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The Falklands’ Forgotten Lessons

August 1, 2009

Over time we often forget hard-won lessons from previous conflicts. There are several myths prevailing over the Falklands Conflict which some use to justify long-cherished naval ides which have little to do with actual lessons from war, but more with peacetime economy and building projects too often favored by  industry over National Security. The 1982 Falklands Conflict is one such where myths prevail, so I decided to repost this in hopes of setting the record straight, or at least get you to thinking. From 2007 here are 5 Lessons of War from the Falklands Conflict:

25 years ago the first major air-land-sea war of the Missile Age was fought over a few sparsely populated islands in the far-off South Atlantic. Being the first major naval encounter since World War 2 with large fleet units on both sides, the 1982 Falklands Conflict offers many useful insights on conducting future warfare:

  1. Numbers still count. Before the war, Britain was prepared to sell off a huge chunk of her Royal Navy, including a brand new aircraft carrier plus her 2 remaining assault landing ships, while reducing the number of Royal Marines. The timely Argentine invasion interrupted these plans with bare months to spare. Also, when several warships were lost due to cruise missiles and bombs, these were easily replaced in the frontline thanks to her large fleet of over 50 destroyers and frigates.
  2. Military heritage still matters. Though the British armed forces were a shadow of her Imperial self, it still could field several old and highly skilled infantry units, including the Parachute Regiment, Royal Marines, SAS Commandos, the Ghurkas. Such professional volunteers easily bested the ill trained and poorly motivated conscripts of the Argentine Army.
  3. Cruise Missiles decide strategy. The single factor in the placement of naval forces, other than the exceedingly long logistical chain to the South Atlantic, was the new power and reach of cruise missiles, as proven dramatically after the sinking of HMS Sheffield by a single Argentine Exocet missile. The British carriers were forced to sail at their planes’ operational limit to distance themselves from this threat, and the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano was decided for fear she carried such weapons. The loss of a single aircraft carrier might have changed the course of the war.
  4. Every ship is an aircraft carrier. The capabilities of the Harrier “jump jet” astounded friend and foe alike, with its capability against land based fighters, while being able to fly in the most adverse weather off any flight deck. Such planes could fly off a short runway of light carriers, or even a merchant vessel. The West’s future jump jet, the F-35B Lightning could be spread throughout the fleet, along with new unmanned aerial vehicles, rather than limited to a few vulnerable and expensive platforms.
  5. The submarine is the new capital ship. This can be seen after a few observations of the sinking of the Argentine ship Belgrano by HMS Conqueror. The escorting destroyers chose to flee for their lives after the sinking, when in WW 2 they would have immediately attacked the aggressor sub. Likewise the Argentine Navy fled to port for the duration of the conflict. The lesson here is: Ignore the power of the modern nuclear attack sub at your peril!

From this single battle we divulge these 5 lessons which matter most in future war: plenty or enough of the right weapons, well-trained infantry, non-traditional aircraft, precision guided weapons, and submarines. Future military strategists and politicians in charge of buying new armaments, please take note!

49 Comments leave one →
  1. LTC R.J. Gaskill permalink
    December 30, 2009 5:36 pm

    Carriers vs Escorts- I’d Opt for the CVs and push for more escorts as the CVs are built. Push comes to shove- USN or other allies provide additional escorts. It would be a measured risk I’d be willing to take in order to have the RN get 2 new CVFs. Prediction- long term- 3d CVF will eventually be aquired by the RN.

    CVL/LPH/LH whatever- I’d suggest 2-3 Juan Carlos be added to the RN as well in due time. Hey- it’s just my 2 cents worth- being an old Airborne Infantry type who values to RN and naval avaition for our allies.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 8, 2009 5:38 pm

    Yet they managed quite adequately with the Harriers. It was a great day for Britain, probably the greatest since WW 2, and a big boost to the West’s morale in the ongoing Cold War. We had to wait until 1991 for ours!

  3. August 8, 2009 2:34 pm


    the other name for HMS Endurance was the ‘Falklands Guard Ship’ – whilst the HMS Ark Royal would have been key to any pre-planned, instead of make do, retake operation….HMS Hermes was still operational and still had the piping for catapults – the aircraft were still in storage sheds…so if they had been desperate for a big flat top, and prepared to wait a month then the RN could have had one.

    yours sincerly


  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 8, 2009 2:27 pm

    Alex said “the decision not to maintain HMS Endurance in the 1980s…which apparently lead to the Junta’s decision that British would not fight”

    Thats interesting because the US big carrier advocates over here like to say its was the decommissioning of the last conventional RN flattop HMS Ark Royal which fueled the invasion, even though she had left the fleet some 4 years earlier.

