It is now more than 30 years since the Argentineans seized the Falklands, one of the last British colonies, and the British seized them back during what became known as the Falklands War.
The war between the two included the hottest naval action of the Cold War. It was also, perhaps surprisingly, rather instructive about how things might have turned out had the Cold War turned hot. For the United States, there were lessons on three distinct levels.
In effect, Thatcher saw the Falklands War as the great test: Were the British locked into decline, or did they have a future? The popular British response to the war suggests that many in that country agreed with Thatcher, and saw the war in much the same terms.
One level was that of grand alliance strategy. Before the war broke out, Americans tended to assume that they led an alliance of completely like-minded governments against the Soviets; all other governments were neutral, leaning one way or another. One implication was that any war that might arise out of the Cold War would pit Western weapons against Soviet-supplied ones. That certainly seemed to be the case in the Middle East, where most of the Cold War-era wars were fought: Israel, the U.S. client and ally, was pitted against Arab governments allied to the Soviets. It was very much not the case in the Falklands, where both sides were U.S. allies using Western weapons. In fact, the Argentinians were the sole export buyers of the main British naval area defense missile, Sea Dart (the Chinese reportedly backed out of a planned purchase because they were dissatisfied with the system’s performance during the Falklands War). A postwar U.S. Navy study concluded that in the future the United States might well find itself facing Western rather than Soviet systems.
A second level was political. In 1982, many in the Soviet leadership believed that the West had lost so much of its morale that its end was inevitable, and perhaps even near. The Soviets themselves were in trouble, but they thought they could survive. The Argentinians clearly thought much the same thing about the British. Initially many in Britain seem to have assumed that Argentinian seizure of the islands was just another unavoidable step in the slow decline of the British Empire.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn’t agree. Like U.S. President Ronald Reagan, she did not think the West was dying, let alone dead. She personally demanded that the Royal Navy form a task force to retake the Falklands. Even after the task force sailed, many on board were so skeptical of British resolve that they doubted they would be allowed to get to the Falklands. In effect, Thatcher saw the Falklands War as the great test: Were the British locked into decline, or did they have a future? The popular British response to the war suggests that many in that country agreed with Thatcher, and saw the war in much the same terms.
The Soviet leadership was shocked. The West was still a serious threat. The Soviets found themselves taking Western initiatives, such as Reagan’s “Star Wars,” very seriously indeed. Thatcher’s was not, of course, the only demonstration of Western resolve; at about the same time, the Russians found it impossible to intimidate NATO governments that had decided to accept the deployment of U.S. Pershing and Tomahawk missiles on their soil. They, in turn, were probably much encouraged by Thatcher’s example.
On the eve of war, Invincible was sold to Australia. This would leave the Royal Navy with only the light carrier HMS Hermes.
The impact on the Soviets cannot be underestimated. In 1982-83, the Soviets were increasingly aware that they had been caught up in a new revolution in military technology based on micro-computers. In the Falklands, the British fleet deployed far more computing power, for example, than the Soviets had in all their fleets. The Soviet problem was that their economy had been contracting for years. It did not have the stretch it needed to compete on these new terms with the West, particularly while continuing to pour out existing types of weapons. Within a few years, a new Soviet leader would be chosen specifically because he promised to clean up computer production: Mikhail Gorbachev. His attempt to solve the Soviet economic problem destroyed the Soviet Union.
The third level, the one usually emphasized, was tactical. The Falklands War was fascinating because it was a miniature version of the war U.S. naval strategists thought they might have to fight. With their missile-armed strike aircraft and their submarines, the Argentinians were a sort of small-scale version of the threat the Soviets posed against U.S. naval strike forces in the Norwegian Sea. The British task force was a small-scale version of a U.S. striking force trying to go north, to execute the evolving U.S. maritime strategy. The Argentinians had to do much what the Soviets had to do: They had to detect, track, and attack the approaching British task force. Ultimately the British had to land troops in the face of Argentinian air and ground forces.
There were many surprises. For the British, the central surprise was that their key military planning assumption, that they could concentrate completely on the Central Front in NATO, was altogether wrong. Britain could not escape global responsibilities. That was not simply the legacy of empire; a few years after the Falklands, the Royal Navy found itself mounting an armed tanker protection patrol in the Gulf. That patrol was mounted not because some British colony or dependency was in trouble, but because as part of the Western alliance Britain had a vital national interest in maintaining the oil shipping route through the Gulf (somewhat later the U.S. Navy was also deployed there).
