The reality of the challenges involved in recapturing the Falkland Islands
Hello all, and welcome to my first ever Think Defence article.
My name is Sir Humphrey, and I’m the author of a small blog called the Thin Pinstriped Line.
Some of you may know me from ARRSE, PPRUNE and Warships1, where I post (or posted) under a variety of different usernames. I originally set my blog up to write about some of the issues in Defence at the moment, and try to look in more depth at what was really going on in some issues which were being inaccurately reported by the media. It’s also served as a means of providing some more in depth analysis for other issues as well.
I was contacted by the owner of this site, and asked whether I’d be interested in occasionally writing some articles here too. I’m delighted to say that I’m now able to do so, and that from now on you’ll be seeing the odd longer analytical piece from me on a variety of issues. I won’t be posting here every week, but between this site and my own blog, you should see a fair amount of my work. My aims here remain the same as on my blog – to look a little deeper into the story, and try to present a more positive (dare I say balanced) perspective than may sometimes be seen in the media. My one philosophy though is that in the MOD decisions, no matter how odd they appear, are almost always taken for a reason that makes sense – the challenge is making sense of these reasons!
In terms of my professional background, I have a strong background to a lot of the issues described on this site, and have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully this will come through in some of the pieces that I do. As always with my pieces, I am happy to discuss via the comments page or on my blog.
For my first piece here, I’ve combined the three articles on my blog about the Falkland Islands, to try to turn them into a single article looking at the nature of the threat, and the challenges faced by an attacker to the islands. Enjoy![This is a more sensible post than my article about our pants, TD]
The reality of the Falkland Islands dispute – why quiet diplomacy matters more than willy waving and why the Falkland Islands are unlikely to be invaded again.
A perennial favourite headline of so many newspapers, particularly tabloids, is to proclaim that Argentina threatens the Falklands, that the Royal Navy couldn’t possibly mount a task force again, and that western civilisation as we know it is threatened by the fact that a territorial dispute exists between Argentina and the UK. For this inaugural Think Defence article, I want to try and look beneath the dispute, to try and examine the real level of threat to the Falklands, and to also explain why it is highly unlikely that the Argentineans could repeat 1982 without some spectacular investment, planning and luck.
The Falklands are an election issue, and an easy means of unifying the Argentine people against an external wrong that must be righted. At its most simple, the dispute has little to do with any geographic claim, but instead provides successive Argentinean leadership figures with an easy means to distract attention from any internal domestic woes, or political problems.
Almost without fail, the Falklands will be mentioned in any Argentinean political campaign, usually to much alarm from the UK media, but this is as much a reality of Argentine politics as an election campaign is in the UK when the parties roll out the tired old cliches of protecting the NHS, investing and whatever else is the mantra of the day. In other words, to talk of the Falkland’s in an Argentine election is normal – its when they don’t get brought up that we should start to worry.
In recent months, there has been much alarm in the UK over the fact that Argentina appears to be placing pressure on other South American countries to ban Falkland Islands registered vessels from ports, to increase pressure on the UK getting access for its military assets staging through South American countries, and to try to raise the issue at every opportunity in international fora.
The reality is that these efforts have achieved very little – international initiatives are commonplace, and many countries sign up to them, not because they passionately care about the issues at stake, but because it is easier to go along with something in order to keep your neighbour sweet, so you can call in the favour when you need it. It is highly unlikely that Brazil or Uruguay particularly care about the Falkland Islands, but they do care that they share borders with a large nation with a reasonable economy, and that annoying them over something like the Falklands is more hassle than its worth.
So, even though the press would have us believe that the world as we know it is threatened by these statements, the truth is that nothing has really changed, and that the dispute remains primarily one between the UK and Argentina. What could change this? In reality, it is hard to see a situation emerging where Brazil or Uruguay would willingly close access to their ports permanently, or send vessels to side with an Argentine cause – it would cause immense economic damage, and the potential political fallout would be enormous. Is Brazil seriously willing to risk isolating itself for an attack on a foreign nation in support of Argentine goals?
