Thirty years ago on Sunday, Argentinian Forces attacked British controlled Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Argentina, under a military junta and which have staked the claim on the islands they call ‘Malvinas’ calculated that the British would not able to do anything beyond an international diplomatic protest.
Argentinian Forces landed on the islands and the British Royal Marines managed to stage a nominal defense before the British Governor Rex Hunt surrendered within hours after the initial attack.
Britain under feisty Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly sought a military solution to reclaim the islands back, even though United Kingdom is 8,000 miles away and United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 502 for the Argentinian invasion. However, military option was not an easy task to undertake. In fact, it was an ambitious undertaking. British Armed Forces were not it used to be, especially the Royal Navy. To mount an expeditionary force to reclaim the islands was a herculean task.
Britain deployed 15,000 fighting men to reclaim their colony, 8,000 miles away.
The government had no contingency plan for an invasion of the islands, and the task force was rapidly put together from whatever vessels were available. The nuclear submarine Conqueror set sail from France on the 4 April, whilst the two aircraft carriers Invincible and Hermes, in the company of escort vessels, left Portsmouth only a day later.Upon its return to Southampton from a world cruise on 7 April, the ocean liner SS Canberra was requisitioned and set sail two days later with 3 Commando Brigade aboard.[The ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was also requisitioned and left Southampton on 12 May with 5th Infantry Brigade on board. The whole task force eventually comprised 127 ships; 43 Royal Navy vessels, 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships and 62 merchant ships.
The retaking of the Falkland Islands was considered extremely difficult: the main constraint being the disparity in deployable air cover. The British had total of 28 Sea Harriers and 14 Harrier GR.3s available for air combat operations, against approximately 122 serviceable jet fighters, of which about 50 were employed as air superiority fighters and the remainder as strike aircraft, in Argentina's air forces during the war. The U.S. Navy considered a successful counter-invasion by the British to be 'a military impossibility'.
By mid-April, the Royal Air Force had set up the airbase of RAF Ascension Island co-located with Wideawake Airfield (USA) on the mid-Atlantic British overseas territory of Ascension Island, including a sizeable force of Avro Vulcan B Mk 2 bombers, Handley Page Victor K Mk 2 refuelling aircraft, and McDonnell Douglas Phantom FGR Mk 2 fighters to protect them. Meanwhile the main British naval task force arrived at Ascension to prepare for active service. A small force had already been sent south to recapture South Georgia.
On 1 May British operations on the Falklands opened with the "Black Buck 1" attack (of a series of five) on the airfield at Stanley. A Vulcan bomber from Ascension flew on an 8,000-nautical-mile (15,000 km) round trip dropping conventional bombs across the runway at Stanley and back to Ascension. The mission required repeated refueling, and required several Victor tanker aircraft operating in concert, including tanker to tanker refuelling. The overall effect of the raids on the war is difficult to determine, and the raids consumed precious tanker resources from Ascension, but also prevented Argentina from stationing fast jets on the islands.
Highlight of the British Naval Task Force was the attack and sinking on light carrier ARA General Belgrano, outside the 200 nautical miles Total Exclusion Zone. The nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Belgrano on 2 May. Three hundred and twenty-three members of Belgrano's crew died in the incident. Over 700 men were rescued from the open ocean despite cold seas and stormy weather. The losses from Belgrano totalled nearly half of the Argentine deaths in the Falklands conflict and the loss of the ARA General Belgrano hardened the stance of the Argentine government.
On 4 May, two days after the sinking of Belgrano, the British lost the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield to fire following an Exocet missile strike from the Argentine 2nd Naval Air Fighter/Attack Squadron. Sheffieldhad been ordered forward with two other Type 42s to provide a long-range radar and medium-high altitude missile picket far from the British carriers. She was struck amidships, with devastating effect, ultimately killing 20 crew members and severely injuring 24 others. The ship was abandoned several hours later, gutted and deformed by the fires that continued to burn for six more days. She finally sank outside the Maritime Exclusion Zone on 10 May.
By 21 May, the bulk of the British infantry forces comprises of the army and Royal Marines were landed in San Carlos. On 28 May, 2nd Para Regt took Goose Green. On 14 June, after intense 3 weeks ground fightings, Argentinian Forces under Brig. Gen. Mario Menendez surrendered the garrison. In the final tally, in a war which lasted 10 weeks and an expeditionary force which travelled over 7,000 nautical miles saw 258 British and 649 Argentinian lives lost.
Lessons learnt from the Falklands War conflict is landmark in modern day geo-political history. Argentinian military junta under Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri was facing a regressing economy and needed to get Argentinians to rally behind his government. They resorted to forcefully take Malvinas away from the British's almost 150 years control. It was a boost Gen Galtieri needed and they calculated that the British would not resort to a military solution.
