My Turn

By Burl Burlingame

Sunday, June 30, 2002

2 decades later, lessons
of the Falklands War
are not yet learned

Two decades ago this month, my wife and I went on vacation and landed in the middle of a war zone. Argentina had declared war on England over a sprinkling of deep-frozen islands.

England in June of 1982 was buckled down to the grim business of fighting at the end of its tether in the South Atlantic. British flags flew everywhere in London and security was much in evidence, although it wasn't so tight that I wasn't able to get within knocking distance of the prime minister's front door at 10 Downing.

Every night, we'd gather around the telly in the hotel dining room to discover how the Brit "Paras" were doing against the "Argies." On our last night in England, English and Gurkha troops were assembled on Mount Tumbledown for the final assault on Port Stanley -- and then we went to France and didn't find out what happened for several days. French newspapers were doggedly focused on Algerian wool-production figures.

Twenty years later, the Falklands War is still the closest thing to a traditional military conflict to occur since the close of the second World War -- two nations of roughly equal field capabilities attempting to control a piece of property for nationalistic reasons. Unlike the religious slugfests in the Middle East or the self-immolating power grabs in Africa and Southeast Asia, the Falklands War was fought on the basis of tactics, strategy, training, technology and motivation. It was virtually a lab class in conventional modern warfare.

It was also the largest naval battle since the Pacific campaigns in 1945 -- since then, the world's navies have functioned mainly as ground-support units -- and included the only serious amphibious landings since Inchon in 1950.

Briefly, the Falklands are a cold and desolate grouping of islands under British control in the South Atlantic, but only a few hundred miles from the Argentine coast. That country's rhetoric traditionally claimed the islands as Argentine property, and in early 1982, the military junta under Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri moved swiftly to occupy the islands.

The few British troops there were forced to surrender. Galtieri pompously boasted that a country governed by two women -- Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- would never sacrifice its children in a war. Besides, the Falklands were 7,000 miles from England, and in a winter combat arena, and the Royal Navy was in the midst of downsizing, and the nearest friendly base was 3,300 miles away at Ascension Island.

Like Imperial Japan during World War II, Argentina simply underestimated a democratic nation's will to fight when it believes wrong has been done. It's the flip side of realpolitik. Virtually the only nation that sided with Britain was the United States, an irony considering that Argentine troops were largely supplied by us and trained in American tactics. Britain declared a 200-mile "Maritime Exclusion Zone" around the islands and instituted a submarine blockade. Within an astonishing few weeks, a 65-ship task force was on its way -- 20 warships, eight amphibious ships and 40 logistics ships from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Merchant Navy. Aboard were 15,000 troops, including a landing force of about 7,000 Royal Marines and soldiers. The logistics ships carried gear and supplies for three months of combat or siege.

A Royal Navy picket submarine sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, which sent the Argentine navy back to port, including its aircraft carrier Veinticinco De Mayo. It would be up to Argentine Navy aircraft operating from land bases to carry the war to the enemy. Ironically, General Belgrano was formerly known as the USS Phoenix, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Air assaults on British shipping were unrelenting -- 75 percent of the British landing fleet was struck by bombs, although only three warships and two landing ships were sunk or severely damaged. A British destroyer and a landing ship were also destroyed by French-built Exocet missiles.

Argentina's swift and maneuverable Mirage fighters were considered by most experts to be far superior to the Royal Navy's short-legged Harriers, and the Argentine pilots were brave and highly professional. Even so, more than half of Argentina's 134 combat aircraft were shot down, due to innovative and off-the-cuff British mixes of electronic warfare, Harriers, surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. Of the five Harriers lost in combat, none were to enemy aircraft.

Once the British troops were ashore, the outcome was not in doubt, even though the Argentines had a three-to-one numerical advantage and the British had to hike 65 miles into combat -- Galtieri, not expecting a real fight, had dumped his men ashore, but not positioned or provisioned them adequately. The Argentines surrendered at Port Stanley on June 14, and the eventual political fallout from the brief war ended Galtieri's regime and boosted Thatcher's.

The war cost England 255 men, six ships, nine Harriers and more than 1.6 billion pounds, and was considered a great victory for the United Kingdom. More than a 1,000 Argentines died, and their government and economy took another decade to recover.

More than that, it was a validation of British and NATO training methods, which often ran counter to U.S. methods. Some American observers paid attention, but not in time to prevent the embarrassing U.S. debacle at Grenada a couple of years later. The key factor for the British, more than any other in the Falklands War, was the close cooperation and clear divisions of authority between various British services such as the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and British Army. This basic lesson has yet to filter into the American military.

Today, we also find ourselves in a projected-force draw-down, and fighting on the other side of the globe, just as the Brits were two decades ago. I hope someone in the Pentagon is reading up on the Falklands campaign..

Burl Burlingame is a Star-Bulletin staff writer. My Turn is a periodic column written by Star-Bulletin employees.

My Turn is a periodic column written by
Star-Bulletin staff members expressing
their personal views.

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