    Still, I hope it doesn’t happen. Another possibility is a “silent invasion” as is ongoing with Mexican immigrants in the American Southwest. Gradually your numbers overpower the legal residents, and you take over by default. Ironically this was the same strategy America used to take over the West in the first place!

  5. August 8, 2009 12:58 pm


    interestingly enough that announcement was made by a spokesman who is the grandson of the FO civil servant who made the decision not to maintain HMS Edurance in the 1980s…which apparently lead to the Junta’s decision that British would not fight. it was made in not a written statement but in answer to questions of journalists.

    it was immediately disowned by all parties; both the government retracting it, and all the opposition parties along with many back bench government mps threatening to halt all government legislation whilst it remains in power if they even considered it as an option.

    whilst all this has been going on the actual numbers deployed to the Falklands have actually increased; and the RMs are puting an important training facility down there

    yours sincerly


  6. William permalink
    August 8, 2009 12:05 pm

    Giving up sovereingty: Well if so, this is an utterly bizzarre way of going about things. Argentina suggested numerous times during the 90’s and 2000’s sharing sovereignty (i.e. joint sovereingty) with the UK, and the UK turned them down flat. So it would be absolutely bizzare for the UK to now surrender sovereingty of the Falklands when they could easily of shared sovereingty with Argentina, anytime in the last 20 or so years. They even offered this in the 80’s and before.

    I too do not see a war for the Falklands anytime soon, at least not for the next decade. After that who knows – and it may well draw in other countries like Venezuela.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 8, 2009 11:34 am

    I don’t see another Falklands War any time soon. At most it would have to be a combination of nations with Venezuela, Brazil, maybe others joining in.

    Recently the British MoD mentioned the Falklands when discussing giving up less essential roles and missions to win the wars we already have as in the Middle East. That is the mostly likely end of British Sovereignty, that they would give it up willingly.

  8. William permalink
    August 8, 2009 10:01 am

    There’s not much left of the Argentine airforce, what aircraft there is, are old and hopelessly outclassed by Typhoons and F35s. The Argentine surface fleet would be no match for a RN task force with SSN’s, Type 45’s, 23’s and CVF’s equiped with F35’s.

    The only thing I would be concerned about are the Argentine submarines, 3-4 SSK’s. The lack of escorts might come back to haunt the RN. Although the submarine threat would be partly mitigated by the excellent Type 23’s sonar, and SSN’s and a light carrier full of MERLIN ASW helicopters, plus the MERLIN’s embarked on the escorts, CVF, and other RN ships.

    You only need one SSK to get lucky and torpedo a CVF. Whilst it probably wouldn’t be enough to sink a CVF, it would probably put it out of action or at least severely impair its operations.

    It may not happen, but the RN is exposing itself to more risk by having fewer escorts.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 8, 2009 9:24 am

    Hope they will have enough general purpose forces to make this happen. And I’m sure the Argentines have learned the lessons well also.

  10. William permalink
    August 8, 2009 8:40 am

    Mike: I think this is partly why the Falklands are so important to the UK. That and access to Antartica, the last unclaimed and unexplored continent. A big reason why the UK is so intent on building those large carriers, at least in part to fight another Falklands war should it become necessary.

  11. William permalink
    August 8, 2009 8:32 am

    Mike: I should add that the cost of drilling for oil in the south atlantic will be very high because of the extreme depths of ocean, much deeper than anywhere else in the world. It needs long term high oil prices just to make it economically viable, not just the brief spike we had in oil prices last year, which has since equally dramatically dropped.

  12. William permalink
    August 8, 2009 8:26 am

    “William, if true, why haven’t we seen any oil? Too much money involved otherwise. Western Nations always get the blame for starting wars, though usually they are the ones that end them.”

    Mike: I think they may be waiting for the right time, i.e. Peak Oil, $200+ Oil prices. Its widely believed oil is present. Very strange that thy haven’t managed to find it yet. The Argentines certainly think so, hence their reason for pulling out of their agreement with the UK and instead making their own teritorial claim with the UN body that will rule on the matter.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 8, 2009 8:24 am

    I think you can always go the the extreme with warships design, Andy. The US came to the conclusion from the Falklands that only giant, heavily armed super-destroyers could survive modern threats. So because of the difficulties and high costs of modern ships, now we struggle to get our fleet back up to 300 ships, hardly a grandiose goal!

    But I think the opposite should be true when you have a multitude of small and lethal threats aimed at you: make ships smaller and less visable, also more numerous and thus many more targets for the attacker. This is my “knight versus the longbow” theory.

    Or you could just make them all submarines.

