How Can the Marines Learn From the Falklands War?
How does one stop a revisionist autocracy from invading its island neighbor? If the invasion lands on this nation’s shores, how does one force the withdrawal of an adversary with local numerical superiority while operating at hundreds or even thousands of miles from main logistical hubs? In 1982, the British had to solve this exact problem when the military junta of Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands after years of claiming sovereignty over the British Overseas Territory. There are disquieting parallels between Operation Corporate, the British victory in its long-range, expeditionary operation to recapture the Falklands from Argentina and the challenges focused around the defense of Taiwan from China.
The U.S. Marine Corps has made it a priority to address the rise of great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific. British forces in the Falklands operated in a similar manner to how the commandant envisions marines operating in the future: small formations distributed across vast expanses of maritime terrain, relatively limited indirect fire support, and limited traditional close air support. Vertical lift aircraft were critical to enabling British maneuver and logistical sustainment in the South Atlantic. But these aircraft are largely absent from new Marine Corps concepts.
To address these discrepancies, I offer a brief overview of relevant lessons learned during Operation Corporate. After capturing these lessons learned, I turn to ways to better incorporate them into the Marine concepts, specifically focused on maximizing current and future vertical lift capabilities.
On Apr. 2, 1982, the armed forces of Argentina invaded the British territory of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Successive British administrations had concluded that any landings by Argentina would represent a fait accompli with little room for recourse. The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, however, quickly committed itself to returning the Falkland Islands to the United Kingdom. Within hours, Operation Corporate was set in motion to drive Argentina from the rocky archipelago. The first naval vessels departed Britain less than three days after the invasion. A rapidly formed, combined task force overcame significant hurdles and transited over 8,000 miles to finally regain possession of the islands by June 14. Victory was not guaranteed. From the moment the task force set sail, a failure to anticipate vertical lift requirements, ambiguous command relationships, and a force design that marginalized amphibious operations threatened ultimate success.
The British operation had to overcome vast distances and associated challenges (Source: Department of History, US. Military Academy)
The British task force was primarily comprised of a carrier battle group to establish air and sea superiority, and an amphibious assault group, which included 3 Commando Brigade, was tasked with recapturing the islands. The rapid deployment of the British naval task force was impressive, but was initially conducted to force a political settlement with the hope that a military solution would prove unnecessary. As the British task force sailed from the historic ports of Sir Francis Drake and Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson, its logistical supplies and equipment were largely stowed without consideration for an eventual amphibious operation. A significant logistical reorganization was required at Ascension Island, the lone intermediate firm base available to the British. Utilizing surface vessels to reshuffle equipment should have proven a simple task for the Royal Navy, but the steep gradients, soft sand, and heavy surf of the beaches required extensive use of helicopters for ship-to-shore movement. Even after landing equipment at Ascension Island, the rough terrain meant that helicopters were essential to inland transportation. With minimal restow and staff coordination complete, the task force sailed toward their objective where unforgiving climate and terrain would require even more aviation support.
Air defense proved to be a vital consideration throughout Operation Corporate. The decision to land elements of 3 Commando Brigade only after the carrier battle group established air superiority was ultimately deemed impractical and the risk of Argentine aircraft was accepted for the sake of expediency. Argentina possessed six times the number of aircraft of the British task force and the air defense systems organic to the Royal Navy could not provide adequate force protection to troops after landing ashore. The ground-based Rapier air defense system was intended to mitigate the risk of air attack in the absence of air superiority. The terrain best suited for the Rapier to perform this function was inaccessible by ground vehicles and the system itself was too heavy to be hand-carried. As a result, the commander of the amphibious battle group, Michael Clapp, was compelled to dedicate limited assets “to supply the Rapiers with one Sea King on permanent call for the delivery of stores and petrol for their generators.” For a helicopter force that would become heavily taxed, the reliance on these aircraft only increased as Britain transitioned from the amphibious landing to offensive operations ashore.
The geography of the Falkland Islands limited the number of suitable landing locations. San Carlos Water in the northwest of East Falklands was selected as the site for the landing. On May 21, the first elements of 3 Commando Brigade landed, but the buildup of the beachhead was delayed due to unresolved inefficiencies in logistical stores as well as the force protection measure of constantly moving surface vessels in and out of San Carlos Water. The only means to maintain momentum under these circumstances was a constant use of helicopters. From the initial landing until the eventual capitulation of Argentina on June 14, “Helicopters remained vital to logistics operations during the war because of the rough, trackless terrain of East Falkland.” When air-launched Exocet missiles sank SS Atlantic Conveyor on May 25, all but one of its critical cargo of additional helicopters was lost, further challenging the limited mobility of the ground force. The lack of adequate roads to traverse the rocky marshland ensured that the limited helicopter force was occupied externally transporting all artillery and heavy equipment while British marines and soldiers were left to march over the unforgiving landscape. As a stark illustration of the requirements on helicopters, it took 82 Sea King sorties to transport a single battery of six 105-millimeter howitzers and its required ammunition. This reduction in maneuver assets undoubtedly extended the conflict as a majority of helicopters were allocated to transporting equipment and not personnel.
