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naval forces

Hard lessons from a small war

By norman friedman



Crown copyright. IWM

30 Years

A head-on view from HMS Broadsword of two

Argentinean A-4B Skyhawks (piloted by Capitn Pablo
Carballo and Teniente Carlos Rinke of V Air Brigade)
as they fly through a hail of anti-aircraft fire to attack
the ship north of Pebble Island on the afternoon of May
25, 1982. During this attack (which also resulted in the
sinking of HMS Coventry), a bomb passed through the
starboard stern of HMS Broadsword. It exited via the
flight deck without exploding, destroying the ships Lynx
helicopter en route. Many Argentinian bombs failed to
explode because the pilots flew so low that there was
insufficient time for the bombs fuzes to arm.



naval forces


is now 30
years since the
seized the
one of the last
British colonies,
and the
British seized
them back.
The war between the two included the
hottest naval action of the Cold War. It
was also, perhaps surprisingly, rather
instructive about how things might have
turned out had the Cold War turned
hot. For the United States, there were
lessons on three distinct levels.
One level was that of grand alliance
strategy. Before the war broke out,
A mericans tended to assume that
they led an alliance of completely
like-minded governments against the
Soviets; all other governments were
neutral, leaning one way or another.
One implication was that any war
that might arise out of the Cold War
would pit Western weapons against



Soviet-supplied ones. That certainly

seemed to be the case in the Middle
East, where most of the Cold War-era
wars were fought: Israel, the U.S.
client and ally, was pitted against Arab
governments allied to the Soviets. It
was very much not the case in the
Falklands, where both sides were U.S.
allies using Western weapons. In fact,
the Argentineans were the sole export
buyers of the main British naval area
defense missile, Sea Dart (the Chinese
reportedly backed out of a planned
purchase because they were dissatisfied with the systems performance
during the Falklands War). A postwar
U.S. Navy study concluded that in the
future the United States might well
find itself facing Western rather than
Soviet systems.
A second level was political. In 1982,
many in the Soviet leadership believed
that the West had lost so much of its
morale that its end was inevitable, and
perhaps even near. The Soviets themselves were in trouble, but they thought
they could survive. The Argentineans
clearly thought much the same thing
about the British. Initially many in
Britain seem to have assumed that
Argentinean seizure of the islands was
just another unavoidable step in the slow
decline of the British Empire.
British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher d id nt ag ree. L i ke U.S.
President Ronald Reagan, she did not
think the West was dying, let alone dead.
She personally demanded that the Royal
Navy form a task force to retake the
Falklands. Even after the task force
sailed, many on board were so skeptical
of British resolve that they doubted they
would be allowed to get to the Falklands.
In effect, Thatcher saw the Falklands
War as the great test: Were the British
locked into decline, or did they have a
future? The popular British response
to the war suggests that many in that
country agreed with Thatcher, and saw
the war in much the same terms.
The Soviet leadership was shocked.
The West was still a serious threat.
The Soviets found themselves taking
Western initiatives, such as Reagans
Star Wars, very seriously indeed.

Thatchers was not, of course, the only

demonstration of Western resolve; at
about the same time, the Russians
found it impossible to intimidate NATO
governments that had decided to accept
the deployment of U.S. Pershing and
Tomahawk missiles on their soil. They,
in turn, were probably much encouraged by Thatchers example.
The impact on the Soviets cannot
be underestimated. In 1982-83, the
Soviets were increasingly aware that
they had been caught up in a new revolution in military technology based on
micro-computers. In the Falklands,
the British f leet deployed far more
computing power, for example, than the
Soviets had in all their fleets. The Soviet
problem was that their economy had
been contracting for years. It did not
have the stretch it needed to compete
on these new terms with the West,
particularly while continuing to pour
out existing types of weapons. Within
a few years, a new Soviet leader would
be chosen specifically because he promised to clean up computer production:
Mikhail Gorbachev. His attempt to solve
the Soviet economic problem destroyed
the Soviet Union.
The third level, the one usually
emphasized, was tactical. The Falklands
War was fascinating because it was a
miniature version of the war U.S. naval
strategists thought they might have to
fight. With their missile-armed strike
aircraft and their submarines, the
Argentineans were a sort of smallscale version of the threat the Soviets
posed against U.S. naval strike forces
in the Norwegian Sea. The British
task force was a small-scale version
of a U.S. striking force trying to go
north, to execute the evolving U.S.
maritime strategy. The Argentineans
had to do much what the Soviets had
to do: They had to detect, track, and
attack the approaching British task
force. Ultimately the British had to land
troops in the face of Argentinean air
and ground forces.
There were many surprises. For the
British, the central surprise was that
their key military planning assumption,
that they could concentrate completely