  14. Andy permalink
    August 8, 2009 7:21 am

    Oh, forgot to add to my little rant…… and who needs the expense of a close in gun system in the missle age? And relax……..


  15. Andy permalink
    August 8, 2009 7:18 am

    @ Mike,

    Good use of english understatement! HMS Sheffield was killed by bad politics, trying to get a miliary on the cheap. Only one watermain, use of cheaper, harder wearing but inflammable materials in construction of the vessel as well as the clothing of the sailors. And of course, that damn sat eqipment that wasn’t compatible with the ships electronics. One would hope that the hard won lessons relearned from this incident will be put into practice. The way things are going with the construction of the Royal Navys two new carriers, i’m not so sure.


  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 8, 2009 4:24 am

    William, if true, why haven’t we seen any oil? Too much money involved otherwise. Western Nations always get the blame for starting wars, though usually they are the ones that end them.

    Andy, sounds like poor Sheffield just had a string of bad luck!

  17. Andy permalink
    August 8, 2009 4:09 am

    @ Dana,

    A major difficulty in saving HMS Sheffield was that she only had one water main, this was damaged in the missle impact and could only operated at a vastly reduced rate. Other ships did come alongside to help, but because of the distance involved their hoses weren’t much use.


  18. William permalink
    August 8, 2009 3:02 am

    Regarding the the reason for the RUSHED Argentine invasion, I read a report that claims that the British leaked information to the Argentines via a third party, that they had discovered OIL off the Falklands Islands and that they would shortly begin to develop the OIL field and therefore the British would increase their miltary presence on the Islands. In other words, it was a SETUP.

    No way of confirming wether this is true, although it would explain the Argentines RUSH to invade without any proper preperation or plan.

    Its also interesting to observe that the Argentines have pulled out of an agreement made with the British Goverment in the 90’s that gives them 10% of any OIL extracted from the Falklands by the UK. Its estimated that there are 60 billion barrels of OIL off the Falklands.

    I suspect that the Argentines think the UK is deliberately AVOIDING striking OIL off the Falklands for reasons best known to themselves.

  19. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 5, 2009 2:50 pm

    Sounds like they were not surprised by the raid, so suppose it would have had no effect on their force distribution, unlike the Doolittle raid.

  20. Paul V. Patty permalink
    August 4, 2009 8:27 pm

    “As I understand it the circumstances of air combat off the Falklands were unusual in that the Argentines supersonic aircraft could not go supersonic because they at the limits of their range and would have run out of fuel.”

    This is true. Harrier pilots knew that if they could chase their opponents for long enough or force them to use afterburner, they would soon have to withdraw. The remarkable handling characteristics of the Harrier played to this weakness.

    “I was wondering if they had held any on alert as interceptors to protect their cities or did they commit all of them to attacking the Brits?”

    The FAA used their Mirages as interceptors, and the Daggers and Skyhawks as tactical fighter-bombers. According to the book ‘Falklands – The Air War’ ( the Argentines only left a small force to guard their northern bases. This was despite anticipation of a Vulcan raid: “Because Britain’s initial military intentions were not apparent to Argentina, the possibility of a Vulcan attack on a key mainland target was taken very seriously in April 1982 [the first Black Buck raid was conducted April 30]. Had the FAA elected to have left the mainland largely undefended (not that its small Mirage force could have guaranteed the point defence of more than one or two key targets anyway) and deployed Grupo 8 aircraft exclusively to the Falklands Islands theatre, there would still have been certain serious operational difficulties to have been overcome…The decision was made to deploy the bulk of the Mirage force south, leaving only a small alert group at Mariano Moreno.”

    It doesn’t seem to mention any changes to this setup after the Black Buck raid, but I will keep looking (damned book doesn’t have an index).

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 4, 2009 7:44 pm

    Heretic-even more impressive! Well done!

  22. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 4, 2009 4:32 pm

    As I understand it the circumstances of air combat off the Falklands were unusual in that the Argentines supersonic aircraft could not go supersonic because they at the limits of their range and would have run out of fuel.

  23. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 4, 2009 4:29 pm

    P. V. Patty,

    I knew that the Argentines never deployed their fast movers to the Falklands, but I was wondering if they had held any on alert as interceptors to protect their cities or did they commit all of them to attacking the Brits?

    Appreciate your incites.

  24. Heretic permalink
    August 4, 2009 2:14 pm

    A common view of the Harrier lessons in the Falklands. In contrast, I am surprised they worked as good as they did. 21-0 in air-to-air combat! Not bad for a handful of subsonic jets in the supersonic age.

    When you say handful, you really mean “handful” for this.

