MV Norland is straddled by bombs in San Carlos Water after disembarking men of 2 Parachute Regiment, 21 May 1982. Picture Credit: Pete Holdgate/Crown Copyright. Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

Always prepare for the unexpected

The instructive parallels between the Falklands and Ukraine wars


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Forty years ago, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British archipelago 300 miles off the Patagonian coast. This followed an Argentine incursion onto South Georgia, another UK territory then occupied solely by British Antarctic Survey researchers, the previous month. After a short but fierce resistance, the islands’ governor, Rex Hunt, directed the small garrison of Royal Marines, Royal Navy sailors and local Falkland Islands Defence Force volunteers to lay down their arms.

The resonance of both of these miscalculations is apparent today

The Argentine success was short-lived, however. The next day, Admiral Sir Henry Leach — then the First Sea Lord — convinced Margaret Thatcher that retaking the islands was feasible. Within three days, the major units of a UK military task force led by the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible sailed for the South Atlantic. On 14 June, Argentine forces surrendered; UK forces captured 11,400 POWs, all of whom were then released back to Argentina. Overall, 907 people died in the conflict: three Falkland Islanders, 255 UK military personnel, and 649 of Argentina’s own troops.

With the anniversary of the war’s outbreak and a major war of territorial revisionism now raging within Europe itself, this is an apposite time to review some crucial lessons from the earlier conflict. History may not repeat itself, but it can certainly echo. The focus here is on three recurring features of international violence: miscalculation beforehand; not getting what you expect during; and the interaction of power and ideas of nation-states.

Both sides miscalculated

There was no shortage of intelligence that Argentina was preparing a force capable of offensive military operations over water. Indeed, as Richard Ned Lebow explains in “Miscalculation in the South Atlantic” (1983), warnings were actually publicised in the hope that such a demonstration of resolve would coerce London into a concession on sovereignty.

A month before the invasion, the Argentine Government had terminated bilateral negotiations with the UK over the Islands’ status, claiming a right to “seek other means” of obtaining sovereignty. Intelligence on Argentine force posture and elite political discussions — the former showing an ability to attack, the latter suggesting that such an attack was receiving open consideration — was pouring into London from all manner of sources, both open and clandestine. As US Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet would later say of his own country’s analysis failures in the run-up to 9/11, “the system was blinking red”. Yet despite this, HM Government was still caught on the back foot when an invasion actually materialised.

Of course, the major problem is that preparations for an actual invasion are the same steps an adversary might take when bluffing — the more real the apparent preparations, the more convincing the bluff — in the hope of gaining concessions. Signals may be easy to interpret in hindsight, but they are much harder things to spot and act upon in advance.

A full counter-invasion force is a costly thing to generate: financially, politically, and in terms of foregone commitments elsewhere. This raises the pressure not to do so, especially given senior policymakers’ understandable doubts that an adversary would actually gamble in such perilous fashion. Yet such a high-stakes dice-toss was exactly the policy that Buenos Aires chose.

Far more egregious was the argentine junta’s underestimation of UK power and resolve, particularly on the part of leading war-advocate Jorge Anaya, Leopoldo Galtieri’s naval commander.

Expectations of technological advantage can also quickly come to naught

After boxing themselves into a corner by fomenting bellicose domestic opinion with suggestions of decisive action through the preceding month, the junta gambled that Britain lacked the resolve to assemble a sufficient force and send it to fight a war 8,000 miles away. London’s muted response to March’s South Georgia incursion, coupled with the previous year’s Defence white paper — which announced plans to phase out the RN’s South Atlantic patrol vessel, HMS Endurance, and its two major amphibious assault ships, HMS Intrepid and Fearless — gave an impression of an unwillingness to fight to defend the islands.

The resonance of both of these miscalculations is apparent today. Military analysts had noted Russian preparations that made a large-scale military assault on Ukraine possible, including costly steps a state might be unlikely to take if they were merely planning an exercise (such as deploying scarce blood stocks to field hospitals). Yet the Russian invasion still came as a shock to many, just as Argentina’s did to Britain in 1982.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, observed what it presumed to be a weak state which could be swiftly and affordably reincorporated into some Russian-dominated imperial sphere, only to encounter both power and resolve from the defenders.