dod photo

A British Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS1. The Sea Harrier, the Royal Navys attempt to give a subsonic attack aircraft air-to-air capability, was a great success
in the Falklands War. With supremely professional pilots employing superior tactics, their Blue Fox radars and the AIM-9L Sidewinder, the SHARs shot
down more than 20 aircraft and lost none in air-to-air engagements. Its success was probably a factor in the Royal Navys decision to procure the F-35B.

on the Central Front in NATO, was altogether wrong. Britain could not escape
global responsibilities. That was not
simply the legacy of empire; a few years
after the Falklands, the Royal Navy
found itself mounting an armed tanker
protection patrol in the Gulf. That patrol
was mounted not because some British
colony or dependency was in trouble, but
because as part of the Western alliance
Britain had a vital national interest
in maintaining the oil shipping route
through the Gulf (somewhat later the
U.S. Navy was also deployed there).
On the eve of the Falklands War, the
British went through the latest of an
apparently endless series of defense
rev iews intended to keep defense

affordable. Defense Minister John Nott

considered surface warships useless in
a NATO war, on the theory that a war
in Europe would be over long before
seaborne reinforcements arrived. He
also rejected the Royal Navys argument
that its surface force would perform an
essential deterrent function during any
run-up to war. Nott therefore planned,
among other steps, to sell off the new
carrier HMS Invincible and to cancel
her two sister ships. He also planned to
sell the amphibious fleet. To Nott, the
only acceptable future lay with nuclear
attack submarines. On the eve of war,
Invincible was sold to Australia. This
would leave the Royal Navy with only
the light carrier HMS Hermes.

When war broke out, the sale was

canceled. Invincible herself had been
conceived as a limited carrier with
anti-submarine and strike functions,
the theory being that in a NATO war
naval forces could be protected by
land-based aircraft. Although that did
not work during exercises, the fiction
was maintained, probably because
to admit that carrier air defense was
needed would have entailed ruinous
expense. The fiction clearly could not
apply to a fleet sent thousands of miles
from the British Isles. Fortunately the
strike airplane on the carriers, the
Sea Harrier, had some air-to-air capability. Unfortunately, the fiction had
precluded any attempt to develop an


airborne early warning (AEW) capability for the carrier a capability to

detect and track air targets below the
radar horizon of the fleet. It turned out
that even without the airborne radar
support, the Sea Harriers were the
most useful element of Royal Navy air
defense during the war.
Before the task force got to the
Falklands, an Argentinean Boeing 707
airliner, taken up from civilian use,
found it. The task force proved unable
to shoot it down, and the next day the
task force was attacked (without being
hit). The incident was interesting in that
the Argentineans were able to send
out the 707 to intercept the task force
without conducting much of a search:
They knew roughly where the task force
was. It turned out that an Argentinean
university had discovered that ships
using satellite communications could be
tracked passively (the same technique
was rediscovered several times).
Until 1982, it was widely believed that
satellites had solved a key problem: how
to communicate freely at long range
without being tracked. The idea was
that the narrow up-beam from the ship
could not easily be detected. The only
alternative means of long-haul radio
communication, high-frequency (HF),
could certainly be tracked. Indeed, for
years the U.S. Navy had cut back its longhaul HF communication specifically to
frustrate Soviet tracking. Now it became
clear that shifting to satellites was not
enough; the down-link of a satellite system
carried too much information (in the form
of Doppler) about the ship sending the
up-link. It took about a decade to solve
the problem using new satellites (during
the 1991 Gulf War the Soviets apparently
used the Argentinean technique to keep
track of the buildup in the Gulf, but that
may have been exploitation of merchant
ship satellite communications).
The irony of satellite tracking was that
the Royal Navy, far more than others
in NATO, emphasized radio silence.
During both world wars the Royal Navy
benefited handsomely from interception of enemy radio signals. Although
it adopted digital data links like those
of its sister navies (particularly the U.S.