The Falklands campaign (Source: Department of History, U.S. Military Academy)
Command relationships between inter-service units, and the inadequate allocation of helicopter assets for even a single brigade, were a tangible point of friction as the task force grew. The Royal Marine brigade fielded roughly 4,600 personnel, which the Ministry of Defence determined was too small to face the 10,000 Argentinians on the Falklands. With the addition of 5 Infantry Brigade, Maj. Gen. Jeremy Moore would command a divisional headquarters within the task force. Most of the battalions in this brigade were comprised of soldiers who split time between operational and ceremonial guard duty with no training in amphibious operations. This additional brigade represented an increase in overall numbers but produced confused command relationships that contributed to the single largest loss of British troops since World War II.
When it was still believed a political solution was possible, little effort was made to define the exact role of 5 Infantry Brigade. The question of what to do with these troops was answered when 3 Commando Brigade conducted its first offensive actions after landing at San Carlos Water. The initial success at the settlement of Goose Green prompted 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment to bound well forward of logistical support, leaving them vulnerable to enemy attack without the possibility of rapid reinforcement. An ill-constructed support request process and lack of helicopter expertise on the amphibious staff allowed the ambitious battalion to requisition helicopter support that was sorely needed elsewhere. In response, elements of 5 Infantry Brigade would be landed at the settlements of Bluff Cove and Fitzroy to relieve the isolated paratroopers. The misallocation of helicopters required surface connectors to transport these soldiers despite their lack of amphibious experience. The 35-mile movement in open landing craft took several hours as soldiers were exposed to the frigid South Atlantic climate and Argentine air attack. As the sun set on June 8, multiple surface connectors were attacked, LSL Sir Galahad was sunk, and 51 soldiers and sailors were killed with 46 wounded.
To better understand how such tragedies happened, it’s important to go back in time to the years immediately following World War II. Inter-service competition hit the Royal Navy particularly hard in this period with the cancellation of an updated carrier program in 1966 and the decommissioning of Britain’s last catapult carrier — HMS Ark Royal — in 1979. This had cascading effects on the amphibious capabilities of the navy in the years to come. The only two remaining carriers capable of fixed-wing operations were HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, whose small decks utilized vertical take-off and landing Sea Harriers at the expense of helicopter operations.
Thatcher inherited budgetary constraints that contributed to an increasingly niche view of the Royal Navy’s purpose. Her government’s 1981 Defence White Paper recommended the removal of all amphibious vessels by 1984. Britain’s belief that the unlikely requirement for amphibious capabilities would only be used as part of a larger NATO operation degraded the readiness of the Royal Navy. The two fixed-wing carriers were scheduled for sale to foreign militaries with the landing platform dock, HMS Intrepid, already in the process of being decommissioned. Fortunately for Britain, Argentina did not wait for the full impact of the projected changes in British amphibious capabilities. The sale of the carriers was delayed and the decommissioning of HMS Intrepid reversed for the use of its associated landing craft and medium-lift helicopters.
In hindsight, the gap between the British and Argentine capabilities appears inevitable. However, no amount of military professionalism could have bridged the 8,000-mile gap between Britain and the Falkland Islands without the appropriate means to not only arrive in theater, but move troops, supplies, and equipment across the inhospitable terrain of the islands. Had the conflict been delayed by a matter of months, a complete lack of amphibious vessels and its associated helicopters would have made repossession of the Falkland Islands impossible. Much has been written regarding the fortuitous timing of the invasion prior to the final transfer of Britain’s aircraft carriers. The carrier battle group, however, failed to accomplish its main task: air superiority. In the end, it was the essential mobility that vertical lift aviation provided that ensured that the Falkland Islands returned to British control.
Implications for Force Design 2030
The commandant of the Marine Corps’ 2019 planning guidance lays out an ambitious, but necessary, plan to mitigate the threat of emerging peer adversaries. In each year since, his annual Force Design 2030 updates have built on this initial guidance, setting the service on a path which is directly in line with strategic guidance from the White House and the Department of Defense. Multiple conceptual documents have informed the commandant’s guidance. The concept of expeditionary advanced base operations seeks to mitigate potential adversary advantages “by improving our own ability to maneuver and exploit control over key maritime terrain.” Incorporating the lessons of the British experience with helicopter utilization in the Falklands is critical to ensuring that the Marine Corps does not repeat similar missteps during the maneuver and sustainment of its own distributed forces.
