Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Falklands end of the road, 30 years ago

ARA 25 de Mayo

This week the Falklands War came to an official end as the British announced they had achieved their aims. Within days the last prisoners would be repatriated and within two weeks the Exclusion Zone would be lifted.

By early June the valiant Argentinian air forces had been defeated. While some damaging raids still occurred, notably the June 8 attack that damaged one landing ship and sunk another, the Argentinians had pretty much shot their wad. Losses were simply too severe to keep testing the British defenses.  With their Navy already knocked out of the fight, and the air force, too, the Argentine Army troops around Port Stanley had no real hope of holding on as an isolated island garrison without air cover.

On June 12-13 the final serious fighting occurred as the two British brigades seized the high ground near Port Stanley. And interesting incident occurred as an ad hoc shore-based Exocet managed to hit and damage the British frigate HMS Glamorganas it closed in to give fire support. This suggests that shore-based "artillery" may be becoming a threat to ships again. Truck-mounted mobile shore batteries of SSMs could be very hard to counter  in the future.

But the Argentinians didn't have multiple batteries of these weapons -- they had just one. And the British weren't fighting their way ashore. They were actually attacking from the inland side. And so the Argentinians surrendered.

Thirty years a=on the Falklands War remains a singular event. While there have been many wars since 1945 and quite of few of them have involved naval forces, there have been no other combined land-sea-air campaigns that contested all three environments with such vigor.  With the possible exception of a China-Taiwan clash there's no similar conflict on the horizon, either.

The Falklands War is an excellent example of the difference between a first world military and one that is not, especially in the huge gap in quality between the Argentinian army and the British land troops and in the ability of the British to launch such a massive logistical expedition in the first place. That said, the war was hardly a cake walk for the British. The Argentinian air units, in particular, seriously threatened the task Force. Had  a few more dud bombs gone off or had the Argentinians owned a few more Exocet missiles they may very well have kept control of the seas around the Falkland Islands.

The Argentinian Navy also remains a huge what-if. In the actual event the first carrier vs. carrier battle since 1944 was called off because the slow speed of the Argentinian carrier meant that its A-4 Skyhawks would have had to be launched with just two 500-pound bombs instead of the six desired. Frankly, this was a lame excuse. First, Argentine Skyhawks later made raids with similar small loads due to the range, but most critically, the Argentinians only needed to get lucky once. A single 500-pound bomb could easily have knocked a carrier out of action, even if it didn't sink it. With the British Harriers not having the range to retaliate, the surviving carrier might have been obliged to retreat as well, and with it, the entoire british task force.

No, the Argentinian Navy, which had been the branch most hot on the war in the first place, proved to have cold feet when the moment of truth came, however. After the sinking of the Belgrano, the major elements of the Argentinian Navy didn't venture forth again. And at the end of the day, this, too, seems to illustrate the difference between a first-class Navy and a navy for show. The Royal Navy understood that losing some ships came with the territory and stuck through it despite the hair-raising attacks in San Carlos Waters. The Argentinian Navy cowered in port, which begs the question of why they wasted all that money on a fleet in the first place if they were not willing to risk using it. Argentinian Adm. Gualter Allara may have lost his nerve, but it was an institutional failure, not a personal one.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post!

    I agree with you assessment of the Argentinian Navy being "for show". But I think their key fear was a furtherance of what happened to the Belgrano. They simply had no useful counter to the submarine threat.

    Most small countries are going to face the problem of being able to afford the assets to realistically counter surface, air, and submarine threats.

    Still, there are a number of mistakes made by the Argentinians that, had they not been made, could have seriously tipped the balance of the war in their favor.