The sinking of HMS Antelope in San

Carlos Water. Two bombs had been
dropped on Antelope by an Argentinean
aircraft flying at extremely low level
during the day on May 23, 1982. The
bombs, which did not explode, lodged
in the engine room of the ship. One
detonated while it was being defused on
the night of May 23-24. This photo shows
the ships magazine exploding, which
broke the back of the ship and sank her.

Navy), the Royal Navy preferred not to

use them, and it appears that its officers
were unfamiliar with their benefits.
The British view of radio silence was
demonstrated when, en route south,
the captain of the carrier Hermes
ordered her tactical air navigation
(TACAN) beacon cut down from her
mast. Normally TACAN ensured that
a carriers aircraft could find her. In
U.S. practice it also gave pilots their
positions relative to the carrier, and
thus made it possible for the carrier
to give them air interception data.
Without TACAN, pilots may be blind
in bad weather. Hermes lost two of her
Sea Harriers in bad weather en route
to the Falklands, and it seems that the
absence of the TACAN beacon was to
blame. Since she was carrying only 10

Crown copyright. IWM

naval forces

A low-flying airplane
can be destroyed
by the blast of its
own bomb. The
therefore fuzed their
bombs with relatively
long delays. In
several cases, bombs
passed all the
way through ships
before exploding.
In others, fuzes
failed, and bombs
lodged in ships.

of these rather important aircraft, the

loss was significant.
The loss of HMS Sheffield seems
traceable to lack of familiarity with
data links. The data link provides all
ships in a force with a joint tactical
picture. Whether or not the ships own
radar sees an incoming target, the
link will show it if any other ship in
the force detects it. A few years after
the Falklands War, USS Stark (FFG
31) demonstrated what that could
mean. Radar conditions in the Gulf
were notoriously bad, and Starks own
radar range was very limited. However,
a Saudi AWACS airplane detected an
Iraqi fighter approaching the U.S. ship.
Stark received that data via a standard
link. It happened that the information
did her no great good, but she was

certainly aware that an airplane was

coming before she was hit.
Sheffield was not nearly so lucky. On
the day she was hit, she was escorting
the carrier Hermes. Given Royal Navy
sensitivity about electronic emissions,
Sheff ield rather than Hermes was
assigned responsibility for satellite
communication back to London. Like
all contemporary satellite up-links,
Sheffields functioned in the radar
frequency band. To avoid false alarms,
she turned off her electronic intercept
gear while using her satellite link.
She also turned off her air search
radars, which could interfere with
the satellite up-link.
The ships tactical officer considered
it pointless to remain at his command
post without these sensors; his ship was

effectively blind. He took a coffee break,

unaware that a flight of Exocet-armed
Argentinean navy Super Etendards was
coming. In fact, other ships in the task
force detected and tracked the radars of
both the attacking Super Etendards and of
the Neptune maritime patrol airplane that
cued the Super Etendards. This information went onto the fleets data link net.
Sheffield should have been receiving this
information but the Royal Navy did not
habitually use data links the way the U.S.
Navy did (and does). The Super Es
fired their two Exocets, one of which hit
Sheffield. It did not explode, but it started
a fire that soon spread to the ships fuel
oil. The resulting smoke drove the crew
off the ship. The fire did not stop the
ships engines, and she ran out of the
battle area, only to sink the next day in