It is critical that vertical lift aviation is better integrated into maritime mobility. Utilizing surface vessels to land personnel and equipment ashore is not guaranteed. Artist’s renderings of conceptual Light Amphibious Warships depict the offloading of equipment on pristine beaches that the example of Ascension Island demonstrates as problematic. The Falklands War also exhibited that the requirement for mobility does not end at the shoreline. Excluding four light tanks, all supplies, artillery, and air defense systems were light enough to be transported by helicopter, demonstrating the rapid mobility that aviation provides. Restrictive inland terrain or a lack of existing airfields remains a consideration to Marine planners, particularly on islands throughout the Indo-Pacific that often lack large airfields and improved road infrastructure. CH-53E/K helicopters provide a unique capability to rapidly transport radars, mobile air defense systems, and ordnance for long-range precision artillery critical to new concepts. The air-refuellable capabilities of these platforms enable operations at distances exponentially greater than those covered by British helicopters. A 100 percent increase in active component KC-130 tanker transport squadrons stationed in the Pacific will provide range extension to CH-53E/K and MV-22 Osprey aircraft that provides the option to self-deploy from outside the First Island Chain to distributed expeditionary bases within it. The ability to overcome the tyranny of distance in vertical lift aircraft is not without precedent. Twice in 1989, MH-53 helicopters utilized aerial refueling to transit nearly 1,400 miles — roughly the distance between Guam and Taiwan — without landing to conduct combat operations in Panama. Operating at such ranges would clearly be the exception, but it provides Marine commanders with the option to rapidly employ vertical lift aviation when the threat, terrain, or alternative asset allocation prove prohibitive.
Projected Marine command relationships could challenge the service’s utilization of vertical lift aviation, likely in ways that mirror the friction that the British Task Force experienced in 1982. The Marine littoral regiment was developed through the Force Design 2030 process with expeditionary advanced base operations in mind. The commandant has made it clear that this new unit is not the only entity that can conduct such operations, but the basing of current and future Marine littoral regiments within the Pacific ensures that they will conduct a preponderance of the new concept. Tentative doctrine only roughly describes aviation in a general support role to the littoral force without outlining the source of these aircraft. The emphasis of the tentative manual and “A Concept for Stand-in Forces” on aviation fires and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over vertical lift threatens to replicate Britain’s inefficient utilization of helicopters in 1982. Moreover, with no organic aviation assets capable of vertical lift, a Marine littoral regiment’s reliance on composite squadrons of a Marine expeditionary unit to support their maneuver will prove unsustainable. Not enough vertical lift will exist to support operations of both these units concurrently as the only aircraft between the two elements is deliberately sized to support Marine expeditionary unit operations. Air wings allocating squadrons to current deployment cycles will find it difficult source additional tasking, especially in a CH-53 community reduced by 35 percent. This reduction was consciously designed to coincide with a concurrent reduction of infantry battalions by 13 percent. However, it was not simply the number of vertical lift platforms available, but the ad hoc command relationships that threatened the success of the British task force in 1982. The lack of defined support relationships within any current doctrinal or tentative publications between a commander of the landing forces and a commander of the littoral force would complicate any amalgamation of their respective entities. Wherever the source, clear allocation of aviation support during expeditionary advanced base operations, specifically vertical lift, should be defined moving forward.
The overwhelming emphasis on mobility contained in “A Concept for Stand-in Forces” ignores the stark disparity in speed, range, and flexibility of aviation compared to proposed surface vessels that the U.S. Navy is hesitant to fund. In fact, despite the critical role that it anticipates mobility will play within maritime terrain, vertical lift aviation is never once mentioned in this document. Any reliance on nonexistent logistical drones without continuing to integrate currently fielded air-refuellable, long-range vertical lift platforms further risks the viability of these new concepts. Offensive and reconnaissance drones have emphatically demonstrated their utility not only in operational tests conducted by the Marine Corps, but also in combat in Ukraine. The ability for unmanned platforms to logistically sustain marines in an environment envisioned by the commandant is less certain. While more recent unmanned concepts have been proposed, one of the more capable unmanned vertical lift platforms is the Kaman K-MAX helicopter. During a 33-month experiment in Afghanistan in 2011 it proved capable against an insurgent adversary, but its speed of 80 knots, one-way range of 267 nautical miles, and payload of 6,000 pounds is overwhelmingly outperformed by both the MV-22 and CH-53E/K. At a fraction of the price of manned vertical lift, unmanned systems would only provide a fraction of the logistical support. These alternatives to sustain marines throughout the Pacific should continue to be developed, but currently a capabilities gap limits these options to a supporting role.
“Technological advance is sharply changing the defence environment. The fast-growing power of modern weapons to find targets accurately and hit them hard at long ranges is increasing the vulnerability of major platforms such as aircraft and surface ships.” One might believe this passage describes the current global environment, but this quote from Thatcher’s secretary of state for defence demonstrates that many of the considerations shaping the Marine Corps were relevant forty years ago.
The Marine Corps should take concrete steps to learn from the British experience during Operation Corporate. First, the Marine littoral regiment should capitalize on the inherent mobility and flexibility of vertical lift aviation through fully integrated training at long range in maritime terrain. Next, feasible command relationships between aviation and ground forces in distributed operations should be developed and clearly codified in evolving doctrine. Finally, the Marine Corps should continue to develop innovative, unmanned surface and air platforms with the understanding that existing systems must be leveraged until these technologies are fully fielded. Successfully incorporating vertical lift aviation into the commandant’s vision of the Marine Corps will prove challenging, but the negative impact of relying solely on alternative mobility options will prove to be untenable.
Nolan Vihlen is a CH-53E instructor pilot currently assigned to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One and a recent graduate of Expeditionary Warfare School. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the U.S Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: UK National Archives