Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Belgrano sinking -- how to properly use a submarine

Famous photo of the ARA General Belgrano sinking, taken by a crewman in one of the orange inflatable life rafts. note that the bow of the cruiser has been blown off. While a grievous blow, this was not the fatal one. A second torpedo hit midships aft, killing more than 200 sailors instantly and causing flooding damage that led to the sinking.

Thirty Years ago today the Falklands War took a dramatic and serious turn as the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror successfully torpedoed the ARA General Belgrano (formerly the USS Phoenix). The General Belgrano soon sank, with the loss of  321 men.

There was considerable, if misplaced, controversy at the time over the sinking, as the Argentinian ship was outside the declared exclusion zone and the heavy loss of life was a shocking development in what, for most of the world, had seemed a rather odd war between two unlikely combatants. Up until this point the war had seen few casualties and the media portrayal of the whole affair seemed to downplay the seriousness of what was at stake -- or so I thought at the time. For weeks the media had been filled with acoc8unts of the shuttle diplomacy of Alexander Haig and various talking heads had dismissed the idea that these two American allies could actually, you know, fight.

I thought this attitude was quite bizarre, and once the first elements of the British task force set out for the war zone I was absolutely certain it would come to fighting. Both sides were committed and neither could back down at that point. The Argentinian Junta could not possibly retreat from the islands and survive -- and Thatcher's government likewise would have been instantly doomed had it ordered the task force to turn around.

The Belgrano incident revealed to the world what a serious affair the Falklands War was -- and always had been. To its credit the Thatcher government seems to have been very clear-eyed about what was at stake and the order was given to sink the Belgrano despite some murkiness about the exact situation.

And the sinking of the Belgrano was hugely significant, signaling, in effect, the defeat of the Argentinian Navy. In the wake of the Belgrano's sinking the Argentinian surface navy returned to port, never to return. Just a few hours before there had been the real possibility of the first carrier battle in almost 40 years as the Argentinian aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo closed within 200 miles of the British fleet. Light winds thwarted the Argentinian attack as its A-4 Skyhawks would have had to launch with just two 500-pound bombs instead of the planned six and the Argentinians decided that wasn't good enough. Hindisght suggests this was a mistake, as even one bomb on a British carrier would have changed the complexion of the war.

Instead it was the pair of torpedoes that the Conqueror sent into the Belgrano that ended up being the game changer.. It was evident that the Argentinians had no tools to cope with the British nuclear sub force and rather than risk any more ships they abandoned the field. The rest of the Argentinian effort against the British fleet would rely on land-based aircraft and a single submarine. This proved not to be enough.

Unlike the Argentinian misuse of the Sante Fe a few days before, the British dedicated their submarine force to the critical mission of  winning the sea battle. On May 2 they didn't have many resources -- in addition to the HMS Conqueror the HMS Spartan and HMS Splendid were in the area. This wasn't a lot to cover such a huge are and in the event only the Conqueror actually made contact with one of the three Argentinian task forces. This was sufficient, however.

For more on the sinking of the Belgrano there is this site.

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