U.S. Navy photo

Photo by Griffiths911

a storm, her stability gone because so

much of her fuel had been burned out.
The incident made the Royal Navy far
more data link conscious, and it began
to use data links much more freely. After
the war, it adopted data link practices
more like those of the U.S. Navy, and it
also adopted a much more capable link.
For its part, the U.S. Navy seems to
have assumed that anyone attacking a
ship armed with effective anti-aircraft
missiles would adopt practices much
like those of the Argentineans. Instead of
simply searching for the target, and giving
away the intent to attack in the process,
the attacker would fly below the radar,
cued by a standoff radar airplane. When
his ship worked up off Subic Bay en route
to the Gulf six years later, Capt. Rogers
of USS Vincennes (CG 49) was briefed on
exactly such practices. When he reached
the Gulf and saw an Iranian P-3 flying
an apparently aimless pattern, Rogers
quite naturally assumed it was targeting
him for an unseen attacker. That perception in turn helped precipitate the action
that destroyed an Iranian Airbus. Not all
lessons of a war turn out to be correct.
Most of the Argentinean air attacks
were conducted over Falkland Sound,
once the British were landing troops.
Argentinean observers ashore could
cue the attack aircraft, and there was
little or no question of where the British
destroyers and frigates were. For their
part, the British knew that Argentinean
aircraft would operate over Falkland
Sound. They placed their valuable carriers
as far east as possible, the distance being
set by the endurance of the Sea Harrier
aircraft. Once the British had troops
ashore, the air defense batteries of the
deployed ships were reinforced by landbased mobile missiles (Rapiers).
This should not have been a completely
novel situation to the Royal Navy. In
1982, one of its key wartime missions
was to support Norwegian forces fighting
off a Soviet attack. For example, the Sea
Harrier was nuclear-capable specifically so that it could destroy massed
Soviet army units. Fighting in or near
a Norwegian fjord, the British ships
offshore would surely have been within
range of anti-aircraft missile batteries

naval forces

A live Sea Dart missile on the

British destroyer HMS Cardiff,
months after the end of the
Falklands War. The telemetry
receiving antenna can clearly
be seen sitting on the top of the
4.5-inch gun. The gun would be
trained to follow the acquiring
Type 909 radar and therefore
always be aligned to follow the
missile and thus pick up the
telemetry data. The Sea Dart
proved less than ideal as a
weapon against low-level highspeed targets merging with
ground clutter.

ashore, and they and the batteries would

surely have faced massed Soviet air
attacks. Moreover, any Sea Harriers
would surely have had to help the ships
and the troops in that case. Experience
in the Falklands suggests that this
kind of operation had not been thought
through. It was certainly one of intense
interest to the U.S. Navy and to the U.S.
Marine Corps at the time.
British ships had three main types of
air defense missile. The area defense
weapon was Sea Dart, broadly equivalent
to the U.S. Standard Missile (in SM-1
form): a medium-range semi-active
radar guided weapon. A few British ships
had Sea Wolf, a highly automated point
defense missile. Older ships had Sea
Cat, a much earlier command-guided
point defense missile. The closest U.S.
equivalent to Sea Wolf was Sea Sparrow.
The Argentines had experience with
both Sea Dart, which they had bought
on board two missile destroyers, and
Sea Cat, but not with Sea Wolf.
Sea Dart had been conceived with
the open-sea NATO mission in mind.
Although in theory it could handle
targets at altitudes down to about 50 feet
(because it was semi-actively guided), it
could not handle saturation attacks, as
it had to dedicate one guidance channel
to each target all the way from detection
to destruction. The Type 42 destroyers
armed with it had two Type 909 guidance radars which also controlled
the ships single 4.5-inch guns. The
British solution to the limitations of
Sea Dart was to team Sea Dart ships,
wherever possible, with Sea Wolf ships.
Not only was Sea Wolf automated, but
it was considered capable of shooting
down Exocet missiles (a capability
demonstrated postwar). As for Sea Cat,
it had been developed to replace 40 mm
guns, and it was neither automated
nor supersonic. Although there were
initial claims that it shot down several
Argentinean aircraft during the war,
only one Skyhawk kill was confirmed.
It turned out to be significant that the
British air search and target indication
radars lacked any moving target indication (MTI) capacity. The Argentineans
undoubtedly knew as much, since they had