The reaction was very swift. The resolve of a strong leadership under Prime Minister Thatcher proven that they could mount a military operation even though they had a lot of odds against them. She managed to rally the British public under a nail-biting ten weeks scrapping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel intercontinental military expeditionary force. It was a spirit Britain had not seen since World War II.
The pride of Britain to recapture their colony even though Falklands were not contributing to the economy demonstrated that Prime Minister Thatcher needed to redeem their international standing as one time a major political and military superpower. It was more political psychology.
What was more important that Britain still had the military might to mount such a military expedition. The Royal Navy still had enough destroyers, frigates and troop carriers, on top of minimal mini carriers which were initially designed to do anti submarine operation, rather than a full naval air operations.
Never the less, despite after thirty years, Argentina never relinquished their claims on the Falklands.
Falkland Islands: How strong is Argentina's position?
By John SimpsonBBC World affairs editor, Buenos AiresPresident Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner believes the islands belong to Argentina
Thirty years after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, everyone here seems agreed on one thing: it will not happen again.
Military spending has been cut back savagely. Argentina's air force is still only equipped with the planes it had in 1982.
There is basically only enough money in the defence budget nowadays to pay the wages of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians the armed forces ministry employs, and to finance their greatly-restricted local operations.
"Argentina has unilaterally disarmed itself since the 1990s," said Carlos Escude, a foreign affairs adviser to the previous government.
"Our munitions would only last for a 25-hour shooting war against Paraguay. After that, Paraguay would invade us."
But President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is using different weapons against Britain's ownership of the Falkland Islands: diplomatic ones.
Her supporters here believe that her approach is paying off handsomely.
"This is the first time that all of Latin America is with Argentina in this claim [to the islands], even Brazil, even Chile,” said Gabriela Cerruti, a Buenos Aires politician allied to President Fernandez’s government.Gabriela Cerruti said Argentina’s claim to the islands is supported by other Latin American nations
“That makes a change in the situation, and makes the Argentine position much stronger.”
And she believes it could go wider than that: “We’re supporting Spain in its claim to Gibraltar, and we hope Spain will support us.”
It is true that Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and other Latin American countries have openly supported Argentina’s claim to the islands.
There is an instinctive disapproval in the continent of the remnants of colonialism, and a feeling that a European power has no real business operating from territory in the South Atlantic.
Argentina interprets this support as a growing sign that Britain is feeling the heat. The British government disagrees.
Foreign Secretary William Hague told me in London: “People in Argentina would be very much mistaken if they thought Britain was retreating from the scene, or is not interested in the region, or is weakening in any way in our commitment to the people of the Falkland Islands.”
No ‘ordinary’ presidentArgentina’s hope is that Britain will become so embarrassed by the disapproval of other countries that it will eventually agree to negotiate with Argentina over the sovereignty of the islands.
If Cristina Fernandez was an ordinary president, that might be a possibility. But she is not.
Under her rule, Argentina is starting to worry many of the countries whose support she most needs.Continue reading the main story
Her government seems to be slipping away from its traditional pro-Western position, and growing closer to Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and even Iran.
Countries in the region as different as Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru find this increasingly worrying.
Brazil has also been annoyed by President Fernandez’s proposals for a non-nuclear South Atlantic, as part of its campaign against the British presence in the Falklands.
The problem is, Brazil is building seven nuclear-powered submarines of its own.
There are plenty of other irritants.
Last year, when Argentina’s trade surplus dropped by 11%, the government introduced a complicated system of import restrictions.
On Friday, 40 countries – including the US, the European Union nations and Japan – attacked Argentina angrily at the World Trade Organisation.
Like Bolivia and Venezuela, Argentina has now cut its links with US policy on drug control, forcing the American Drug Enforcement Administration to leave the country.
‘Domestic problems’Supporters of President Fernandez’s policy, like Mr Escude, defend these things by saying that former great powers like the US and Britain no longer matter as much as they once did, and that countries like Brazil are taking over.
Yet Brazil is anxious to keep its good relationships with the US and Britain, and does not want to have to side with Argentina against them – over the Falkland Islands or anything else.Argentina contests the UK’s claim over the islands with tensions escalating during the past year
Leading Argentine constitutional lawyer Daniel Sabsay is one of several thousand signatories to an open letter which calls for Argentina to consider the rights and opinions of the Falkland Islanders.
He believes the government’s sudden interest in the Falklands is a deliberate distraction from Argentina’s increasing problems at home.
“This conflict is a mask, something that is useful to hide other problems we have.”
Argentina’s problems are certainly worsening. After 10 years of growth, the official inflation rate is 7%, but private economists currently put it at 22%.
Wage demands are mounting, and low and middle-income families are starting to struggle.
Five years ago, in 2007, when President Fernandez’s late husband Nestor Kirchner was president, Argentina broke off discussions with Britain about the development of the Falkland Islands’ resources, on grounds no progress was being made on the question of sovereignty.
Isolated nationBut there was little sign of any other interest in the islands. It was only in June last year, in an interview with the editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, that the defence minister, Arturo Puricelli, launched the government’s attack on the issue.