On the eve of the Falklands War, the British went through the latest of an apparently endless series of defense reviews intended to keep defense affordable. Defense Minister John Nott considered surface warships useless in a NATO war, on the theory that a war in Europe would be over long before seaborne reinforcements arrived. He also rejected the Royal Navy’s argument that its surface force would perform an essential deterrent function during any run-up to war. Nott therefore planned, among other steps, to sell off the new carrier HMS Invincible and to cancel her two sister ships. He also planned to sell the amphibious fleet. To Nott, the only acceptable future lay with nuclear attack submarines. On the eve of war, Invincible was sold to Australia. This would leave the Royal Navy with only the light carrier HMS Hermes.
When war broke out, the sale was canceled. Invincible herself had been conceived as a limited carrier with anti-submarine and strike functions, the theory being that in a NATO war naval forces could be protected by land-based aircraft. Although that did not work during exercises, the fiction was maintained, probably because to admit that carrier air defense was needed would have entailed ruinous expense. The fiction clearly could not apply to a fleet sent thousands of miles from the British Isles. Fortunately the strike airplane on the carriers, the Sea Harrier, had some air-to-air capability. Unfortunately, the fiction had precluded any attempt to develop an airborne early warning (AEW) capability for the carrier – a capability to detect and track air targets below the radar horizon of the fleet. It turned out that even without the airborne radar support, the Sea Harriers were the most useful element of Royal Navy air defense during the war.
It turned out that an Argentinean university had discovered that ships using satellite communications could be tracked passively (the same technique was rediscovered several times).
Before the task force got to the Falklands, an Argentinian Boeing 707 airliner, taken up from civilian use, found it. The task force proved unable to shoot it down, and the next day the task force was attacked (without being hit). The incident was interesting in that the Argentinians were able to send out the 707 to intercept the task force without conducting much of a search: They knew roughly where the task force was. It turned out that an Argentinean university had discovered that ships using satellite communications could be tracked passively (the same technique was rediscovered several times).
Until 1982, it was widely believed that satellites had solved a key problem: how to communicate freely at long range without being tracked. The idea was that the narrow up-beam from the ship could not easily be detected. The only alternative means of long-haul radio communication, high-frequency (HF), could certainly be tracked. Indeed, for years the U.S. Navy had cut back its long-haul HF communication specifically to frustrate Soviet tracking. Now it became clear that shifting to satellites was not enough; the down-link of a satellite system carried too much information (in the form of Doppler) about the ship sending the up-link. It took about a decade to solve the problem using new satellites (during the 1991 Gulf War the Soviets apparently used the Argentinian technique to keep track of the buildup in the Gulf, but that may have been exploitation of merchant ship satellite communications).
The irony of satellite tracking was that the Royal Navy, far more than others in NATO, emphasized radio silence. During both world wars the Royal Navy benefited handsomely from interception of enemy radio signals. Although it adopted digital data links like those of its sister navies (particularly the U.S. Navy), the Royal Navy preferred not to use them, and it appears that its officers were unfamiliar with their benefits.
The ship’s tactical officer considered it pointless to remain at his command post without these sensors; his ship was effectively blind. He took a coffee break, unaware that a flight of Exocet-armed Argentinian navy Super Etendards was coming.
The British view of radio silence was demonstrated when, en route south, the captain of the carrier Hermes ordered her tactical air navigation (TACAN) beacon cut down from her mast. Normally TACAN ensured that a carrier’s aircraft could find her. In U.S. practice it also gave pilots their positions relative to the carrier, and thus made it possible for the carrier to give them air interception data. Without TACAN, pilots may be blind in bad weather. Hermes lost two of her Sea Harriers in bad weather en route to the Falklands, and it seems that the absence of the TACAN beacon was to blame. Since she was carrying only 10 of these rather important aircraft, the loss was significant.
The loss of HMS Sheffield seems traceable to lack of familiarity with data links. The data link provides all ships in a force with a joint tactical picture. Whether or not the ship’s own radar sees an incoming target, the link will show it if any other ship in the force detects it. A few years after the Falklands War, USS Stark (FFG 31) demonstrated what that could mean. Radar conditions in the Gulf were notoriously bad, and Stark’s own radar range was very limited. However, a Saudi AWACS airplane detected an Iraqi fighter approaching the U.S. ship. Stark received that data via a standard link. It happened that the information did her no great good, but she was certainly aware that an airplane was coming before she was hit.
