Friday, April 2, 2010

Warfare the old-fashioned way -- The Falklands, 1982

It was 28 years ago today that Argentinian troops landed on and captured the Falkland Islands, launching the 74-day Falklands War.

The Falklands War was unusual in many ways. It was relatively quick, for one thing, and was largely a naval-air campaign, which is always uncommon but has been especially so since 1945.

In many ways it's kind of a throwback to an earlier sort of war, the conventional state vs. state war that wargamers are comfortable with, but that has been rather uncommon since World War II. Sure, the have been a few major state vs. state wars since 1945 involving Israel and its neighbors, three between India and Pakistan, Korea, Iraq, Kuwait and Iraq-Iran come to mind. But most of the combat that the world has seen since WW2 has been much messier insurgencies, terrorism and genocides. Even many of the state vs. state wars have involved a lot of irregular warfare such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. Ideology and ethnic tensions have featured prominently in most of those wars, and those passions have added an ugly element to most of them.

The 1982 Falklands War was much more old-fashioned. It was a contest between states, over national interests, and conducted largely in accordance with the recognized rules of war. Both countries involved were "western" in culture, although the Argentine regime was not democratic. As mentioned, the war was largely decided by the naval-air campaign, although there was some serious ground fighting.

It was an odd war for the era, because it was largely outside the Cold War framework. While the United Kingdom was part of NATO, the Argentinian aggression fell outside of the NATO treaty as understood at the time. Argentina was unfriendly to the Soviets and an ally to the United States, which put the US in the awkward position of watching two allies fight. The Ar gentians, badly misjudging their situation, apparently thought the US would come down on their side, a monumental delusion of the sort that closed regimes seem especially prone to. While the US kept officially neutral, there was little doubt where American sympathies lie, and Washington apparently provided discreet aid to the British.

The fact that the war could occur at all was only due to the sufferance of the U.S., which had naval supremacy in the Atlantic.

There were a lot of lessons derived from the conflict. not the least of which is that there is a huge gap in actual military capability between a First World power such as the U.K. and a Second World military power such as Argentina. While Argentina's air force and naval pilots showed exceptional valor and skill and gave the British a run for their money, there was no contest at sea or on land. Argentina's navy, while impressive on paper, had critical weaknesses compared to Britain's Royal Navy, especially in the skill and daring of its higher leadership. One wonders if any Argentinian admiral had ever given serious thought to how me might actually use his fleet in battle.

The land fighting showed an even bigger gap in capability. While Argentina's air and naval forces showed considerable professionalism, the land elements were completely outmatched. The British have centuries of tradition and experience in expeditionary campaigns of this sort and committed most of its most elite units (commandos, paras, Gurkhas, guards, etc.) to the affair. In contrast the Argentinian command withdrew its best units, which were used in the initial landings and replaced them with raw conscripts.

There haven't been an awful lot of games published on the episode, but among those that have been published is the South Atlantic War campaign book for Harpoon published by Clash of Arms Games in 2002 (2d edition) and earlier in 1990 by Game Designer's Workshop. The South Atlantic War is a very comprehensive treatment of the war, including sources from both sides, that depicts every significant incident of the war from the initial landings at Port Stanley on April 2 to the final battle, also at Port Stanley, on June 14.

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