It is very difficult to trust a country which is so mercurial, changing every day”
The Herald, edited by Carolina Barros, is a small newspaper with a famous history.
During the so-called Dirty War, carried out by the country’s military in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was the only newspaper which had the courage to raise the issue of the people who were disappearing – 20,000 or more of them.
Ms Barros maintains that the Fernandez government is nowadays trying to control the media – only parts of which are anyway independent of government influence.
Not long ago, she says, every newspaper received a letter from the official statistics agency, which the opposition maintains is heavily influenced by the government, warning that they should not quote figures from independent economists – for instance the inflation estimate of 22%.
“We are becoming like Venezuela, where you aren’t allowed to print the genuine exchange rate for the dollar,” Ms Barros said.
President Fernandez runs a strange kind of government. She never gives interviews or press conferences; instead, she regularly broadcasts her views direct to the country on television.
Her critics believe she is becoming more and more isolated. The similarities with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, they say, are growing.
“The trouble is, she is isolating Argentina too,” says Ms Barros.
“We will soon be almost on our own in the world.”
Mr Sabsay agrees: “It is very difficult to trust a country which is so mercurial, changing every day.”
Defence Secretary rejects claims Britain is unable to defend Falklands
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond today rejected claims Britain would be unable to defend the Falklands against a fresh Argentinian assault as both countries mark the 30-year anniversary of the conflict in the South Atlantic.
Speaking as Britain’s new Joint Forces Command comes into effect, Mr Hammond said Britain would “robustly” defend the islands against any attack and insisted “we have the assets, the people, the equipment in place to do so”.
Admiral Sir John Woodward, who led the taskforce to recover the islands in 1982, earlier told The Times while Britain is without an aircraft carrier it would not be able to repeat the successful mission of 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez will use the landmark date to make a major speech and lead hundreds of rallies across Argentina as she renews calls for Britain to cede sovereignty over the islands.
Mr Hammond said: “We are very clear that our position in relation to the Falklands is that we will be robust in defence of the Falkland Islands, but we do not intend to repeat the mistake of 1982 and allow the Falklands to be taken from us.
“We will defend them robustly, we have the assets, the people, the equipment in place to do so.
“Despite the rhetoric of the media, there is no evidence at all of any military intention by Argentina nor any military capability by Argentina to attempt to retake the Falkland Islands.”
He continued: “I have said very clearly, we are not going to lose the Falklands.
“We have the assets in position on the Falklands which we didn’t back in the early 1980s that will enable us to see off any acts of aggression.
“I emphasise again, there is not the slightest intelligence to suggest that there is any credible military threat to the Falklands.”
HMS Dauntless is due to sail from Portsmouth to the Falklands tomorrow – a day before the 30th anniversary of the British task force sailing to war in the South Atlantic.
The destroyer, the second of the Royal Navy’s new Type 45 air defence destroyers, is said by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to be a routine mission to take over the patrols of Plymouth-based frigate HMS Montrose.
The Argentine government has threatened legal action against British and American banks involved in advising UK companies exploring for oil in the Falklands.
But Downing Street said today the move was not in Argentina’s “own interests”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We don’t think it is in their interests or our interests.
“We are a big investor in that country. We think they are acting against their interests if people are attacking shops and branches of banks in Argentina.”
Amid the commemorations, the naval officer responsible for co-ordinating the torpedo attack which sank the General Belgrano, creating a turning point in the Falklands War, said today that he had no regrets.
Vice admiral Sir Tim McClement was second-in-command of the submarine HMS Conqueror which fired the torpedoes at the Argentinian warship, causing the loss of 323 lives.
At the time, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was heavily criticised for the move as the ship was outside an exclusion zone and was heading away from the Falklands.
Speaking to the Portsmouth News, Sir Tim said: “There is no doubt in my mind that sinking the Belgrano was absolutely the right thing to do – firstly for survival in case the pincer movement worked against our carriers and secondly it demonstrated intent to the Argentinians.”
Earlier, David Cameron issued a statement to mark the anniversary of the conflict.
He said: “Thirty years ago today the people of the Falkland Islands suffered an act of aggression that sought to rob them of their freedom and their way of life.
“Today is a day for commemoration and reflection: a day to remember all those who lost their lives in the conflict – the members of our Armed Forces, as well as the Argentinian personnel who died.
“Today, we salute the heroism of the Task Force which set sail to free the islands.
“We are rightly proud of the role Britain played in righting a profound wrong. And the people of the Falkland Islands can be justly proud of the prosperous and secure future they have built for their islands since 1982.
“Britain remains staunchly committed to upholding the right of the Falkland Islanders, and of the Falkland Islanders alone, to determine their own future.
“That was the fundamental principle that was at stake 30 years ago: and that is the principle which we solemnly re-affirm today.”
A lot to be learned from the whole Falklands War episode, then and now.