You don’t get the war you plan for

Following the 1980-81 recession and facing the enduring threat of Soviet power, the pre-Falklands UK armed forces were in the process of doubling-down on European NATO commitments. Besides withdrawing HMS Endurance, John Nott’s 1981 Defence White Paper also suggested selling HMS Invincible, the first of a planned class of three small aircraft carriers, to Australia and the future of the Royal Marines was in question. The Navy’s escort (frigate and destroyer) fleet would also shrink, becoming even more focused on north Atlantic anti-submarine warfare against Soviet forces. Independent British capacity to project power outside the NATO area of Europe and the north-east Atlantic were taken by the Nott review to be luxury options a recession-stricken state could no longer afford.

In the event, a task force capable of getting the job done was cobbled together. But it was a closer-run thing than one might have expected from a simple comparison of each side’s aggregate material wherewithal. Partly that reflects the extreme logistical and force-concentration challenges of operating at great range; what Kenneth Boulding called the “loss of strength gradient”. But it also reflected specific features of the war that actually materialised, as opposed to the greater Euro-Atlantic war the UK armed forces were primarily configured for.

For example the RN’s retention of an aircraft carrier force via the Invincible class — which had originally been justified within Whitehall as “through-deck anti-submarine cruisers” given political sentiment that carriers were an unaffordable vanity project — was crucial, though they lacked an airborne early-warning capability (aircraft capable of flying long-range air search radar up-threat from the carrier itself). Accordingly, the task force was left relying on ship-mounted radar and the Sea Harriers’ own lightweight airborne radar systems, significantly limiting warning times and broader tactical awareness.

The escorts’ Sea Dart area air defence missile, and its associated fire control radar’s difficulties with acquiring targets as they appeared at low altitude and short range over land, was operating far outside its expected scenario of operation (mid-ocean raids by Soviet long-range strike aircraft in the north-east Atlantic). Some capabilities that Western navies knew were becoming important but had not yet faced, such as sea-skimming anti-ship missiles, exposed stark capability gaps (such as inadequate close-in defensive anti-air systems.

Others long known to be important, such as the danger posed by hunter-killer submarines, presented themselves in unexpected contexts. The attack by HMS Conqueror on ARA General Belgrano is well known; other major surface elements of the Argentine navy, such as the carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, retreated to port in its aftermath and thereby ceased to pose such a threat to UK forces (her Skyhawks resorted to flying from mainland Argentina, reducing their on-station times).

But, by the same token, the Argentinian submarine ARA San Luis alone was a constant complication for an RN that expended disproportionate time, attention, and munitions attempting to prosecute a single hostile sub in a congested theatre: a job they had expected to do, against vastly more formidable Soviet submarine forces in the north Atlantic.

Prior to the invasion, the Falklands carried little political resonance in the UK

Expectations of technological advantage can also quickly come to naught, leaving it all the more important to continue to do the military basics right. When the majority of their transport helicopters were destroyed by fire following an Exocet strike on SS Atlantic Conveyor, British ground forces faced a 56-mile yomp across barren winter terrain in full kit from their landing sites at San Carlos. They arrived in good order, still ready and able to fight, reconnoitred the defences of Stanley while building up their logistical position, then fought their way through well-entrenched defenders via three days of pitched battle.

By contrast — as Russia’s laboured advance since 24 February highlights — forces that neglect morale, logistics, leadership, reconnaissance, and planning can struggle to achieve their objectives despite their supposed technological edge. Still, successful past performance is not grounds for complacency, given other elements of technological reliance that UK and allied forces have accumulated over the intervening four decades.

Today the UK is having an inverted version of 1982’s experience. Since the “Options for Change” review of 1990 — and particularly since the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 — the British armed forces have been progressively reoriented for expeditionary operations against “rogue” states, terrorists, insurgents, and humanitarian concerns, at the expense of mass and firepower for containing major state adversaries.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review restored some recognition of significant state-based threats following Russia’s original 2014 attack on Ukraine. But 2021’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy persevered with the post-Cold War era’s downward trajectory in troop numbers, lowering the regular Army’s target size to 72,500 (compared to the 82,000 stated in 2015 and 120,000 following “Options for Change”).

