Falklands War: The Only Time Nuclear Submarines Killed Another Warship
The Falklands remains the world’s most recent, most modern example of combined naval-air combat.
Here's What You Need to Remember: The issues that brought about the war, the manner in which the war was fought, and the situation the war left behind continue to hold important lessons for practitioners of foreign policy today.
The Falklands War ended with a decisive British victory over thirty years ago. Nevertheless, the war remains alive in the imagination of analysts and historians. Although the conflict happened outside of the normal “zones of crisis,” it has long held the attention of students of warfare. The war, which involved a conflict over territory between two established nation-states with large, capital intensive military establishments, seems almost quaint today. However, the issues that brought about the war, the manner in which the war was fought, and the situation the war left behind continue to hold important lessons for practitioners of foreign policy today.
The Falklands War remains the only conflict in which a combatant has used a nuclear submarine, in anger, against naval targets. On May 2, 1982, HMS Conqueror detected the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and two escorts outside a previously announced “exclusion zone.” The British had informed Argentina that the exclusion zone no longer applied to Argentine warships, and Belgrano was conducting an active military patrol at the time. Conqueror fired three unguided torpedoes, two of which struck the venerable cruiser, sinking it with 323 of its crew. The sinking hardened Argentine attitudes, and ended any serious effort at international mediation.
Over the years, the sinking of the Belgrano has set the stage for some truly terrible commentary, much of it centering on the role played by Margaret Thatcher. Partisans point to Thatcher’s keen decisiveness in ordering the attack, when in fact Thatcher had virtually no role in the tactical decision-making. Critics (most with a poor understanding of the Law of Armed Conflict) suggest that the sinking amounted to a war crime. Such claims would need to look up to see “specious,” and the Argentine Navy has always held that the sinking represented a lawful act of war.
Nevertheless, the enduring controversy over the sinking of the Belgrano has become emblematic of the ways in which conventional acts of war have become legally complex. Policymakers and military personnel pay ever greater attention to the ways in which tactical decision-making has become legally actionable in a variety of different venues. Even relatively conventional military activities have become subject to litigation, often decades later.
Apart from legal and political considerations, the sinking of Belgrano demonstrated the decisive impact of modern submarines. Without an effective anti-submarine capability, a surface fleet faces grim prospects. After Belgrano sank, the Argentine fleet largely refused to sortie out of fear of other British submarines. This concern continues to color the efforts of the Chinese, Russian, and Indian navies to shore up their anti-submarine capabilities.
The legal issues associated with ownership of the Falklands remain turgid. Without delving too deeply into the claims and counter-claims, the United Kingdom probably has the stronger argument on balance, although London’s periodic disinterest in governing the islands has helped keep Argentine hopes alive. The meat of Argentina’s claim lies mostly in the reality that the islands are far closer to Buenos Aires than to the United Kingdom, which comports with a variety of international obligations associated with maritime governance. The issues remain of interest to many other countries because of the plethora of conflicts over the historical ownership of disputed islands.
One thing we know is that virtually no one currently living in the Falklands wants to be Argentine. It’s unclear how much this matters, however, as states regularly ignore the preferences of 1600 citizens when it suits them to do so. The United Kingdom focuses on the self-determination point, although it does not apply the principle with consistency to all international disputes.
In any case, Argentina’s draped-in-anti-colonial-rhetoric claims regularly win the support of most Latin American countries, not to mention the overwhelming majority of the Argentina population. These same claims continue to find little support in the United Kingdom, with most European countries remaining distinctly on the sidelines. Debates over the law continue to structure how we look at the islands, but apparently cannot determine which country will control the islands in the future. This state of affairs is reminiscent of a host of other conflicts, in which the law sets the terms without charting a useful settlement.