    There were two distinct models of Harrier in this conflict, the RAF GR3 and the RN FRS1. The RAF, in it’s infinite wisdom, *insisted* prior to the conflict that the GR3 be essentially as poorly armed as possible for air-to-air combat. By that I mean that their only air-to-air weapon were the twin Aden 30mm cannons. The RAF believed that the ONLY thing the GR3 should be doing is attacking ground targets with bombs and rockets.

    To give you an idea of just how hidebound the RAF was on this point, the GR3s didn’t have have the *wiring* installed for mounting AIM-9 sidewinders, and the RAF insisted that such wiring NOT BE INSTALLED on any of their GR3 attack planes, since that would “encourage” pilots to start thinking they might be Fighters, rather than merely (and only) Attack.

    The RN however, had no such “illusions” about their Sea Harriers. The RN knew they needed an air-to-air missile and in fact rushed to proof the AIM-9 for deployment in the Falklands. If I’m recalling the story from memory correctly, they had to decide between the -9L or -9N to equip with … and they needed to decide in a hurry! Again, if I’m remembering the story right, the Ministry authorized a test, a *SINGLE* AIM-9L was fired from a FRS1 … successfully … and the missile was considered “proofed” and cleared for use from Sea Harriers.

    Yes … they were THAT RUSHED to get the job done!

    But this meant that of all the Harriers operating in theater in the South Atlantic, only the RNs FRS1 Sea Harriers were cleared for air-to-air operations, since the RAF GR3 Harriers couldn’t carry sidewinders at the insistence of the RAF.

    Then, of course, when the Sea Harriers started racking up the kills on the “Argies” in air-to-air, the RAF got jealous and wanted to grab a share of the air-to-air glory away from the RN. Of course, by then, it was far too late to get the RAF GR3s outfitted for AIM-9L (or -9N for that matter) … but at least after the war was over the RAF pulled their collective heads out of the extreme depths of their {censored} and cleared the GR3 for carrying air-to-air missiles and at least giving their pilots *some* instruction on air-to-air combat, which they’d always fiercely resisted doing before going to war.

  25. B.Smitty permalink
    August 4, 2009 1:44 pm

    Paul V Patty,

    Yikes! Skyhook was a Rube Goldberg machine if I ever saw one.

    If you want a small carrier, just build a small carrier.

  26. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 4, 2009 1:26 pm

    How about Skyhook with VTOL UAVs?

  27. Paul V. Patty permalink
    August 4, 2009 7:55 am

    “The entire point is to see the large deck carrier replaced, not duplicated in something else, though its function should be easily duplicated.”

    That being the case, wouldn’t something like the Skyhook ship proposal, with an air wing of 4-6 Harriers, be more adequate? Link:

  28. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 4, 2009 6:40 am

    Dana said “You will require 40 corvettes to match the airwing of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier”

    The entire point is to see the large deck carrier replaced, not duplicated in something else, though its function should be easily duplicated. It began with the V/STOL plane that proved you didn’t need a large deck to launch naval air at sea. Then there were the new cruise missiles which in the 1990s proved you didn’t always need a carrier for deep inland strike, giving the old surface combatant an importance not seen in decades. Also in that decade you saw the dramatic debut of precision bombs in the Gulf and Kosovo, where you no longer required giant airwings and massive sorties to take out a single target.

    When the UAV’s go to sea, this will be a turning point, in that you don’t have to have your most expensive assets, the nautical wonders of any age, placed in harms way just to support air operations against very poor, Third World countries.

    So your budget-draining giant aircraft carriers that siphon essential warfighting tools from other important missions (like surface combatants so vital in the Falklands invasion), are redundant with so many other alternatives. Naval air is still important, but there are other important needs as proved in the Falklands such as gunfire support and ASW.

    Concerning the replacement of large frigates and destroyers in the Falklands, if we check back about 100 years ago, what we call a corvette today, which weigh anywhere from 500-1500 tons were then called “destroyers” and were designed to sail with the battle fleet. For Britain this meant the stormy North Atlantic, in many respects mimicking the weather of the stormy South Atlantic.

    A true statement that with your motherships lost your corvette squadron is in trouble. The loss of a $100-$300 million converted merchantman or amphibious ships pales in comparison to a multi-billion dollar supercarrier, not so easily replaced. Also your corvettes won’t be running out of fuel and falling from the sky! The mothership issue is a problem easily delt with but the loss of valuable assets that takes decades to deploy and where we now place all our hopes on, is not so easy a problem and a potential disaster.

    So we need a balanced fleet, that can do many missions, not one in which all your strategies revolve around an increasingly unaffordable and vulnerable asset.

