisions on diplomacy and military action but offered no advice on how to implement the decisions. The civilians' constancy of political purpose was their most valuable contribution to the military effort. This experience with a relatively simple conflict threw into relief the likely problems with lines of command in a NATO-Warsaw Pact crisis, attempting to coordinate a variety of governments each with their own views on its conduct and some with a proclivity to interfere with field decisions.

This leads us to the second lesson, which concerns crisis management. Military power is not a simple instrument of diplomacy. Once invoked it transforms diplomacy as compulsion takes over from compromise. Military means come to demand commensurate political ends. After Britain was forced to fight for the Islands, the sort of diplomatic solution that would have been embraced a few weeks earlier now turns out to be an insult to the men who have died. At the end of the war, Britain found itself with a political commitment to the Falkland Islands that had been absent before.

Nor is diplomacy a clear-cut alternative to military action, for it often depends on the assessment of the likely winner of an eventual battle. If one side is continually requested to hold back, its diplomatic position may deteriorate along with its military options. For the party that does not have time on its side, it is necessary to keep the military initiative. Moreover, this initiative rarely allows for gradual escalation. In general, graduated response is an ideal that can rarely be achieved in practice. An overwhelmingly superior country can show flexibility and patience, meting out the military medicine in small doses to begin with, but this course is unlikely to commend itself to a country risking defeat. There is a military logic which it dare not ignore. This logic warns that military options cannot be maintained indefinitely and that some are highly perishable; that there are risks attached to tentative actions taken merely for demonstrative effect and that, confronting a capable enemy, there may be risks attached to doing nothing at all; that military campaigns rarely involve a simple buildup to some grand finale, but that the bloodiest and most difficult operations may be amongst the earliest; and that military action is unpredictable, so that what looks good in the plans can look awful in reality.

In the Falklands War the engagement with the greatest casualties-the sinking of the General Belgrano-came right at the start of the actual fighting. It was an important military victory for Britain, yet it turned into a political defeat because of the premium that the international community put on the appearance of avoiding escalation. Any military action which is not self-evidently for defensive purposes, even if it is preemptive, becomes an outrage. Measures such as economic sanctions or blockades are deemed more acceptable than any military action which tends to lead to direct casualties. Yet if sanctions or blockades are to succeed it can only be by causing immense distress to civilians-while if they fail, those involved will still have suffered lasting disruption and the international community is left with a smoldering problem. All this provides political discouragement for going on to the military offensive unless it is going to be reasonably bloodless.

The relevance of this for crisis management seems to be as follows. First, the concept of "escalation," which is now an established part of thinking on crisis and war, is in practice misleading, and creates unreal expectations as to the likely development of a conflict. Second, there can rarely be a neat proportionality between ends and means. Third, it is a diplomatic as well as often a military advantage to force the enemy to initiate battle.

All this makes it harder rather than easier for democracies to manage conflicts. Yet in other respects the war of the Falkland Islands showed that simple assumptions about the difficulty of maintaining political support were not well founded. Since the American experience with Vietnam there has been an assumption that democratic societies have a low level of tolerance of war, with national will being sapped with each casualty and lurid media coverage.

This assumption may explain some of the awkwardness of the Ministry of Defence in its handling of the media. Certainly a role for the media needs to be incorporated into strategic planning. There were no contingency plans available in this case. Government policy on the release of information showed great inconsistencies. Correspondents were only allowed to accompany the task force after an enormous fuss, and their accreditation papers were left over from the Suez Crisis of 1956. No means were found to transmit television pictures back or even, for some time, black-and-white stills. It is perhaps significant that the Parliamentary Defence Committee is conducting its first postwar investigation on this matter. Here again, this was a very unusual and old-fashioned war. From the British, but not the Argentine, side there were no television images. The correspondents with the task force were utterly dependent on the military for their stories and their external communications. This made possible tight censorship. The consequent public demand for information in Britain was met too much by speculation and reports from Argentina.

However, there seems to have been no reason to assume that the public would not support the war. Opinion polls have long recorded an immediate surge of support for governments in such circumstances and this case was no exception. This was helped by the fact that the opposition parties who initially saw the issue in terms of embarrassing the government for its "loss" of the islands found themselves associated with the cause of their recapture. The British public is unfortunately used to its soldiers being killed in Northern Ireland. This is easier to take with a volunteer than with a conscript Army. Polls showed initial reluctance to contemplate any loss of life in retaking the Falkland Islands, but once the casualties came, Argentina was blamed and support for the war grew.

The question again becomes what would have happened in different circumstances: if Britain had not appeared to be keeping the initiative and the war turned into a stalemate or even defeat; if allies had been more critical or indeed if Britain had been trying to fight in concert with them; if the fighting was not so contained in time and space and so far away; if the issue had not been the simple one of aggression against British subjects by a military dictatorship but one much more complex and ambiguous, involving shadowy notions of national interest.

The war was a strange and atavistic interlude for Britain, a curious and enthralling distraction from its economic troubles. It was generally believed to have been popular and the victory raised national morale. What it did not do was solve the problem of the Falkland Islands. It made a diplomatic solution virtually impossible for many years, as the islanders' feelings about Argentina have become even more hostile. Britain will now have to provide properly for the islands' defense and try to improve their economic viability in the face of persistent hostility from Argentina and non-cooperation from the rest of Latin America. Having retrieved the Falkland Islands, Britain is well and truly stuck with them!

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  • Lawrence D. Freedman is Professor of War Studies at King's College, University of London. Previously he was head of policy studies at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House). He is the author of Britain and Nuclear Weapons, Evolution of Nuclear Strategy and other works.
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