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In the Falklands War in 1982 Argentina suffered a disastrous defeat, thus many believe that Argentina never stood a chance. Yet, taking a closer look at the Argentine side reveals that the conflict wasn’t a forgone conclusion at all.
During and prior to the conflict the Argentine leadership committed many blunders. Note that at that time the Argentina was led by a military junta consisting of the commanders in chief of the army, navy and air force.So let’s take a look at the various factors that were crucial for the outcome of the war.
The first major problem was the timing. The original Argentine invasion of the Falkland Island or Islas Malvinas as they are called Argentina was scheduled for the 15th of May or later, which would have made British operations more difficult due to the changing weather. After all the Falkland Islands are located in a rather cold area of the Atlantic.
Yet, the occupation began on the 2nd of April, basically the Argentine Navy and Army performed the “landing at a time that now looks almost if it had been picked by Britain” Robert L. Scheina (Naval Historian; quoted after Pedraja, p. 239). It should also be noted that the Argentine Forces were due to receive new equipment, whereas the British Forces were experiencing major cutbacks.
Furthermore, the invasion itself was performed with an unnecessary show of force. The Islands were defended by a British garrison of around 100 men, yet the Argentine Navy showed up with almost all of its warships including it’s aircraft carrier. Due to this major mobilization the British were notified a week prior to the actual occupation of the islands.This commitment to use the whole Argentine navy was a clear contrast the following lack of commitment that happened after the occupation.
The next major problem was the rivalry within the Argentine Armed Forces. The whole invasion was planned by the Army and Navy alone, only in January 1982 they informed the Air Force, but since the Air Force wasn’t part of the operation, it couldn’t oppose the operation. Since there was no certain date and the Air Force wasn’t allowed to perform maritime operations anyway, it didn’t prepare until late March 1982.
Also the rivalry didn’t change significantly even after the bullets started flying. The conflicted was started by the Navy and Army, yet both largely dropped out of the war rather soon leaving the heavy lifting to the Air Force, which was basically dragged into the conflict shortly after the occupation of the islands. Nevertheless, the commander of the Air Force and his men were eager to show of what they were capable off. So let’s take a look at the air force.
The Ugly Duckling – State of the Air Forces
The Argentine Air Force was the ugly duckling of the Armed Forces, although it was military the best trained, it was politically the weakest, especially in the junta during the Falkland War. Army bases were located near air force bases officially for protection, yet this was mostly to keep pressure on the air force.
One aspect that severely inhibited the air force in the Falkland War was the fact that the in 1969 the Navy received the exclusive jurisdiction to defend Argentina from a sea attack, thus equipment, training and doctrine was completely oriented towards ground attack.
Nevertheless the Air Force could field an impressive number of around 200 combat planes. Yet, most of these couldn’t be used to their full performance above the Falklands, due to their limits in range. They main land air bases were located at ranges from 750 km to 690 km away from the Falkland Islands. “Partly for reasons of dispersal, and partly because of the inability to handle more flights, the air force scattered its planes among the three air strips rather than concentrating them at Río Grande, the base nearest to the combat theater.” (p. 242)
Another major problem was the lack of navigation equipment, especially for maritime operations, but some planes lacked even a simple navigational radar. To deal with this situation better equipped planes were used as guide and also civilian Learjets.
Lack of Equipment – Radar at Port Stanley
Furthermore, due to the navigational deficiencies” the radar on the Falkland Islands assumed an importance out of proportion of tis traditional role” (p. 247). It became probably the single most important equipment for the entire Argentine war effort. It provided navigational coordinates for the planes, warned them of nearby harriers and also detected many ships. A second radar would have been crucial as a backup and also due the “radar shadow” that was created by the mountains on the island, but none was deployed. This radar shadow allowed the British to remain undetected when they moved in for their landing troops.
The State of the Navy & Army
Although the overall state of the Argentine Navy and Army was probably not the best, their performance was definitely abysmal or even counter-productive. The main contributions of the the Navy came from one battalion of marines on the Falklands and their fleet air arm that operated from land bases, because after the loss of the cruiser Belgrano the commander-in-chief recalled all ships into the ports, thus the troops on the Falklands could only be supplied by the Air Force.