Sheffield was not nearly so lucky. On the day she was hit, she was escorting the carrier Hermes. Given Royal Navy sensitivity about electronic emissions, Sheffield rather than Hermes was assigned responsibility for satellite communication back to London. Like all contemporary satellite up-links, Sheffield’s functioned in the radar frequency band. To avoid false alarms, she turned off her electronic intercept gear while using her satellite link. She also turned off her air search radars, which could interfere with the satellite up-link.
The fire did not stop the ship’s engines, and she ran out of the battle area, only to sink the next day in a storm, her stability gone because so much of her fuel had been burned out.
The ship’s tactical officer considered it pointless to remain at his command post without these sensors; his ship was effectively blind. He took a coffee break, unaware that a flight of Exocet-armed Argentinian navy Super Etendards was coming. In fact, other ships in the task force detected and tracked the radars of both the attacking Super Etendards and of the Neptune maritime patrol airplane that cued the Super Etendards. This information went onto the fleet’s data link net. Sheffield should have been receiving this information – but the Royal Navy did not habitually use data links the way the U.S. Navy did (and does).
The “Super Es” fired their two Exocets, one of which hit Sheffield. It did not explode, but it started a fire that soon spread to the ship’s fuel oil. The resulting smoke drove the crew off the ship. The fire did not stop the ship’s engines, and she ran out of the battle area, only to sink the next day in a storm, her stability gone because so much of her fuel had been burned out.
The incident made the Royal Navy far more data link conscious, and it began to use data links much more freely. After the war, it adopted data link practices more like those of the U.S. Navy, and it also adopted a much more capable link.
For its part, the U.S. Navy seems to have assumed that anyone attacking a ship armed with effective anti-aircraft missiles would adopt practices much like those of the Argentinians. Instead of simply searching for the target, and giving away the intent to attack in the process, the attacker would fly below the radar, cued by a standoff radar airplane. When his ship worked up off Subic Bay en route to the Gulf six years later, Capt. Rogers of USS Vincennes (CG 49) was briefed on exactly such practices. When he reached the Gulf and saw an Iranian P-3 flying an apparently aimless pattern, Rogers quite naturally assumed it was targeting him for an unseen attacker. That perception in turn helped precipitate the action that destroyed an Iranian Airbus. Not all lessons of a war turn out to be correct.
Most of the Argentinian air attacks were conducted over Falkland Sound, once the British were landing troops. Argentinian observers ashore could cue the attack aircraft, and there was little or no question of where the British destroyers and frigates were. For their part, the British knew that Argentinian aircraft would operate over Falkland Sound. They placed their valuable carriers as far east as possible, the distance being set by the endurance of the Sea Harrier aircraft. Once the British had troops ashore, the air defense batteries of the deployed ships were reinforced by land-based mobile missiles (Rapiers).
Sea Dart had been conceived with the open-sea NATO mission in mind. Although in theory it could handle targets at altitudes down to about 50 feet (because it was semi-actively guided), it could not handle saturation attacks, as it had to dedicate one guidance channel to each target all the way from detection to destruction.
This should not have been a completely novel situation to the Royal Navy. In 1982, one of its key wartime missions was to support Norwegian forces fighting off a Soviet attack. For example, the Sea Harrier was nuclear-capable specifically so that it could destroy massed Soviet army units. Fighting in or near a Norwegian fjord, the British ships offshore would surely have been within range of anti-aircraft missile batteries ashore, and they and the batteries would surely have faced massed Soviet air attacks. Moreover, any Sea Harriers would surely have had to help the ships and the troops in that case. Experience in the Falklands suggests that this kind of operation had not been thought through. It was certainly one of intense interest to the U.S. Navy and to the U.S. Marine Corps at the time.
British ships had three main types of air defense missile. The area defense weapon was Sea Dart, broadly equivalent to the U.S. Standard Missile (in SM-1 form): a medium-range semi-active radar guided weapon. A few British ships had Sea Wolf, a highly automated point defense missile. Older ships had Sea Cat, a much earlier command-guided point defense missile. The closest U.S. equivalent to Sea Wolf was Sea Sparrow. The Argentinians had experience with both Sea Dart, which they had bought on board two missile destroyers, and Sea Cat, but not with Sea Wolf.
