Sunday, May 2, 2010

General Belgrano day

ARA General Belgrano sinking on May 2, 1982

Outside of Argentina, I'm sure few will note that the ARA General Belgrano was sunk on this day in 1982 as the first major casualty of the Falklands War.

As a younger and much skinner wargamer back in 1982 I followed the course of the Falklands War intently. One of the things that sticks in my mind after all these years was the utter lack of seriousness there seemed to be in the American media about the potential for combat. The conventional wisdom was strong that somehow these two U.S. allies would work things out without there being much more than posturing. The sinking of the Belgrano shocked people into realizing that this was a deadly serious affair after all. A few of the ignorant criticized the attack because it was outside the Exclusion Zone declared by the British, although the Argentine authorities admitted it was a legitimate act of war and not the slightest bit irregular.

As I said, the conventional wisdom was that there wouldn't be an actual war, although I don't think many wargamers believed that. As a matter of fact, whenever it came up, I told everyone that there would undoubtedly be a war. This wasn't because I was clairvoyant, it was simple common sense about human nature and power politics.

In the first place, it was clear to me that the Argentine junta could never meekly withdraw from the captured islands under British threat. Whatever internal politics drove their decision to invade would make it impossible to leave, period. It was literally unthinkable.

The British had a tiny bit more choice open to them. It was at least theoretically possible that they could have accepted the fait accompli or tried to negotiate a settlement. Some governments might have tried to do this, although it would necessarily come at enormous political cost -- probably fatal to that party for a generation. The Thatcher government was not that sort of government and if there was even a moment's consideration for anything other than a liberation then it was clearly dispensed with quickly. Within hours the first elements of the task force were on their way and once the very first ship sailed I believed war was inevitable.

The simple fact is that no government, anywhere, ever, could dispatch a fleet to liberate some territory and then not use it. It was unthinkable.

So within hours it should have been clear to anyone who looked at it that the dispute would result in fighting and all the drama in April of diplomacy and Alexander Haig shuttle flights and other garbage was pointless.

The sinking of the General Belgrano, which cost 323 lives, settled that the war would be a "real" one, with serious fighting, major losses and at least one loser.

There were a number of interesting aspects to the Belgrano sinking. One is that the ship, itself, was a former U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Phoenix, one of the powerful pre-war Brooklyn class light cruisers and a survivor of Pearl Harbor and other battles. The Belgrano had been slightly updated and modernized in the decades since it's WWII service but it was definitely not first-line equipment by international standards. Few similar vessels were still in service anywhere.

Escorting the Belgrano were a couple of other World War II veterans, the Hipolito Bouchard and Piedra Buena, former U.S. Navy Sumner destroyers that had undergone the FRAM II upgrade. While all three ships had dangerous capability against surface targets, their anti-submarine capability was low and definitely not up to coping with a modern fast-attack nuclear submarine.

And yet this was exactly what they had the misfortune to encounter. The HMS Conqueror was a large and modern ship. It the actual attack on the Belgrano the sub used the venerable unguided Mark 8 straight-running torpedo, similar to weapons used in World War II and at first glance not a complete mismatch for the Argentine targets.

The Conqueror itself, however, was a hugely more capable opponent than any German U-boat or Japanese I-boat. The fact that the British submarine was able to stalk the Argentine task for for the better part of a day illustrates that. No World War II boat could stalk warships, although slow-moving convoys could be shadowed. Attacks on warships were a matter of luck and fortunate positioning.

In this case, however, the submarine was able to shadow warship traveling at a decent clip under wartime conditions, make contact with home authorities and finally get the clearance to attack. The torpedoes were launched at just 1400 yards, a stunningly short distance that reveals how inadequate the Argentine ASW capability. In the Harpoon 4 game system the two Argentine DDs are rated with sonars with a maximum detection range for passive use of under a mile. The Actual Argentine formation appears to have been loose enough that the two DDs didn't even see the General Belgrano being torpedoed!

Still, even a tight formation would have been futile for defending against the attack, although it might have saved some lives by putting rescue vessels closer.

The sinking of the General Belgrano is noteworthy as the only occasion in the more than half-century of nuclear submarine service that one of them sunk an opposing warship.

How they might fare in a larger conflict against more modern foes is still very much an open question. But at least in this one case the type scored not just a tactical success, but a strategic victory. In the wake of the Belgrano sinking the rest of the Argentine surface navy returned to port for good, ceding sea control to the Royal Navy. After this only a solitary Argentine conventional submarine and Argentine aircraft would attempt to contest the British at sea.

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