Is the U.S. Military Ready for a Falklands War Scenario?
In late March 1982, a naval task force departed the shores of Argentina under the pretense of participating in an exercise with Uruguay. Days later it arrived offshore of the Falkland Islands, an archipelago in the South Atlantic with 1,850 inhabitants fiercely loyal to Britain. Falklanders went to bed the night of April 1 as free people. They awoke the next morning to sounds of gunfire as Argentine marines stormed across beaches, incarcerated the governor and the small Royal Marine garrison, declared a new government, and renamed the islands Malvinas. That afternoon, other Argentines overcame a small British force on South Georgia, 900 miles further east, and laid claim to it as well.
It was anything but a late April Fools’ Day joke. The invasion was the culmination of years of frustration over sovereignty of these islands and a series of bellicose activities in more recent months. The British government, however, did not connect dots leading to the invasion. And even when it became clear that Argentines were en route to invade, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisors doubted British ability to retake the islands. Some thought it would take five months just to mount a sufficient force. But a lone admiral swayed the Iron Lady to take action, and what followed became a unique chapter in military history. Never had a nation assembled and deployed forces so quickly to fight a war so far away in an area where it had so little wherewithal. Britain was not ready for this war but still won.
Understanding challenges the British faced on the way to victory could not be more relevant today as the U.S. Department of Defense refocuses, as stated in the most recent Defense Strategic Guidance, on “its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged…”
Although the United States has a long history of waging war beyond its shores, it has never deployed quickly and without considerable planning and preparation beforehand. Moreover, it has not launched forces across beaches in combat for more than 60 years.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, NATO militaries were accustomed to participating in exercises to retrieve prepositioned equipment and supplies and move them to assembly areas. Those high states of deployment readiness started to decline by the end of the last century. As force drawdowns took place in Europe, prepositioned equipment moved elsewhere, including to the Middle East. Strategic focus shifted from the ability to deploy quickly to almost exclusive attention on rotating sufficient number of trained units in and out of the Middle East.
The net result is that over the past two decades, Western militaries, that of the United States included, have no longer maintained the same readiness to deploy quickly to enforce political decisions. Units previously accustomed to conducting emergency deployment readiness exercises as a matter of routine concentrated on preparing soldiers for continuing military operations in established theaters from the start of this century until just recently. For logisticians this has meant disembarking planes on secure runways, offloading large container ships at fixed ports with cranes, moving containers down highways, and issuing supplies from well-stocked warehouses. Units have rarely deployed their own equipment; they have used equipment prepositioned in theater and rotated between other units. In most situations, contractors have maintained that equipment both before and after.
What happens when none of this exists, and a military has to travel thousands of miles, take everything with them, attack over a beach against a determined enemy, and then fight across rugged terrain without a single road, perhaps in winter? This is what the British faced in 1982, as well as an eventual 3:1 force disadvantage, and why Thatcher received such pessimistic advice. The head of the Royal Navy expressed confidence that his forces could handle Argentines at sea. Other senior military leaders and the minister of defence himself, however, remained pessimistic about Britain’s ability to wage war over such long distances with the many logistical challenges. All saw the need to achieve air superiority, something that later proved difficult and as a result costly.
To be sure, the British situation was more challenging than most know even today. With no troop ships and little other capability to move supplies and equipment on sea or in the air, Britain acted quickly to take up commercial ships from industry, eventually requisitioning 54 ships and converting them to meet military needs as transports, supply vessels, repair ships, minesweepers, a hospital ship, a water tanker and more. Government and industry collaborated quickly to modify them, completing work on most within four days. Simultaneously, as ships were being identified and moved to ports for modification, supplies poured out of depots as military units prepared and planned, not knowing which ships they would embark. Tonnage filled Britain’s highways because British Rail had no time to reposition cars.
Few knew anything about the Falkland Islands then, let alone what British forces would do upon arriving there. The Ministry of Defence had no contingency plans or even gridded maps of the islands. Just days after the Argentine invasion, though, an amphibious task group carrying 3,000 men with equipment and supplies sailed from England to link up with a newly formed carrier battle group heading south from the Mediterranean. The task force eventually grew to over 8,000 men and 100 ships. It was a remarkable display of national resolve and military-industry cooperation. That focus remained in place long after the war.
Such quick deployment understandably produced a lot of confusion. Ships showed up at ports for modification as unit supplies arrived to be loaded. Given shipping shortages, the British purposely loaded ships as full as possible with little regard for what might be needed first. Unit supplies became commingled and spread between multiple ships in the rush to load and depart quickly. The British knew they would have time to re-stow supplies on ships as the task force moved south. Most believed politicians would find a way to avoid conflict. Commanders started assessing options. Units trained aboard ships and at Ascension Island, a small volcanic outcropping midway between the United Kingdom and Falklands, which fortunately had a good runway. Training included how to disembark commercial vessels into landing craft and methods to stay alive on the battlefield. More supplies started pouring into Wideawake Airfield at Ascension before the first ships had departed British coastlines. Sorting out the congestion and shifting supplies to passing ships and between ships became a nightmare in the ensuing weeks.
The British retook South Georgia the end of April. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation continued for two more weeks. For most, likelihood of war was becoming apparent, especially with the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and then the British destroyer Sheffield the first week of May. On May 12, the task force received orders to repossess the Falklands.