Sea Dart had been conceived with the open-sea NATO mission in mind. Although in theory it could handle targets at altitudes down to about 50 feet (because it was semi-actively guided), it could not handle saturation attacks, as it had to dedicate one guidance channel to each target all the way from detection to destruction. The Type 42 destroyers armed with it had two Type 909 guidance radars – which also controlled the ships’ single 4.5-inch guns. The British solution to the limitations of Sea Dart was to team Sea Dart ships, wherever possible, with Sea Wolf ships. Not only was Sea Wolf automated, but it was considered capable of shooting down Exocet missiles (a capability demonstrated postwar). As for Sea Cat, it had been developed to replace 40 mm guns, and it was neither automated nor supersonic. Although there were initial claims that it shot down several Argentinian aircraft during the war, only one Skyhawk kill was confirmed.
The Argentinians therefore fuzed their bombs with relatively long delays. In several cases, bombs passed all the way through ships before exploding. In others, fuzes failed, and bombs lodged in ships.
It turned out to be significant that the British air search and target indication radars lacked any moving target indication (MTI) capacity. The Argentinians undoubtedly knew as much, since they had bought two Type 42 destroyers (equipped with the same radars used by the Royal Navy) from the British. They therefore knew that attacking aircraft were in effect invisible to a Sea Dart destroyer until they left the land surrounding Falkland Sound.
Argentinian knowledge of Sea Dart seems to have had an interesting consequence. The Argentinians knew that they could avoid Sea Dart by flying low, but that carried its own danger. A low-flying airplane can be destroyed by the blast of its own bomb. The Argentinians therefore fuzed their bombs with relatively long delays. In several cases, bombs passed all the way through ships before exploding. In others, fuzes failed, and bombs lodged in ships. One ship survived (HMS Antelope) only to be destroyed when an attempt to neutralize a bomb failed.
In theory, air defense over Falkland Sound had four separate major components: Sea Harrier fighters overhead, Rapiers ashore, and Sea Dart and Sea Wolf missiles. In fact, these elements were never well enough coordinated. For example, there was never any link between the missiles ashore and the fleet. The Sea Harriers were generally controlled from the carriers, and they had no direct link to the missile batteries ashore. This arrangement made good sense in the North Sea or in the North Atlantic, when the carrier would be supported directly by Sea Dart ships and the Sea Harriers would spend most of their time at a distance, but that was nothing like the situation in the Falklands. The British solved the problem by rough-and-ready rules of engagement, which amounted to banning any missile engagements while the Sea Harriers were within range. That made sense in that the Sea Harriers were far more effective than missiles against the Argentinian aircraft.
The Sea Harriers had to operate in areas the missiles could or did cover. That could have unfortunate consequences. One day the Sea Dart destroyer HMS Coventry was in Falkland Sound, accompanied by HMS Broadsword, a Sea Wolf-armed ship. Three Argentinian aircraft popped up over the nearby coast, the idea being to saturate Coventry’s air defense capacity. It appears that the arcs of Broadsword’s missile launcher were sometimes blocked by Coventry, and sometimes by the presence of Sea Harriers – which had little ability to communicate with the ship. The Argentinian aircraft got through; two large bombs penetrated the ship. Once they exploded, she could not survive.
Sea Harrier endurance was limited. There was no possibility of maintaining a continuous combat air patrol over Falkland Sound. Instead, the British relied on attack submarines off the Argentinean coast, which could detect the Argentinian strikes as they appeared over the sea, and could pass sufficiently early warning back to the fleet.
On the other hand, the Argentinians were well aware of the limits of Sea Harrier performance. They knew that the two irreplaceable British carriers were as far to the east as they could get – and the limits of Sea Harrier endurance made it fairly clear where that was. The sole effective Argentinian submarine had no difficulty finding the ships. In NATO exercises, diesel submarines found carriers only when they were constrained to stay in roughly one place, an artificial restriction used to ensure that diesel submarine commanders would have the opportunity to make attacks. In the Falklands, the two British carriers were in exactly that situation, and the Argentinian Type 209 submarine San Luis attacked HMS Hermes.
Hermes was saved by a fluke: part of the torpedo fire control system on board the Argentinian submarine had been misinstalled. On the other hand, it can be argued that, had the Argentinian commander fired from a shorter (more dangerous) range, he would have succeeded despite the fire control problem.