bought two Type 42 destroyers (equipped

with the same radars used by the Royal
Navy) from the British. They therefore
knew that attacking aircraft were in effect
invisible to a Sea Dart destroyer until they
left the land surrounding Falkland Sound.
Argentinean knowledge of Sea Dart
seems to have had an interesting consequence. The Argentineans knew that
they could avoid Sea Dart by flying
low, but that carried its own danger.
A low-flying airplane can be destroyed
by the blast of its own bomb. The
Argentineans therefore fuzed their
bombs with relatively long delays. In
several cases, bombs passed all the
way through ships before exploding.
In others, fuzes failed, and bombs
lodged in ships. One ship survived (HMS
Antelope) only to be destroyed when an
attempt to neutralize a bomb failed.
In theory, air defense over Falkland
Sound had four separate major components: Sea Harrier fighters overhead,
Rapiers ashore, and Sea Dart and Sea
Wolf missiles. In fact, these elements
were never well enough coordinated.
For example, there was never any link
between the missiles ashore and the
fleet. The Sea Harriers were generally
controlled from the carriers, and they
had no direct link to the missile batteries
ashore. This arrangement made good
sense in the North Sea or in the North
Atlantic, when the carrier would be
supported directly by Sea Dart ships
and the Sea Harriers would spend most
of their time at a distance, but that was
nothing like the situation in the Falklands.
The British solved the problem by roughand-ready rules of engagement, which
amounted to banning any missile engagements while the Sea Harriers were within
range. That made sense in that the Sea
Harriers were far more effective than
missiles against the Argentinean aircraft.
The Sea Harriers had to operate in
areas the missiles could or did cover.
That could have unfortunate consequences. One day the Sea Dart destroyer
HMS Coventry was in Falkland Sound,
accompanied by HMS Broadsword, a Sea
Wolf-armed ship. Three Argentinean
aircraft popped up over the nearby coast,
the idea being to saturate Coventrys air


defense capacity. It appears that the

arcs of Broadswords missile launcher
were sometimes blocked by Coventry,
and sometimes by the presence of
Sea Harriers which had little ability
to communicate with the ship. The
Argentinean aircraft got through; two
large bombs penetrated the ship. Once
they exploded, she could not survive.
Sea Harrier endurance was limited.
There was no possibility of maintaining
a continuous combat air patrol over
Falkland Sound. Instead, the British
relied on attack submarines off the
Argentinean coast, which could detect
the Argentinean strikes as they appeared
over the sea, and could pass sufficiently
early warning back to the fleet.
On the other hand, the Argentineans
were well aware of the limits of Sea
Harrier performance. They knew that



the two irreplaceable British carriers

were as far to the east as they could get
and the limits of Sea Harrier endurance made it fairly clear where that
was. The sole effective Argentinean
submarine had no difficulty finding
the ships. In NATO exercises, diesel
su bma r i nes fou nd ca r r ier s on ly
when they were constrained to stay
in roughly one place, an artif icial
restriction used to ensure that diesel
submarine commanders would have
the opportunity to make attacks. In
the Falklands, the two British carriers
were in exactly that situation, and the
Argentinean Type 209 submarine San
Luis attacked HMS Hermes.
The attack should have succeeded.
British sonar range was limited, and it
turned out that the protected area around
the carrier was far too small. Hermes was

saved by a fluke: part of the torpedo fire

control system on board the Argentinean
submarine had been misinstalled. On the
other hand, it can be argued that, had
the Argentinean commander fired from
a shorter (more dangerous) range, he
would have succeeded despite the fire
control problem.
Perhaps the most interesting antisubmarine warfare (ASW) lesson was an
old one: Any time it seems that a submarine is present, there will be many false
alarms. Once the British knew that an
Argentinean submarine was at sea, they
clearly became nervous. Before the war,
there were many attempts to estimate
wartime weapon expenditure rates.
As torpedoes became more expensive,
estimates trended lower and lower, to
justify shorter production runs and
smaller capacities per ship.