Minimal Carrier Aircraft
During the war, the Argentine Air Force wielded not only gravity-bombs but also French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles to deadly effect, sinking and damaging several British warships. Lacking local bases, the Royal Navy relied on the Siddeley Hawker Harrier, which turned in a legendary performance against Argentine aircraft. The performance-constrained carrier fighters provided the only possible air cover for the British task force, given that the Royal Navy had retired its last conventional carrier in 1979. Operating from HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, the Harriers had a powerful effect on Argentine decision-making, deterring them from launching airstrikes during the day, and creating significant problems for Argentina’s short ranged air superiority aircraft.
The success of the Harrier, in many minds, confirmed the value of the Sea Control Ship, a small carrier that lacked the capacity to launch fixed wing jet aircraft but that could nevertheless support an expeditionary task force. The F-35B concept, designed to operate either from small carriers or from flat-decked amphibious assault ships, stems in large part from the Falklands experience.
The role played by the Harriers continues to form the core of a nasty historical dispute between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The RAF focuses on the role played by its long-range Vulcan bombers, de-emphasizing the importance of the Harriers. Indeed, the RAF successfully offered the RN’s Harriers up for budgetary sacrifice in 2010. This left the Royal Navy with no carrier-borne fighter aircraft at all, a situation that will remain until HMS Queen Elizabeth (presumably with F-35Bs) enters service later this decade.
Conventional War against a Nuclear Power
Why did Argentina pick a fight with a country that had nuclear weapons? In short, Buenos Aires realized that the chance of Britain using such weapons in a territorial dispute was remote. This hardly sounds unreasonable, but think about it; the Argentines were so confident that Britain would not use an obviously decisive, war-winning weapon, that they decided to attack under the slimmest of conventional margins, despite lacking any clear guarantee of extended deterrence from another nuclear power. This suggests that, by 1982, the “nuclear taboo” had so taken hold that nuclear states could not rely on their arsenals to protect them from conventional foes. This confirmed what Israel had learned in 1973; whatever their merits, nuclear weapons cannot, in and of themselves, deter attack from conventional powers.
This ought to hold some lessons for modern appreciation of the utility of nuclear weapons. If nukes don’t even immunize a country from direct attack on its declared territory, then they probably don’t grant outsized influence over the politics of an entire region. This isn’t to say, for example, that anyone ought to support the nuclear aspirations of Iran, but it does suggest that the eventual outcome of the Iranian nuclear project will likely be less than cataclysmic.
Wars are supposed to solve problems, if not in the sense of creating justice, then at least in terms of establishing a new political, legal, and military reality. Indeed, both victory and defeat can give nations a chance to move on, establish new priorities, and resolve immediate issues of conflict.
The United Kingdom undoubtedly won the Falklands War, as Argentina ceased hostilities after the recapture of the islands, and the Argentine government fell a short time later. For a time, the war resolved the question of whether or not the United Kingdom had the interest and capacity to defend the Falklands from Argentina.
But as far as Buenos Aires is concerned, the war settled nothing. Argentina still claims the islands, and no conceivable government could give up that claim, especially with reports of energy wealth along the continental shelf. For its part, London’s political commitment to the islands is stronger now than in 1982.
In short, like many conflicts the Falklands War failed to settle the basic, stage-setting political dispute. Argentina continues to believe it ought to govern the islands, while the United Kingdom continues to feel responsibility for them. While Argentina continues to struggle with its financial system, it cannot buy a military that can reconquer the Falklands. But as long as the British economy stagnates, it cannot permanently end Argentina’s dream of unification. The conflict remains unresolved, until the stars align and Argentina once again sees some advantage in the prospect of war.
The war is slipping into legend. In the United Kingdom, sparring over the war’s legacy revolves around an evaluation of Margaret Thatcher, as well as the endless conflict between the RAF and the RN. In some Argentine quarters, the narrative of treachery has taken hold; President Kirchner called the sinking of General Belgrano “criminal” in 2012, notwithstanding the lack of any compelling case for malfeasance. Nevertheless, the Falklands remains the world’s most recent, most modern example of combined naval-air combat. Until the end of the missile age, it will continue to hold lessons for analysts and policymakers. And for the foreseeable future, London and Buenos Aires will continue to contest ownership of the islands.