Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Argentina's Independence Day

Today Argentina is celebrating its bicentennial with parades and fireworks, but back in 1982 they marked that occasion with bombs and bravery as Argentine pilots flew into the teeth of fierce British air defenses during the Falklands War.

Probably the most notable attack on that day was the successful Exocet strike that left the Atlantic Conveyor burning. Among the stores being carried on that large container ship was a cargo of Chinook heavy lift helicopters. Only one Chinook survived. The lack of these helicopters was felt immediately and slowed the British advance on Stanley.

Other attacks sunk a British warship and damaged several others. The Argentines were plagued with bombs that failed to explode because they were dropped at too low an altitude to arm, although even unexploded bombs could do serious damage and even cause a ship to be lost.

While only three Argentine aircraft were lost on May 25th, the cumulative losses since May 21 added up to 22 high performance jets and the Argentine air campaign was running out of steam. Losses would decrease as air attacks tapered off and the campaign moved into the ground phase that would bring the war to a close.

One interesting point to consider is the intersection between military technology and political decision-making. There's little evidence in accounts of the war that either the Argentine junta or Thatcher's government were aware of how much the success of their war efforts might turn on technical details. More than a dozen Argentine bombs that hit British ships failed to explode. Suppose they had gone off? Would the British task force have been able to stay on station if it lost 8 frigates and destroyers instead of 4? The five Argentine Exocets between them sunk two British warships for no losses among the attacking aircraft. The Argentines had ordered 10 of the missiles, though. With another five they might have sunk 2-3 more British ships and of one of those had been the Hermes or Invincible the entire operation would have been endangered.

It all seems so inevitable now, in hindsight, as these things usually do. But British failure was certainly an option and defeat in the Falklands would have inevitably brought Thatcher's premiership to an abrupt, inglorious end. There would have been no "Iron Lady" to stand alongside Reagan. For the want of a nail, the poem goes ... .

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