Instead, the Integrated Review’s focus was maritime projection and exploitation of advanced technology to enable a “tilt” to operating in the Indo-Pacific — as part of a US-led balancing coalition directed at a rising and potentially revisionist China at the expense of mass within Europe.

China plainly does pose a “systemic challenge” to UK and allied interests, while maritime forces and advanced technologies are highly relevant to security within (as well as beyond) Europe. But just as 1982 saw a UK configured primarily for NATO defence in western Europe and the north-east Atlantic suddenly confronted by an out-of-area expeditionary contingency, so 2022 sees a UK configured predominantly for out-of-area expeditionary operations suddenly confronted by a major European theatre war on NATO’s doorstep.

In 1982, thankfully, there was still sufficient capacity within the UK armed forces and the wider state to fight, and win, a war we didn’t anticipate. But years of post-Cold War cuts to Defence (and other strategically important areas of the state) have significantly reduced such capacity today. Tellingly, the naval task force assembled for a single operation in 1982 — thus excluding vessels committed to other tasks, undergoing maintenance, and training/working-up — contained more frigates, destroyers, and hunter-killer submarines than the Royal Navy presently possesses.

Modern warships have become more advanced, of course, so such comparisons can be misleading. Yet as the House of Commons Defence Committee’s inquiry into UK naval capabilities in late 2021 made clear — it characterised the RN’s surface fleet as “well-defended herbivores”, given a paucity of offensive weapons — that excuse only carries so far.

The stark reality is that, in an era of both hostile major powers and unexpected contingencies — a world in which grave threats can emerge swiftly and suddenly on land, at sea, by air, in cyberspace, in the economic domain, from the natural environment, and more besides — will require a resolve to commit resources. We need a fatter red line.

Ideas and power

Prior to the invasion, the Falklands carried little political resonance in the UK. In the weeks following the invasion, however, a groundswell of support for the Government’s position pointedly included widespread approval for the decision to deploy military force. Having struggled to justify the retention of a single Antarctic patrol vessel a year earlier, Britain swiftly assembled a fleet of 100 ships — from carriers to cruise liners — plus substantial ground and air components.

The Falklands have since received significant investment, including an expanded UK garrison and basing facilities, while the economy has developed and population grown. It would be a bold UK prime minister nowadays who tried to transfer the Islands’ sovereignty to Argentina.

Unlike Galtieri, however, Putin has atomic options if he fears his own fall

Buenos Aires, for its part, gambled that the prize of asserting sovereignty over the islands , a cause with widespread popular support in Argentina, was worth the risk of war against a major power that, while no longer the global force it once was, possessed considerable means to strike back. It may have had a diversionary element domestically, distracting from the junta’s economic failures and repression, and they may have doubted that London would actually respond, but the cause was considered attractive enough to be worth rolling the dice. A sense of historical injustice against some “imagined community” and revanchist desire to correct that perceived past loss, spurious or otherwise, can be a powerful motivator of imprudent, risk-acceptant behaviour.

While the stakes in today’s Russian war on Ukraine are orders of magnitude higher — the attempted erasure of an entire country — with correspondingly monstrous humanitarian atrocities and escalation risks, elements of these same dynamics may just be discerned. The Kremlin’s desire for hegemonic domination of its region, intensified by an aggrieved revanchism, has led it into a high-stakes gamble that could ultimately jeopardise the regime’s survival just as the junta’s miscalculation did in 1982.

Unlike Galtieri, however, Putin has atomic options if he fears his own fall. Yet on the other side, the Ukrainians’ fierce resolve to defend their homeland is an example of a nation-state (and attachment thereto) generating a power to defend its citizens that has thus far confounded the aggressor.

However Russia’s war progresses, it has already damaged the Putin regime’s power and prestige in deep and probably irreversible ways. So, much as 1982 saw a belligerent junta repulsed abroad and then deposed by its own citizens, we must hope that Ukrainians’ brave defence of their country is enough to coerce an aggressor into abandoning its annexationist aims. If that aggressor’s own citizens then pressure their government to pursue less immiserating policies or face deposition, that could offer a sliver of light among the horror.

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