On May 21, the British landed on the opposite side of East Falkland from the capital of Stanley, where Argentines were anticipating a counterattack and had been establishing defenses. Operation Sutton became their first amphibious assault since the 1950s. It became clear soon thereafter that few people, including senior leaders in London, understood the difficulty of such an operation, especially without air superiority, let alone the need to establish supplies ashore before breaking out from a beachhead. A host of command, control, and communication issues followed, reinforcing today why amphibious operations remain perhaps the toughest of military operations, one rightly controlled by navies in collaboration with marines. Argentine leaders failed to capitalize on opportunities as they developed. They kept ground forces concentrated in positions defending Stanley. British air attacks tried their best to keep them there by destroying helicopters that could be used to relocate troops.
Challenges they faced underscore the importance of training for such complex operations, especially when army units join an amphibious task force. Although paratroopers and marine commandos operated side-by-side from beginning to end in this war, the preparation, deployment, and commitment of a separate British army infantry brigade as follow-on force produced less-than-stellar results and contributed to costly losses at Fitzroy, when Argentine pilots bombed ships that were slow to offload. That brigade was rushed together at the last minute in the United Kingdom, augmented largely by theater-level units and given little time to train together; it arrived in the South Atlantic with a thin organization and without a clear mission. Despite exceptional performance by some, that brigade’s story is a somber reminder of what can happen when military units are not organized, trained or ready for expeditionary-type warfare.
It took the land force nearly a week to build up sufficient supplies ashore to break out from the beachhead at San Carlos. Officials in London had become so frustrated that they threatened to fire their only brigadier for “languishing” on beaches. At one point, the overall task force commander, a Royal Navy four-star admiral in a headquarters at Norwood, told the rear admiral commanding the carrier battle group to go ashore and tell the land force commander, a Royal Marine brigadier, to move out of the beachhead. The rear admiral, equally exasperated, refused to do so.
It was frustrating for everyone that Argentine pilots had succeeded in hitting well over a dozen British ships and sinking five by the end of May, including the converted container ship Atlantic Conveyor carrying nine helicopters and thousands of tons of much needed supplies. Only a single heavy-lift helicopter survived to support land operations. Often Argentine bombs would strike ships but not detonate. Numerous times these bombs passed right through British ships without exploding. Had a few more detonated, or had Argentine pilots targeted some different ships, sovereignty over the Falklands might not have been settled so soon. As it was, damage caused by Argentine air attacks demonstrated, not surprisingly, how essential it is to have air superiority when conducting amphibious operations.
Perhaps it will not surprise some people to learn that the vast majority of casualties during the war, nearly 70 percent, occurred not on land but at sea. The Falklands produced the first fighting at sea since the Second World War. It proved costly for both sides.
The battles on land resulted in many instances of bravery and leadership. They also revealed challenges of waging war in remote areas thousands of miles away from a homeland. At Goose Green, paratroopers fought on foot over 24 hours in the rain and snow to defeat Argentines dug-in on a narrow isthmus. Weather hampered resupply. Without robust supplies as they started to attack, some found themselves crawling to dead comrades to retrieve ammunition. Marine commandos and other paratroopers marched 50 miles across East Falkland carrying all their gear and then attacked up slopes of rocky mountains to overcome tough Argentine defenses. Logisticians had to figure out how to support these operations without the benefit of any roads and with few helicopters. It became a frustratingly slow process at times, hampered by Argentine pilots attacking the British support area on land. Wounded often lay on the battlefield for 12 hours or more before helicopters could evacuate them.
When smoke settled from Harrier attacks, artillery, and naval gunfire on June 14, just 74 days after the invasion, the British had retaken the islands and captured over 10,000 Argentines in and around Stanley — a town severely damaged, without utilities or running water, and cluttered with debris, equipment, and human excrement. Then the British military transitioned to a phase of war that has plagued many armies over the years: effectively restoring order after victory. They had to do so when still at the end of an 8,000-mile logistical tether. One of their first priorities was disarming then repatriating thousands of Argentine prisoners back home when their military junta still was not acknowledging defeat.
There is indeed much to ponder from the British experience in the 1982 Falklands War, especially now as military services focus more on expeditionary operations. It is no accident that some military schools are adding this war to curricula for further study. For the past couple years, the U.S. Marine Corps has invited the few senior British leaders from this war still living to speak to students. They are smart to do so. Aside from its relevance for future readiness, this war offers accessibility for students and leaders wanting to study a war from beginning to end or just examine certain aspects of war.
The Falklands War reiterates the historical constant that conflicts occur at times and places least expected. The success of British efforts highlights the power of national resolve, something that is often lacking when politicians commit countries to war. Their deployments became rushed and problematic in many ways, but they also revealed masterful synchronization of government agencies in short order. What they achieved remains without parallel in military history. It never will be easy to move large forces quickly or support operations in austere, remote areas. The Falklands War also resurrects lessons from the past, including consequences when commands are not on the same sheet of music and when combat operations outpace logistics.
The British were not ready for the Falklands War in 1982 but they still won despite many surprises. They did so because they were simply better than those they fought. They were better trained and tougher, more resilient physically and more agile mentally. When setbacks occurred, they were able to bounce back. And this was not limited to units on front lines. Quite importantly, those fighting on or around the islands also were backed up by thousands of men and women working behind the scenes many miles away, trying to get them what they needed. That became a very tough combination to beat.
Could the British do it again? Some think not. They do have the benefit today, however, of robust infrastructure, prepositioned supplies, and more forces in the Falklands. Could the United States military do it in the future in a comparable scenario? Perhaps. At least the Department of Defense is starting to refocus on expeditionary warfare, something quite different than its recent experience.
Kenneth L. Privratsky is the author of the recently published book Logistics in the Falklands War. He is a retired U. S. Army Major General with 33 years of service, a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies and a former National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.