Falklands War: Could Argentina Have Actually Defeated Great Britain?

Falklands War: Could Argentina Have Actually Defeated Great Britain?

The fear of British submarines kept the Argentinian Navy out of the conflict after the sinking of the General Belgrano; however, mines throughout the region could have established operating areas for the Argentine Navy to support aircraft carrier flight operations.

On November 15, 2017, the Argentine submarine San Juan disappeared 270 miles off the coast of Argentina. The Russians commenced information operations through the state-owned and operated Sputnik News. Their article suggests that the source of the missing submarine was a British naval mine that was employed in the Falklands War. However, the United Kingdom (UK) did not use naval mines for this war.

Preceding the Falklands War, the Soviet Union was under an embargo of key food supplies, Argentina was one of two countries that ignored the embargo. The Soviets had hoped to improve the position in their 36-to-1 trade balance with Argentina through arms sales, however, the Argentine generals were unimpressed with Soviet presentations. It is believed that the Soviet Union found another way to make payments to Argentina through the use of satellite intelligence. While the exact data of interest is classified, Argentina did not possess an organic capability to track British ships. Evidence suggests several of the Argentine successes can be attributed to Soviet information.

From the UK perspective, the timing of the Falklands War was disastrous, nearly catastrophic. Defense budgets were significantly reduced, and priorities of the day did not justify the requirement for a large navy. The Royal Navy shifted focus to antisubmarine ships and submarines. Its last two carriers were scheduled for decommissioning, with fixed-wing capability only supported by Sea Harriers. Their assumption was that all engagements would occur within the capability ranges of the Royal Air Force, thus Sea Harrier pilots had minimal air-to-air training. The Royal Navy also lacked an organic airborne early warning capability, a cause for fear since their two carriers would have to operate within the range of the Argentine Air Force’s mainland bases. The UK modified ships to support the conflict, including passenger liners and small ferries to act as troop carriers. The UK had not considered the need to defend the Falklands, stationing Royal Marines as only a symbolic presence and tripwire, nor did they consider the possibility of having to liberate the islands. Thus, planning was never conducted to defend or liberate the islands in a conflict with Argentina. The British also fell victim to developing systems that would be used in conjunction with other militaries against a specific common enemy. Their strategic building and reliance on allied support left them unprepared to effectively deal with their enemy. This makes me wonder: What happens when the 1,000-ship navy is reduced to its own forces in a war that can go either way.

The Argentinian lens saw the Falklands as an economic drain on the UK and that its government would be unwilling or unable to constitute a force capable of retaking the islands. They assumed that the British would agree to negotiations to end the crisis, the Third World would support Argentina, and the superpowers would remain neutral. Argentina was so confident about their assumptions regarding the UK’s response that they failed to prepare a defense plan for their newly occupied islands.

The Argentinians realized that British aircraft carriers were the Royal Navy’s center of gravity and they devised a simple plan to conduct coordinated sea strikes from multiple axes by dividing their fleet. Luck was not on their side, however; weather would not support Argentinian flight operations from their aircraft carrier, and the sinking of the General Belgrano effectively removed the Argentine surface fleet from the war. The task of sinking the British fleet rested with the Argentine Air Force and submarines.

Argentina deployed twenty-one moored mines in the approaches to Port Stanley. The British Ton-class coastal mine countermeasure vessels in service were not suited for the duration and conditions of the journey to the Falklands and the new Hunt-class was not operational. Circumstances led to the Royal Navy requisitioning five modified deep-sea trawlers with rudimentary minesweeping equipment. Crews bravely acted as guinea pigs in channels suspected of being mined and took on other supporting roles. They worked in the dark without lights, communication, and radar while enduring rough weather and unreliable machinery. Argentinian forces on the islands surrendered on June 14, and between June 23 and July 4, the British swept ten of the twenty-one mines, the others either broke adrift and floated away or failed to properly deploy.

The “What If” Exercise

An interesting exercise is to consider what if Argentina had chosen to include Soviet arms to assist in the trade balance. When considering time as a factor, high-end selections like tactical aircraft are immediately removed due to training requirements to operate and maintain the platform. Mines, however, offer an inexpensive two-dimensional factor threat. While tactical aircraft pose a risk to surface ships, they are largely irrelevant against submarines. However, a mine places risk on ships and submarines. In the case of the British fleet, their ships would have to contend with aircraft while navigating through potential minefields, a daunting challenge. Submarines would have to consider risk while patrolling within a declared mine zone, potentially changing operational approach and tempo.

Consider that the KMD, AMD, MYAM, MKB, and PLT-3 naval mines have been documented or believed to have been part of inventories for countries that worked closely with the Soviet Union (e.g., Egypt, China, Iraq, Iran, and Bulgaria). Moored and bottom mines, along with the potential for rising mines, might have been provided by the Soviet Union. These mines could have been employed by Argentinian forces, perhaps some clandestinely laid by Soviet submarines.

If the Soviets had provided Argentina with minefield plans and the required mines to meet the plan, would there have been a different outcome? When contemplating the impacts of mines, consider the words of Rear Admiral Allen Smith during the Korean War: “The U.S. Navy has lost control of the seas in Korean waters to a nation without a Navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.”

Tools and Workspace          

Following the invasion of the Falkland Islands, the British announced a Maritime Exclusion Zone, later upgraded to a Total Exclusion Zone that extended 200 nm from the center of the islands. Below is a table that includes a partial list of Soviet Mines available during the Falkland crisis. Following the table is a graphic that includes the general bathymetry of the area around the islands.

List of Soviet Mines via Janes

 General Bathymetry around the Falkland Islands

One Perspective of Mines

I use the analogy that mines were the Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls championship team—or the offensive line of a football team. They are not the position that gets the fanfare and their statistics are often underappreciated and overlooked. However, they enable success for other high-profile positions. Stand-alone minefields can disrupt the enemy; however, the true value of mines is realized when they are supporting or collaborating with other effectors. The waters around the Falklands support the use of several mine types, and they could be used throughout the majority of the British imposed exclusion zones. The question remains, how could the mines have been used to supplement the Argentinian defense?

The fear of British submarines kept the Argentinian Navy out of the conflict after the sinking of the General Belgrano; however, mines throughout the region could have established operating areas for the Argentine Navy to support aircraft carrier flight operations. If nothing else, these havens for flight operations may have provided an acceptable risk to conduct flight operations, increasing threat and effectiveness against British forces.

Argentinian submarine patrols were close to the islands, perhaps to conduct sea denial operations. However, if mines were used for this purpose, their submarines could transition from guard dogs to the hunter-killers of the deep. While Argentina struggled with working weapons, what would have been the impact on carrier operations by the mere sound of a torpedo in the water? One must also consider the British risk calculus and their willingness to send submarines to operate within mine infested waters. Another point to consider is the ability of British ships to conduct landings and provide close naval support for ground forces. Finally, what if the mines pushed the aircraft carriers farther out? The Sea Harriers may have had minimal to zero time on station, which begs the question, how do you conduct amphibious landings with limited or no air support while the enemy has air support?

Once mines in the area were verified, would the British choose to conduct minesweeping operations to clear routes for ships, with or without force protection? Would routes be studied by the enemy and used to their advantage? Could routes create target-rich environments for the Argentine Air Force, increasing the probability of a successful engagement, reducing fuel required for Argentine searches, and increasing fuel for attacks? Would the routes be great enough to support ship maneuvers that are required for a multi-axis attack? With approaching winter seas, could the mines have delayed an attack until after the winter? A true blockade would be unlikely by the UK unless they were prepared to starve their own citizens on the island, which would certainly reduce their claims to the islands in the international community.