The Army should have defended the Falkland Islands against a British invasion, but it mostly sent conscripts that were ill-equipped. Also the leadership of the garrison openly told them that the whole occupation was just a mock theater to reach a peaceful solution, thus while air force troops prepared air raid shelters they army didn’t fortify their positions properly. Nor did the army ship heavy artillery to the island.
Probably one of the dumbest decisions was to reinforce the garrison on the freezing island with a brigade of conscripts from a subtropical region, while the best troops were kept in Argentina in case Chile would declare war. The fear of an attack from Chile and the fear of British submarines was constant, yet no action was taken to prepare the defense of the island in case of a British naval blockade. As mentioned before the Argentine Navy showed up with nearly all warships during the initial occupation. But these ships didn’t bring along heavy equipment to dig in nor a vast amount of supplies. This is probably one of the few examples in Naval History, when a cargo ship full of supplies would have better suited than an aircraft carrier. This lack of proper preparations was also – yet to a smaller degree – a problem with the air force.
Lack of improving the air fields
The general lack of the Army and Air Force to build fortifications and improve existing facilities was striking. On the mainland most of the improvement of existing air fields was done by local citizens, without them not much happened. Also the air force didn’t try to create new air strips closer to the islands. But most notable was the failure to improve the existing runway on the Falkland Island. Just adding access lanes or parking spaces could have improved the capacity of the air strip for cargo planes. (Limited to 6 planes simultaneously.) A certain amount of these shortcomings can of course be tracked back directly to the Argentine leadership.
Misjudgement of British Willigness to fight and International Support
It completely misjudged the international relations. First they assumed that the United States would prevent a war between Argentina and the United Kingdom, after all both were Allies of the States. Furthermore, they assumed that they accumulated enough favors, yet this completely wrong assumption should have been abandoned when the United States tried to convince Argentina to accept the British demands.
Another major misconception was the underestimation of the British to fight instead of seeking a diplomatic solution. This view was even prevalent at the lower ranks in the armies. The strong British determination was in complete contrast the Argentine unwillingness to commit after their initial steps. Basically, Argentine leadership kicked a British bulldog then turned around and thought everything would work out fine.
The Three Fatal Flaws of the Air Force
Basically the only service that prepared itself at least properly was the air force and it also did very well. Yet, there were three major flaws that significantly lowered its overall effectiveness.
- The pilots focused their attacks mainly on warships, although the initial plan considered landing craft and troop ships as high priority targets. Although those ships were also attacked. Generally, air force pilots preferred war ships, but sinking those ships wouldn’t prevent the British troops from landing. These made the British merchant ships the weakest link in their plan. Something the air force failed to exploit.
- The air force used mainly small formations to attack British warships although evidence suggest that larger formations had a higher success rate.
- Probably the biggest problem was that a 60 % of all bombs dropped on ships failed to detonate. This was of course the result due to the focused on ground support, but the Naval Air Arm didn’t face this problem. Yet, due to the rivalry between the air force and navy, the navy didn’t provided any support on this matter nor did air force ask for assistance.
Despite all of these shortcomings and the almost complete absence of the army and navy, the Argentine Air Forces still achieved several successes. Together the planes of the air force and navy destroyed 2 destroyers, 2 frigates and 3 support ships.
The Falkland War could have a very different outcome if the Argentine forces would have fortified their positions properly and used their best troops instead of conscripts to defend the island. Furthermore, the construction and improvement of air fields on the island and on the mainland would have increased the air forces capabilities. The Navy originally planned an sortie after the British landing began, combined with an attack from the army against the invasion force this could have been enough pressure to defeat or at least stall the British invasion considerably. Only one of these aspects would have prolonged the conflict and due to the overstretched British supply lines, the changing weather and new aircrafts for the Argentine Air Force time wasn’t favoring the Royal Navy.
Bonus – Argentine Air Force Numbers
The Argentine Air Force had around 200 combat planes:
- 19 Mirage IIIEA fighters
- 26 Israeli Dagger fighter bombers
- 9 Canberra Bombers
- 68 A4 Skyhawks
- 45 Pucarás
Bonus – Ranges
Rio Gallegos 750 km ( 496 miles)
San Julián: 700 (438 miles)
Río Grande at Tierra del Fuego 690 (431 miles).
René De La Pedraja: The Argentine Air Force versus Britain in the Falkland Islands, In: Higham & Harris: Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat
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