MoD Crown Copyright

HMS Invincible returns to massive celebrations following the Falklands Conflict in 1982. Lined up on deck are Sea King helicopters from 820 Naval Air
Squadron and Sea Harrier FRS1 aircraft from 800 Naval Air Squadron.

naval forces

The outstanding ASW lesson of the war

was that such estimates were fantasies.
Faced with diesel-electric submarines,
the British relied entirely on active sonar,
because a diesel-electric submarine
on batteries has little or no distinctive
acoustic signature. One consequence was
that they could not distinguish whales
from submarines. Not only will a whale
run at roughly submarine speed, but it
will turn to evade a loud noise in much
the way a submarine might try to evade.
The Argentinean submarine did not
have things entirely its own way; it was
cornered and bottomed. The British (and
others in NATO, including the United
States) had no weapon that could detect
and attack a submarine sitting on the
bottom. The alliance depended almost
entirely on homing torpedoes, which
distinguish their targets by the Doppler
due to their motion over the sea bottom.
It is not at all clear that this problem
has been solved; the best that NATO
seemed to do in the years after the
Falklands was to develop a very cheap,
lightweight weapon. The idea was that if
the weapon were dropped on a bottomed
submarine, the submarines commander
would probably try to run, creating the
conditions needed by a homing torpedo.
The war also demonstrated the psychological impact of torpedo attack on the
Argentineans. The British proclaimed
a maritime exclusion zone around the
Falklands as their task force approached.
The nuclear attack submarine HMS
Conqueror enforced the zone by sinking
the Argentinean cruiser Belgrano as it
steamed through the zone. This attack,
coming at the beginning of the war,
showed how serious the British were.
The Argentineans never mounted a
surface operation in the exclusion zone.
The larger lesson was that an offensive
posture is well worthwhile, and that, in
turn, may have encouraged the U.S. view
that submarine operations in the Soviet
bastion areas would tie down large Soviet
naval forces that might otherwise have
interfered with NATO reinforcement
in the Atlantic. The U.S. idea had been
formulated long before the war.
Overall, the U.S. Navy was struck
most forcibly by the suddenness of air

Faced with
the British
relied entirely
on active sonar,
because a
on batteries
has little or
no distinctive
signature. One
was that they
could not
whales from

attack. Like the British, it had concentrated on the open-ocean situation, in

which ships would have considerable
warning of approaching air attack.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy
had sought a more automated type of
defense, but by 1982, the only legacy
was the Phalanx anti-missile gun. The
immediate reaction to the experience
of the Falklands was to accelerate the

Phalanx program and to provide ships

with much larger loads of decoys. Work
on other close-in defensive weapons,
such as RAM, was also accelerated.
In other ways, the U.S. Navy had
already dealt with air-attack problems
the war uncovered. It already had radars
capable of detecting targets flying overland, and it already emphasized the use
of data links it was, in fact, working
hard to overcome the limitations of
the existing links. The larger question
raised by the war was whether surface
fleets were still worthwhile in the face
of missiles like the Exocet that sank
HMS Sheffield. It did not help that the
British destroyer, which was smaller
and in many ways less capable than U.S.
frigates, had been advertised before the
war (by the British) as the epitome of
modern naval power. The main accepted
lesson seems to have been that several
British ships were devastated because
their aluminum superstructures burned
or melted. The upshot was that the
new U.S. Arleigh Burke class, designed
after the war, had steel superstructures.
Many unfortunately associated that one
feature with survivability. The Burkes
are indeed highly survivable ships, as
the experience of USS Cole later showed,
but that was due to a lot more than steel
superstructure construction which in
itself would hardly have been enough.
If the war actually pitted a miniature
U.S. strike fleet against a miniature
Soviet force, the success of the British
showed that the full-scale strike fleet
had an excellent chance of carrying out
its mission, a far better chance than
critics of the evolving U.S. Maritime
Strategy imagined. That mattered. The
Maritime Strategy greatly raised the
price the Soviets would have had to pay
to prepare for a war, at a time when
they were badly stretched. The need for
a stretch, not just for naval but for other
military purposes, forced the Soviets to
take measures to change their economy
and their political system. It turned
out that the system did not have much
stretch in it, either and the edifice
collapsed. The Falklands War mattered
because in important ways it was the
beginning of the end of the Cold War. n