The reality is that we’ll probably see Argentina continue to try to press the small advantages in local organisations, and see very verbose declarations which will then be seized on by the Argentines as evidence that others support them. Then, in reality, nothing will change and Argentina will continue as before. The moment that the UK should really begin to worry about wider South American support for the Argentines position is when they follow through on pledges, or begin to link wider diplomatic support or pledges of assistance to movement on the Falklands issue. Until this point, declarations are little more than worthless – great if you want to feel good about something, but in reality delivering nothing of tangible value.
UK Diplomatic Response
There are some who feel that the UK should be far more assertive over the Falkland’s, and take a tougher line with countries that support the Argentine position. The question is what would this achieve? Having worked in the diplomatic arena, it is clear that while in the short term highly emotive statements make the originating country feel good about itself, it quickly causes more harm than good. If the UK threatened to sever relations, or cut off trade to countries which supported Argentina’s stance, then what would actually be achieved? In reality such a move would isolate the UK in South America, do immense damage to our long term reputation in the region, and bring countries on the fence into the Argentine camp.
It is important to remember that diplomatic actions have very long term consequences – arguably the UK is still dealing with the aftermath of messy colonial incidents from the 19th century today as a result of its possession of the Falklands. If the UK sought to view its entire relationship with South America through the prism of the Falklands, then there is real danger that our longer term ability to influence, support and work with many countries would be harmed. Countries remember insults for far longer than compliments – in many ways diplomacy is like children at school arguing over who likes or hates one another the most. Flexing the UK muscle now would merely irritate and in the longer term, isolate us and do more harm than good to our position.
What can the UK do to counter the constant Argentine charm offensive? Well for starters it needs to be realistic about goals – the UK has to ensure it retains good relations with the continent to ensure that 8000 miles from home, 2000 people and 1500 plus service personnel remain safe, secure and with open lines of communication in perpetuity (or until the Falkland Islanders determine they want another way of life). Pissing off your neighbours, acting like the local bully and generally throwing your weight around won’t achieve this – it will achieve the opposite.
The UK has to try to secure a form of quiet diplomacy in South America – an accepting policy which realises that other south American countries have to live with Argentina, and that they will sign up for things, but equally one which applies discrete threats / carrots / sticks at a point where nations will not be publicly humiliated, nor in a way which merely fuels Argentina’s policy goals. This means not reacting in a manner which will make tabloid readers feel good about themselves, but which ensures continuity of access to ports, airports, logistical facilities and prevents South American nations from feeling isolated, humiliated and unwilling to make concessions to the UK.
The worst thing the UK can do now is to go on an aggressive diplomatic offensive – it would play straight into Argentine hands, and make our life much harder. Our primary goal is to keep the Falkland Islands secure and British for as long as they want to do so – this goal is much easier to achieve when other nations are unlikely to back Argentine actions.
In the next part of this article, we’ll look at why the Argentines lack the ability to invade the Falklands, and also why, despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail, it is unlikely that a small team of special forces soldiers (even if they had escaped from a military stockade to the LA underground), could take out the UK garrison in one night.
Part 2 – Planning Considerations to capture the Islands
Following on from the earlier piece about the diplomatic issues surrounding the Falklands, Humphrey now wants to take a look at the reality of the challenge facing any potential aggressor, and to show the planning considerations that any J5 planning shack is going to have to think about when looking at a successful attack on the islands.
Firstly, a mild disclaimer – unlike many Falkland Island commentators (FI), Humphrey has actually been to the Falklands, and has a very good understanding of the military structure and capability on the islands. Because of this, the author is not going to discuss some specifics, and may seem vague in other areas. This is because he is one of the few people left who think that PERSEC isn’t a dirty word.
Secondly, unlike some websites / publications, Humphrey has no time for the concept of ‘ORBAT Porn’, by which he means the lining up of two paper ORBATS between two countries, and deciding that as X is greater than Y, Y wins. It’s pointless, silly and as seen in countless wars over the years, almost always an inaccurate means of predicting the outcome of a crisis.
For the purposes of this article, Humphrey is looking at the current balance of power as it stands NOW. Not in 10 years, not if Argentina gets new LPDs, not if the UK gets CVF, and not if the Death Star parks in orbit and uses its super laser to wipe out all penguins.
