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The Falklands War in Retrospect

Hard lessons from a small war

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.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible returns to massive celebrations following the Falklands Conflict in 1982. Lined up on the deck are Sea King helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron and Sea Harrier FRS1 aircraft from 800 Naval Air Squadron. MoD Crown Copyright

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.

Invincible Sea King

A Westland Sea King AEW2 helicopter prepares to land on the flight deck of the HMS Invincible (R-05) during exercise North Star ’91. The Sea King AEW helicopter, with its “dustbin” early warning radar stowed for take off, was one outgrowth of the lessons from the Falklands conflict: ships without airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft were terribly vulnerable to air attack. The NATO exercise tested the ability of participating forces to respond to multiple threats in a harsh environment.PH1 Joseph Dorey

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.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...