  29. Paul V. Patty permalink
    August 4, 2009 3:18 am

    MB – “The British carriers were forced to sail at their planes’ operational limit to distance themselves from this [cruise missile] threat”

    A bigger factor was staying out of the range of the Argentine fighters, rather than the range of the Exocets. It is true though that San Carlos Water was chosen for the landings because of the high ground surrounding it, which minimized the space for enemy aircraft to maneuver and precluded the use of anti-ship missiles.

    Chuck Hill – “It would be interesting to know how much of their air force the Argentines held back to protect the homeland.”

    All of the Argentine fast jets were held back anyway; none deployed to the Falklands. As I recall, the FAA attempted to see if their Super Etendards could operate from the Stanley airfield, but resolved that this was unworkable. Logistical facilities on the islands were insufficient for maintenance of the jets also.

    MB – “Such planes could fly off a short runway of light carriers, or even a merchant vessel.”

    It is interesting to note that after the war, plans were drawn up to equip merchant ships as small carriers. Maintenance equipment could be containerized, with radars and so on also deployed from shipping containers. A miniaturized version of the Sea Wolf SAM system was also developed for this contingency.

    Dana – “Corvettes losing their mothership will need a new one soon or withdraw before destruction.”

    Precisely. In a way, the Falklands demonstrated this. Had the FAA or Argentine Navy focused on attacking the unprotected merchant ships that were the lifeline of the task force, instead of the well defended carriers, Britain would have had no option but to withdraw. Even the Type 42s had problems with supplies and endurance. Fuel and, particularly, freshwater were in short supply, among other things. A corvette sized vessel in such a situation would only fare worse.

    Chuck Hill – “There would have been a lot more damage if the Argentine Air Force had not so frequently released their bombs too low for them to arm.”

    There was a reason that they were forced to do this: Sea Dart. The Argentines were familiar with Sea Dart on their own Type 42s and knew that it was most effective at higher altitudes. However, even at lower altitudes, they remained vulnerable to the accurate Sea Wolf systems, and even small arms fire. Also, the newer Type 42 ships were equipped with more sophisticated versions of Sea Dart that were effective at lower altitude.

    Once they realized that their bombs were not detonating at this range, the FAA experimented with using air launched torpedoes. Tests were carried out from Pucaras, but the project was abandoned.

  30. Dana permalink
    August 4, 2009 2:21 am

    Ok Mike, you’ve convinced me. You have NOT done your research. IF you design your corvette well enough, you will have a choice. You may operate ONE helicopter or ONE F-35 along with a few small unarmed UAV. Minimum estimated space requirement will be 45ft by 120ft. This will give you a operations pad and a hanger. And that may not even be enough space. You will be required to store the UAVS in a separate portion of the ship. You will require 40 corvettes to match the airwing of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier. You will need 90 to match the airwing of a USN CVN.

    Also, we have not said that V/STOL creates an incapable aircraft. We said that it has limitations. You need to know both, the advantages of your equipment as well as its limitations. This is true with all equipment. You need to find both with your ideas.

  31. B.Smitty permalink
    August 3, 2009 11:34 pm

    IMHO, the Brits weren’t thinking straight when they chose the risky, untested F-35B to fly off of a 65,000 ton, ski-jump carrier. What’s their plan B, so to speak, if the F-35 program blows up? Redesigning to use cats? Riight. Sounds expensive.

    If they had stuck with the two cat design the French were going with, they could’ve flown F-35B/Cs, or F-18s, or Rafales. And, mostly importantly, they would be all set to fly the E-2D and finally have a real AEW system. Maybe even EA-18G, or UCAS-N or Avenger.

    Paying a little more for a CATOBAR ship would’ve eliminated a lot of risk.

  32. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 3, 2009 8:30 pm

    “Dana – I agree with you about the limitations of V/STOL aircraft.”

    A common view of the Harrier lessons in the Falklands. In contrast, I am surprised they worked as good as they did. 21-0 in air-to-air combat! Not bad for a handful of subsonic jets in the supersonic age. The beauty of the V/STOL concept, it releases a Navy from the tyranny of the large deck aircraft carrier, which many will insist is the only way to deploy naval air to sea. Historically this is a false assumption, but given the rise in aircraft size, it was becoming a true statement until the Harrier. Today there are even more alternatives to big decks, including the cruise missiles, and increasingly, UAVs at sea.

    However useful a large deck carrier is, the drawback when you have to gut other essential functions such as ASW training, new convoy and coastal escorts, even fighter jets for the carrier itself, is increasingly making it a liability. And if a V/STOL is so incapable as some suggest, I think it interesting the aircraft Britain chose for her first conventional carriers since World War 2, the V/STOL version of the joint strike fighter!