The first part of this article looks at wider planning considerations that need to be taken into account when considering an invasion. The next part will look at specific considerations relating to the islands defences.
The first, and most critical question that must be asked when considering an invasion is ‘why’? The Falklands serve as a useful lightning conductor to Argentine leaders – whenever distracted by political problems at home, they can quickly rally support around the concept of the Falklands issue. Invasion not only removes this as a lightning conductor, but also opens up a range of longer term problems – a quick invasion without bloodshed followed by Argentine occupation is a good idea in theory, but a leader would have to be certain that this could be achieved. Failure would result in them losing office, power, and probably liberty as well.
Whenever considering the Falkland Islands, one has to ask ‘what does the President of Argentina personally gain from an invasion’? The reality is that unless they have the most successful invasion in history, it’s likely to be the end of their presidency. Few people willingly relinquish power until they have to – it is hard to envisage circumstances where an Argentine leader would do so over the Falklands.
But, assuming the go ahead was issued, then the first planning consideration when considering the invasion of the islands is what is the defined Argentinean end state? In other words, what is their view of campaign success? In 1982, the Argentines arguably defined their end state as the initial occupation of the islands militarily, and did not plan, nor assume any requirement to fight beyond this point. The author would argue that any future Argentine plan needs to define its end state as ‘the successful capture of the islands, followed by the mounting of a sufficiently robust defence as to prevent their recapture in perpetuity’.
One of the problems with looking at this potential conflict is that everyone assumes that if Argentina invades, then the UK will immediately turn around and launch ‘Task Force 2’, followed by a short bloody war in which the UK either kicks Argentina off the islands again, or is sent home humbled and never again enters the South Atlantic. Humphrey would suggest that this is unwise to consider – after all, UK planning is based on holding the islands for perpetuity (where perpetuity means ‘for as long as the Islanders want us to remain’), and that if Argentina seeks to capture the islands militarily, it needs to be ready to defend them in perpetuity as well.
So, the first thing to ask is whether Argentina has sufficient military capability to not only invade the islands now, but also defend them in the long term without a major increase in defence spending.
The next issue when planning such an invasion is the level of violence and casualties one is willing to inflict upon an enemy force to achieve mission success. In 1982, the Argentine attack was predicated on landing roughly battalion sized forces to take out a sub company (barely platoon) sized formation. Its often forgotten that Argentine SF made a deliberate attempt to destroy the marine barracks, presumably hoping to take out the marines in their beds, rather than have a fight.
The world has changed dramatically since 1982 and the arrival of 24/7 media coverage, global news and analysis and the internet & other social media means that any attack or use of force will be questioned. To force the UK defending forces to surrender will mean either denying them the ability to fight or to sustain, or inflicting sufficient casualties to make the ground commander decide further resistance is futile.
Let’s put this in context for a moment. The FI are garrisoned normally by up to 1500 military personnel, and supported by a range of logistics and infrastructure that will enable the garrison to continue fighting for a considerable period of time without requiring external support. For an Argentine attack to put the UK garrison in the position where it has to surrender due to an inability to sustain itself, we have to assume the loss of air and maritime resupply for a prolonged period of time, backed up by an aggressive land campaign which reduces stocks. This would seem to require a maritime and air presence beyond that which the Argentines currently possess.
Similarly, to put the defending force in a position where it has lost sufficient casualties that it feels it has not option but to surrender, one would need to inflict realistically more casualties than the UK has lost in Iraq & Afghanistan combined in over 10 years of fighting, and inflict them in a time scale probably measured in days. This would again require a very aggressive campaign, and one which would be quickly portrayed in global media as an exceptionally aggressive and brutal attack by Argentine forces.
The reality would be for Argentina that any attack has to be done in such a manner so as to force a surrender, without causing a massacre. Unless this occurs, then global opinion will swing firmly against Argentina, and it is likely that UNSCRs, or even possible military support from allies may be offered to the UK in any attack. Argentina has to be seen to be a liberating force in the manner of the Indians in Goa in 1961, and not the Iraqi ‘annexation’ of Kuwait in 1990. In other words, a short military attack, limited resistance and then general global apathy, despite anguished pleas from the defending power (in this case Portugal, which the author understands still technically claims Goa is a part of its empire).