The attack should have succeeded. British sonar range was limited, and it turned out that the protected area around the carrier was far too small. Hermes was saved by a fluke: part of the torpedo fire control system on board the Argentinian submarine had been misinstalled. On the other hand, it can be argued that, had the Argentinian commander fired from a shorter (more dangerous) range, he would have succeeded despite the fire control problem.
Perhaps the most interesting anti-submarine warfare (ASW) lesson was an old one: Any time it seems that a submarine is present, there will be many false alarms. Once the British knew that an Argentinian submarine was at sea, they clearly became nervous. Before the war, there were many attempts to estimate wartime weapon expenditure rates. As torpedoes became more expensive, estimates trended lower and lower, to justify shorter production runs and smaller capacities per ship.
The outstanding ASW lesson of the war was that such estimates were fantasies. Faced with diesel-electric submarines, the British relied entirely on active sonar, because a diesel-electric submarine on batteries has little or no distinctive acoustic signature. One consequence was that they could not distinguish whales from submarines. Not only will a whale run at roughly submarine speed, but it will turn to evade a loud noise in much the way a submarine might try to evade.
The Argentinian submarine did not have things entirely its own way; it was cornered and bottomed. The British (and others in NATO, including the United States) had no weapon that could detect and attack a submarine sitting on the bottom. The alliance depended almost entirely on homing torpedoes, which distinguish their targets by the Doppler due to their motion over the sea bottom. It is not at all clear that this problem has been solved; the best that NATO seemed to do in the years after the Falklands was to develop a very cheap, lightweight weapon. The idea was that if the weapon were dropped on a bottomed submarine, the submarine’s commander would probably try to run, creating the conditions needed by a homing torpedo.
The immediate reaction to the experience of the Falklands was to accelerate the Phalanx program and to provide ships with much larger loads of decoys. Work on other close-in defensive weapons, such as RAM, was also accelerated.
The war also demonstrated the psychological impact of torpedo attack on the Argentinians. The British proclaimed a maritime exclusion zone around the Falklands as their task force approached. The nuclear attack submarine HMS Conqueror enforced the zone by sinking the Argentinean cruiser Belgrano as it steamed through the zone. This attack, coming at the beginning of the war, showed how serious the British were. The Argentinians never mounted a surface operation in the exclusion zone. The larger lesson was that an offensive posture is well worthwhile, and that, in turn, may have encouraged the U.S. view that submarine operations in the Soviet bastion areas would tie down large Soviet naval forces that might otherwise have interfered with NATO reinforcement in the Atlantic. The U.S. idea had been formulated long before the war.
Overall, the U.S. Navy was struck most forcibly by the suddenness of air attack. Like the British, it had concentrated on the open-ocean situation, in which ships would have considerable warning of approaching air attack. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy had sought a more automated type of defense, but by 1982, the only legacy was the Phalanx anti-missile gun. The immediate reaction to the experience of the Falklands was to accelerate the Phalanx program and to provide ships with much larger loads of decoys. Work on other close-in defensive weapons, such as RAM, was also accelerated.
In other ways, the U.S. Navy had already dealt with air-attack problems the war uncovered. It already had radars capable of detecting targets flying overland, and it already emphasized the use of data links – it was, in fact, working hard to overcome the limitations of the existing links.
The larger question raised by the war was whether surface fleets were still worthwhile in the face of missiles like the Exocet that sank HMS Sheffield. It did not help that the British destroyer, which was smaller and in many ways less capable than U.S. frigates, had been advertised before the war (by the British) as the epitome of modern naval power. The main accepted lesson seems to have been that several British ships were devastated because their aluminum superstructures burned or melted. The upshot was that the new U.S. Arleigh Burke class, designed after the war, had steel superstructures. Many unfortunately associated that one feature with survivability. The Burkes are indeed highly survivable ships, as the experience of USS Cole later showed, but that was due to a lot more than steel superstructure construction – which in itself would hardly have been enough.
If the war actually pitted a miniature U.S. strike fleet against a miniature Soviet force, the success of the British showed that the full-scale strike fleet had an excellent chance of carrying out its mission, a far better chance than critics of the evolving U.S. Maritime Strategy imagined. That mattered. The Maritime Strategy greatly raised the price the Soviets would have had to pay to prepare for a war, at a time when they were badly stretched. The need for a stretch, not just for naval but for other military purposes, forced the Soviets to take measures to change their economy and their political system. It turned out that the system did not have much stretch in it, either – and the edifice collapsed. The Falklands War mattered because in important ways it was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
This article was first published in Defense: Summer 2012 Edition.