  33. S Burch permalink
    August 3, 2009 10:19 am

    B Smitty – agree with your point that ‘every ship makes a poor aircraft carrier’. You can certainly fly a V/STOL aircraft from any reasonably-sized deck, but not many ships are capable of supporting the 24-hour all-weather multi-aircraft flying operations that were required during the Falklands campaign without logistic support, modification and crew training.

    Dana – I agree with you about the limitations of V/STOL aircraft. While acknowledging that without the Harrier, the UK would almost certainly not have succeeded in retaking the Falklands, we sorely missed the capability that the recently-retired HMS Ark Royal, a conventional carrier equipped with F-4 Phantoms, Buccaneers and AEW Gannets would have given us.

    The sinking of HMS Sheffield certainly provided damage control lessons, particularly with regard to the impact of smoke, that were quickly applied throughout the Task Force – as far as the available equipment would allow. She might have been salvageable, but eventually she sank under tow. Later, another ship in the Task Force, HMS Glamorgan (an older County Class Destroyer), was hit by land-based Exocet but she continued to operate despite sustaining casualties and to her hangar area.

    I agree that modern submarines demonstrated their power during this conflict. It’s worth remembering that Argentine submarine inventory included a couple of modern and highly capable German 200-Class conventional boats. These presented a considerable threat to the Task Force by day and by night (the air threat was only fully extant by day), which meant that we had to devote lots of resources and deck space to anti-submarine assets – especially helicopters. Movements from the main Task Force to the Islands also had to be provided with ASW protection – which meant that a platform capable of supporting mulit-aircraft Sea King operations was required.

  34. Dana permalink
    August 2, 2009 11:59 pm

    When warships operate close to an enemies shore, they are subject to enemies shore based weapons. Should they take damage, then their mothership risks it’s own existence should it attempt to provide more than lifesaving aide. If the enemy manages to destroy the mothership then, like aircraft, the squadron will be in trouble. Aircraft without the carrier will crash into the sea. Corvettes losing their mothership will need a new one soon or withdraw before destruction.

  35. Dana permalink
    August 2, 2009 11:41 pm

    The Ignored Lessons of the Falklands

    1. Numbers still count. The Royal Navy quickly realized that it did not have enough aircraft with their new carriers. Between the HMS Invincible and the World War II era HMS Hermes the total number of aircraft was less than a single US Navy carrier of the day. What aircraft they did carry was also short range and only twenty had radar. Without sufficient quality aircraft they were unable to gain Air Supremacy over the Falklands. Amphibious Lift is a necessity when projecting your forces over seas. Cut your amphibious ability too much and you will need to find it somewhere. The British found it necessary to use the passenger liner Queen Elizabeth 2 to triple their available troop capacity. Finally, you cannot neglect the rest of your fleet. Your surface warfare ships need to match the needs of your fleet. If you need to project your forces over ocean distances, then your ships need to reach their destination and still be combat effective.

    2. Professional Militaries matter. Despite a significant decrease in military personnel, the British maintained highly skilled and motivated troops. While it would be difficult to find any problems in the training of British forces, it “might” have been found in damage control. The HMS Sheffield took a single Exocet missile and was abandoned due to the resulting fire. Five years later, the USS Stark was hit by two Exocet missiles. The USS Stark managed to bring the fires under control, make it to port for repairs, and serve for an additional 12 years. So, it is also possible that the HMS Sheffield was lost due to distance from port rather than the damage control efforts. Contrasting this to the Argentinian forces which were poorly trained, motivated and whose leadership was highly political. Whatever flaws may have existed in the British forces were negligible in comparison.

    3. Do not neglect ship defense. No matter how fast a cruise missile goes, counter missiles can still engage them. Neither the HMS Sheffield nor the USS Stark attempted to fire upon the incoming missiles. Point defense fire may have prevented either ship from being hit. So the lesson is obvious; not only need do you need to have point defense, you need to make sure that you are able to use it when you need it. In a war zone this is a mater of life and death. The 2000 attack on the USS Cole demonstrated the need to maintain security whenever ships are in port.

    4. V/STOL aircraft are useful within their limits. While the abilities of the early Harriers showed great promise, we also saw their limits. At that time, only the Sea Harriers of the RN had radar and the GR 3 of the RAF did not. They were all short range and the Sea Harriers were kept in fleet defense. Had the GR 3’s had to operate in fleet defense they would have been at a disadvantage. And contrary to some belief, not all ships can operate even V/STOL aircraft. All aircraft, including UAV’s, require dedicated facilities that take up space. The larger, and the more complicated the aircraft, the greater the demand. Make your ship too small and you will limit the types and capabilities of the aircraft you can carry. We must not forget; while the RN was operating the Sea Harrier, the US Navy was operating the more capable F-4, F-14, A-6, A-7, S-3 and the highly capable E-2 and EA-6 . . . which would have decimated Argentina’s entire Air Force and Navy. Britain’s best aircraft were unable to operate from carriers. And while the Avro Vulcan bombers did make strikes against Argentinian forces, these were complicated 4000+ mile flights requiring inflight refueling.