So, even prior to the launching of an invasion, Argentina is faced with a series of high level policy & political challenges – these can be summarised below:
- What is their justification for war?
- What is their desired end state?
- How do they recapture the islands using minimal force?
- How do they hold onto the islands in perpetuity?
- How do they manage international reaction to the invasion?
- Can they afford an international crisis / incident on this scale?
- Is it really worth it?
The next part of this article will look in more depth at how an Argentine commander would need to consider options, based partly on their ORBAT, but also partly on the defensive considerations
Part 3: The reality of capturing the Falkland Islands.
In earlier posts, the author has looked at the threat posed by Argentina to the Falkland Islands, and has suggested that if you ignore bellicose public statements, then the reality is that the islands are unlikely to be attacked by Argentina anytime soon.
In this final post on the subject, the intent is to explore some of the challenges surrounding any potential aggressor who wishes to attack the islands, and the sort of planning considerations that they need to consider when factoring in an attack. This is perhaps more timely given that yet another senior general (Sir Mike Jackson) has now claimed that if the islands were lost, then the UK could not recover them.
Any potential aggressor intending to occupy the Falklands needs to plan an assault around the following factors.
- A remote airbase with good ground defences, and located a not inconsiderable distance from the nearest credible port is the centre of gravity.
- The defending force is well equipped, and has considerable operational experience accrued over the last 30 years of occupying the terrain.
- There are multiple defensive structures dispersed across the facility which would require potent munitions to deny.
- The facility is located some distance from international airlanes, and is unlikely to see significant commercial air traffic. There are multiple satellite facilities to provide radar coverage. There are air defences present, both air and ground based.
- There is a not inconsiderable maritime force located in the region, which is self-sustaining and which may include an SSN.
- Any attack has to be conducted in a manner which denies the defending force the ability to reinforce, and must force a surrender of all occupying forces in under the time it would take to begin the reinforcement plans from the UK.
- Any prolonged attack is going to lead to calls for talks, and be highly damaging to international opinion against the aggressor. A swift fait acompli is essential to secure victory.
What this means is that any Argentine commander has to consider some immensely challenging tactical problems which in turn build in time delay. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and it is likely that any assault will encounter delays. Lets now examine these considerations in a little more depth.
When considering the defence of Mount Pleasant Airfield (MPA), commentators who have not been to the islands often make the mistake of assuming it is a small facility which could easily be overrun. The reality is somewhat different – it occupies a large area of ground, and has many highly dispersed facilities. While the main admin / life support hub is located in the near legendary ‘death star’ complex, the remainder of the facility is spread over a large geographically dispersed area. This means that any assault has to factor in the challenge of denying multiple facilities, many of which may be defendable, and in doing so while operating on unfamiliar terrain.
To even get close to the facility would require a significant march by troops. Not exhausting in itself, but it would probably require insertion of special forces by SSK – this limits the locations that landings can be conducted. The terrain of the islands is not particularly conducive to building shelters, and the islanders are exceptionally suspicious of outsiders. At best the Argentines could hope to land a small SF force (roughly 50 men), which then has to avoid detection while it marches to the airbase.
At this point, it then has to conduct an assault against a large, well defended facility which is designed for the purpose of being used to fight a defensive battle, and they have to do so against a garrison which outnumbers them 30-1. They have to complete this assault and force the British to a position where they wish to negotiate for surrender prior to the airfield commencing reinforcement flights.
The airfield was designed in the 1980s at the height of the cold war, and reflects much of the thinking at the time. It is likely that it could easily be repaired in the event of a denial attempt, and there is likely to be sufficient room to permit landings in the event of damage. It would take a very significant attack to deny the runway to the point where it could not be used further. Such an attack would require equipment and munitions accuracy beyond that currently possessed by Argentina.
