I can’t quite put my finger on why I find it so fascinating. I’m of course talking about the 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina. Unless you’re a history buff or a patriotic brit or “argie” you may not even have heard about this brief war. A brief primer might be in order. In early April 1982, Argentine military forces invaded the Falkland Islands and successfully occupied them. There had been and still is a long standing territorial dispute between the UK and Argentina. Both countries claim ownership of the islands. For almost 200 years the inhabitans have been British. They are culturally British and they consider themselves British as well. In a recent referendum 98% voted in favor of maintaining the current political status of the Falklands as a overseas territory of the United Kingdom. After the invasion, the UK sent a task force to reclaim the islands and they eventually accomplished that goal.
What is it about this conflict in particular that makes it worthwhile to study? There are many ways to approach answering this question. A part of me likes the “hipster” aspect of it. Being one of the few people that care has a certain appeal. It is quite unique in its setting. It involved naval and air combat between two modern armies in a cold, windswept and far away place. The Falkland Islands are dominated by sheep. The native population is only a few thousand strong. Apart from the sheep there is not much else (except for tons of landmines following the war). The official position of Argentina involves the argument from geographical proximity. Argentina is much, much closer to the islands compared to the UK. Britain relies on the long history of their control coupled with references to the people’s right of self-determination. We are smart enough to see past such superficial arguments. Modern states don’t truly care about such things, only what they can gain by paying lip service to popular sentiments and references to principles.
Similar to the dispute over the South China Sea, natural resources play a key role. Oil and deep-sea mineral deposits could potentially be quite valuable. Possession of the islands (including other islands in the general area) confers extensive territorial waters. These claims strengthen similar claims in Antarctica. Both Argentina and the UK make vast claims in that ice-covered place. It can’t be denied that it is reminiscent of colonial times. Wealth for the homeland, prestige and national pride are important factors to consider. The difference with the colonial past in Africa and elsewhere is the natives. They welcome their British “overlords” with open arms. Additionally, they can’t be said to be oppressed. The British influence apart from culturally is quite limited. The military spending on defence of the islands is way out of proportion to the population.
Back to our history lesson. The Argentines consolidated their hold on the islands by flying in thousands of troops and tons of weaponry and supplies. The British sent a vast armada, including two aircraft carriers to retake the islands. It was a popular move domesticaly for Argentina to invade. The Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) being part of Argentina is part of their national mythology. The ruling military junta at the time needed such a unifying victory to distract from their oppressive and economically stifling rule. For the British it was also a popular move to stand up for themselves. Their eventual victory is credited with cementing Margaret Thatcher’s political career. The was lasted just a few months but it involved heavy fighting. Many ships, planes and soldiers were lost. The fighting was notable for its involvement of Exocet anti-ship missile strikes, Harrier jump-jets and “yomping” (trekking over the arctic terrain).
The lessons to be learned are many. First of all, the conflict is directly similar to the current rumblings in Asia between China and its neighbours as explained above. The war also features heavy political involvement, including selection of targets and restrictions on Rules-of-Engagement. We have seen the consequences of similar conduct by politicians in the Iraq and Afghan wars recently. You can’t always rely on your technical superiority. The performance on paper compared to the actual track record of missile systems is stunning. British Sea Wolf and Sea Dart missile systems often partially or completely failed. The first things that enters my mind is the current conflict on the Korean peninsula. Much attention has been paid to the US THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system and other defensive systems such as PATRIOT and AEGIS equipped warships in the nearby ocean. The strategic calculations change dramatically if the reliability of such systems is put into question. Trump’s course of action in regards to nuclear armed Kin Jong-Un is much less clear when the technical dimension is as uncertain as it seems to be.
Anti-missile systems lack a good track record. Israel’s Iron Dome has been successful, but it applies only to relatively short range attackers. A failure to intercept would be bad, but noe even in the same ballpark as a North Korean nuclear tipped missile. In the Gulf War the Patriot missile system often intercepted parts of broken up Scud missiles, seemingly being successful in intercepting them. The defensive efficacy has been disputed since. The British venture into the South Atlantic was seen as shaky at best. The whole operation had several critical fault lines, any of which would have means near certain failure. The aircraft carriers and the troopship Canberra were critical to success. A sinking of anyone of them would have been a mortal blow to the entire endeavour. The supply line was ridiculously long, any needed reinforcements would have been many weeks sailing away. Air losses of Harriers comparable to early predictions would have meant the loss of air superiority and a much needed boost to Argentine air efforts. The air attacks on British ships were famously the most successful part of Argentine resistance.
In understanding the present, knowing the past remains not only relevant, but key.