    5. Submarines are the ninja’s of the deep. Properly applied, the submarine can provide the best naval surveillance and devastating blows to enemy fleets. Do not let this happen to you. Practice anti submarine warfare with due diligence.

    From this we can learn some important general facts: do not neglect the needs of your forces either in equipment or in training, there are no “silver bullets” in war only the constant swing of offensive and defensive weapons and make no assumptions about your future needs that cannot be put to the test of trial and error.

  36. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 2, 2009 8:18 pm

    Chuck, interesting question. Much like the Doolittle strike on Japan in 42, the Vulcan had greater strategic impact than the inconclusive bombing run itself.

  37. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 2, 2009 4:52 pm

    I have heard that the Vulcan strike was a warning that Argentina could also be bombed. While the carriers could have done that too, perhaps,like the Doolittle Raid, it prompted the Argentines to keep of of their aircraft available as interceptors. It would be interesting to know how much of their air force the Argentines held back to protect the homeland.

  38. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 2, 2009 12:12 pm

    Smitty & Alex-Some commentary on your commentary:

    small 1000 ton corvettes would’ve had a helluva time operating thousands of miles from their base in the rough South Atlantic.” Good point, which is why you take their base with them, as in motherships. Also, the closer the ships came to shore, the more in their own environment they would have been, as in “bomb alley”. Note that the high end missile escorts had it as rough as the older ASW escorts.

    oddly, the British sinking of the Belgrano was because they worried that her escorts carried Exocets“. You proved my point, the cruise missile decided the strategy.

    ” “Every ship is a poor aircraft carrier“. ” How about “every ship is an adequate aircraft carrier” without most of your money going into large decks and draining funds for escorts and other essential functions for a fleet in wartime, as sadly is happening in the RN today. Today we have even more choices with cruise missile performing many of the surface attack functions only the Big Decks could perform before, and when the UAV goes to sea as we often predict, with its proven capabilities from our land battles, the end will be in sight for the handful of Big Decks still left.

    Submarines “can’t control the sea, they can only deny control to others.” As I repeat myself and Mr Corbett ” In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.” If the submarine can deny the enemy free use of the sea, it has served its purpose. Then the cruisers are able to freely maintain the sea control won by these new battleships. It is the same all through history, so the submarine won’t have to do shore bombardment or convoy duties, but it will make it possible for other smaller surface combatants to perform these vital functions of a navy.

  39. August 2, 2009 12:08 pm

    Mike, we all know I hate to do this, but I have to agree with smitty on his 5th point, the submarine is not good at expoitation of the sea; control of the sea is not an end in itself, neither is denying control of the sea; the thing is using the sea whether that is transporting land forces, overwhelming enemy airforces or even just transporting food to a beleagured ally – that is the whole point. A submarine can not do this. The can not even on their own really deny it to others; cause all you have to do is send in aircaft and some ships that you might consider in light of how you plan to use to sea afterwards expendeable. It is the combined force of submarines, and carrier group sitting back giving them at least a neutral sky to fight under; as well as protecting the covoys of troops and supplies from enemy air attack, whilst the subs throw up an initial screen against enemy subs and surface ships which will win the day.

    yours sincerly


  40. B.Smitty permalink
    August 2, 2009 11:32 am


    A side lesson here is that it doesn’t take a battleship or 8″ guns to provide effective NGFS.


    Some commentary on your 5 lessons,

    1. Numbers still count. They always have. However small 1000 ton corvettes would’ve had a helluva time operating thousands of miles from their base in the rough South Atlantic.

    2. Military heritage still matters. No argument there.

    3. Cruise Missiles decide strategy The British placed their carriers outside the unrefueled range of land-based, Argentinian airpower, not specifically out of Argentinian cruise missile range. Most British ships were sunk or damaged by conventional bombs, not cruise missiles. And, oddly, the British sinking of the Belgrano was because they worried that her escorts carried Exocets, not the Belgrano itself.

    4. Every ship is an aircraft carrier This should read “Every ship is a poor aircraft carrier“. You can’t effectively fly STOVL fighters off of helopads. You need real flight decks. Spreading aircraft amongst the fleet means you need to spread the spares, maintenance, munitions, and fuel amongst the fleet too, increasing the overall size of the support arm. You have to duplicate maintenance facilities and personnel on each aircraft carrying vessel. Also, nobody has effectively solved the critical STOVL AEW problem. Helo AEW doesn’t cut it. They have altitude limits, endurance limits, limited payload, and are slow.