Any air movements, either transports to land troops, or bomber attacks are going to be picked up by early warning radar stations. There will be significant warning of inbound air attacks, and there are plentiful defences in place to handle them. Any air attack has to conduct a long overwater transit, and then will only have seconds on station to deliver its munitions. It will be doing so against a force likely to be expecting it. Similarly, if transport aircraft were inbound, then if needs be, they need not even be shot down. The base could merely park sufficient vehicles across the runways at regular intervals so as to prevent the plane from landing. While some bad fiction writers postulate about the idea of an Entebbe style strike, the reality is that the planes have to land first to deliver this strike. Again, a failure to land first time and commence the assault will see the reinforcement plan kicking into action. Also, given the lack of air traffic in the region, one would hope that it is unlikely that anyone would be fooled by an aircraft faking an SOS message and then landing to disgorge hundreds of armed troops.
The defensive structures of the base suggest that significant munitions would be required to deny some facilities. It is all very well landing 50 SF, but what happens when people deploy into trench and bunker complexes which require artillery or mortars to deny? This then requires the landing of further troops ashore with the ability to call in support fire – in turn this requires both the ability to find a beach where a surprise landing can be carried out and artillery moved into position to conduct fires missions, and to do so without being detected. Again, the author would suggest that the sighting of an Argentine battery digging in, would be enough to trigger the reinforcement plan activation.
The rule of thumb is that an assault against well dug in and defended troops, particularly well motivated ones, with reasonable supplies, is that it requires a ratio of 3-1 attackers to defenders to be certain of success. Assuming a garrison of 1500, this means that Argentina would need to move sufficient troops to land 4500 troops on the ground to conduct the attack. More troops would be needed to provide support, and logistical work. Let’s assume 5500 troops are needed to be certain of putting the attack force together.
Firstly, the Argentine navy doesn’t have the ability to conduct an amphibious operation carrying 5500 troops. In fact, very few navies do. Even the Royal Navy, arguably one of the worlds more potent amphibious forces, would struggle to deliver more than 1500 personnel in its current structure. To successfully land the troops, supplies and equipment needed to crack MPA in a conventional assault, Argentina would need to be build the world’s second largest amphibious force, develop the doctrine and training required to ensure that they could land successfully, and then ensure that their troops are capable of doing so without messing the plan up. These troops are then required to land, march a significant distance to the objective and conduct an assault against a well dug in force which is likely to expecting them. Significantly, this force will have got a reasonable amount of operational experience, compared to an Argentine force which hasn’t seen action for 30 years. The Argentines are expected to do this while maintaining complete surprise, as if the reinforcement plan starts, and more UK troops are flown in, then they go from 3-1 ratio, to likely 1-1, or worse. Oh, all the while, Argentina needs to maintain the element of complete surprise while building up, training and delivering this invasion force to the Islands.
The other key point – if Argentina has built an amphibious fleet, and then sails it with deliberate intent to the islands, it needs to be certain that the UK maritime assets have been denied. Otherwise, they will need to be prepared to encounter a range of maritime capabilities, potentially including nuclear submarines that will present a significant tactical challenge.
The final point – this attack has to be done in a manner which denies the defending forces the ability to operate, and for their commander to feel he has no option but to surrender, and this has to be done in less than 24 hours, or else reinforcements will arrive. This would require an untested force engaging a defensive force which has spent 30 years preparing the ground for this fight. The fight will have to occur on the defenders terms, and would pose an enormous tactical challenge to the aggressor.
There is some suggestion in some quarters of fantastical ideas of cruise liners disgorging SF into Stanley – which would be a challenge given the lack of adequate berths, or alternatively somehow capturing the town. While this would be challenging, it still comes back to the earlier issue of a lack of manpower to actually get on the ground, and also the fact that MPA is the centre of gravity. In extremis, the loss of Stanley would not lose the UK hold on the islands. MPA is the key, and it remains a well-defended installation.
While much remains uncertain, and while this author deeply hopes that such a situation is never tested for real, he would suggest that any potential attack against the islands using current Argentine ORBATS would result in a very bloody and humiliating defeat for Argentina, and one that is completely unnecessary.
UK policy is not to lose the islands in the first place – the author would suggest that the current force laydown ensures that this remains a realistic policy goal.