    5. The submarine is the new capital ship Given the submarine’s critical limitations outside its primary domain, I have trouble considering them the “capital ship” of the USN. They can’t control the sea, they can only deny control to others. They can only have a limited impact on events ashore.

  41. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 2, 2009 9:48 am

    Welcome back original Alex! And you are correct:

    Seems like the raids were more of a morale booster. The swan song of an excellent warplane.

  42. August 2, 2009 9:15 am

    the vulcan bomber did not hit the runway, in fact C130 operations proceeded unaffected for the entire course of war

    yours sincerly


  43. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 2, 2009 5:01 am

    Reading an old book from that time period reminded me how some important lessons get blurred over time.

  44. UndergradProgressive permalink
    August 1, 2009 11:42 pm

    Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned about naval gunfire support. Seems like one of the Type 42s did quite a bit of that.

    (100% agreed that looking at the Falklands is worth doing)

  45. michael Mac permalink
    August 1, 2009 8:14 pm

    the attack had very little to do with the UK- it was Argentine internal politics that lead to the attack- hence the bad timing. For years the Argentines had insisted that the Falklands (actually they never used that term- it was always the Malvinas) were their territory. The military junta was facing increasing opposition at home & thought a glorious war would help it politically.

  46. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 1, 2009 7:28 pm

    Chuck, very good points all around. Especially about the numbers. And this was only 40% of the RN in the South Atlantic at the time. Today, even with these extra capable vessels, like the Queen Elizabeth’s and Type 45, plus HMS Ocean, this would be her entire Navy, with Zero margin left for error. Food for thought.

    Undergrad, that is a fair question concerning the nuclear subs versus the High tech American ships. Guess it will take a war to judge for sure, but at least we can get a glimpse from this tiny action what the future just might be like.

  47. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 1, 2009 6:17 pm

    Good to see this discussed.

    If the Argentines had waited 6 months to a year, it could have been a very different war. Not only were the Brits about to get rid of ships that would have been critical to the operation, but the Agentines would have had 15 air launched Exocets instead of only four. The Brits had just finished a massive exercise and were at the top of their game. I’ve never heard an explanation of why the Argentines chose the date they did. Was it bad intel or intel ignored. Was it domestic politics that set the date?

    There were some stories that a Brit diplomat told the Argentines that they really wouldn’t mind if the Argentines took the place over. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might suggest that Maggie Thatcher planted the idea because (a) it was a battle that would be fought some time and better now than latter, or (b) it would shore up her own popularity–I really don’t believe either of those.

    Another lesson, the basics are important. Know your equipment and train with, test, and calibrate it. There would have been a lot more damage if the Argentine Air Force had not so frequently released their bombs too low for them to arm. Also while an Argentine SSK got in among the Brit’s heavy ships, their torpedo fire control system was defective. (Think this might have reflected a difference in military heritage or to put it another way, the Argentines did not have the experience of how things can go wrong like the Brits have.)

    The Brits lost all but one of their critical CH-47 helicopters (5 of 6 if I remember correctly) when the Atlantic Conveyor was hit by an Exocet. Putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea. (again numbers count.)

    The Brits cratered the only runway on the Falklands using a single Vulcan bomber that probably would also have been out of service if they had waited. The Argentines never seemed to repair it. Quick runway repair can be critical, or another reason for something like the Harrier or F-35.

  48. UndergradProgressive permalink
    August 1, 2009 6:16 pm

    In the last case you mention, the sinking of the Belgrano by HMS Conqueror, it seems to me that the technological gap between the vessels (including the destroyers) is pertinent to mention. The Conqueror was launched in the late ’60s, whereas the Belgrano (ex-USS Phoenix) was launched in the late ’30s and, it seems, minimally updated by the Argentines in the late ’60s. Not to mention, the Belgrano’s escorts were WWII vintage Sumner class destroyers, and likely of little help against a modern SSN (unless they had ASROC?).

    I certainly agree with the general point, but I’m curious as to how the situation might have changed if the Belgrano were a Ticonderoga and the escorts were Burkes…and the Conqueror was an Akula class (or, better yet, an SSK)?
    Also, I’m wondering if this lesson would hold true if the surface vessels were of the PLAN and the Conqueror was a Los Angeles class. The technical gap between the bulk of the PLAN surface vessels and the LA class SSNs seems pretty akin to this.


  1. Thanks Readers! « New Wars

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