Lessons from the Falklands War

PETER A. JAY

June 28, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Although hardly anyone in this part of the world paid much attention, a significant little anniversary has just slipped by. It was ten years ago this month that the British, after a short but bloody and extremely difficult little war, repossessed the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

The conflict was confusing for some United States policy-makers when it was taking place, and it still tends to be dismissed today as a relatively minor incident. But it offers several vivid and

valuable lessons both for nations and for individuals, and is worth a backward look by Americans trying to make sense of a strange and unfocused election campaign.

When Argentina occupied the Falklands -- "Las Malvinas" -- in April of 1982, it came as a surprise to the British government and most of the world, but it shouldn't have. In hindsight the invasion seems inevitable, though slightly mistimed; if Argentina had waited a month, it might well have won the war, and if it had waited six months it might have had the Falklands without a shot BTC being fired.

The wind-swept islands -- in area about half the size of Maryland -- have been British since 1833, but Argentina has steadily and often emotionally challenged that claim. In 1982, the military junta running the country desperately needed a cause to unite Argentina and distract its people from serious domestic problems.

At the same time, Britain was beginning the process, approved in 1981, of reducing the Royal Navy to a glorified coast-defense force. The only British aircraft carriers, Hermes and Invincible, were to be sold to India and Australia respectively. Many other ships were to be permanently withdrawn from service. The amphibious force was to be phased out. The world was at peace, more or less, and Parliament wanted its peace dividend.

Had General Leopoldo Galtieri, the head of the Argentine junta, waited six months, most of the British cuts would have been in effect. Even if he had waited only a few more weeks, the South Atlantic winter would have set in, and an amphibious assault on the Falklands by the British would have been virtually impossible. But he didn't wait, and his impatience cost him victory and, by June 17, both his job and his reputation.

In the United States, the initial, instinctive reaction of both Reagan conservatives and many liberals was to steer clear of the the conflict entirely, or even to tilt toward Argentina. American conservatives tend to be Anglophobes, and besides the Argentine generals were supposed to be our friends. Liberals saw it as a case of the noble Third World trying to throw off the old colonial chain.

But soon, other facts began to offset that first American reaction. British-American ties are a lot stronger than any relationship the United States has ever developed with Argentina, and besides that, Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher had a similar world view. Secondly, the 1,800 residents of the Falklands were indisputably British, and wanted to remain so. There was no resident minority population supporting Argentina's claim.

So the United States, despite the opinion of the Navy that a British effort to retake the Falklands was militarily impossible, provided some quiet and vital assistance. This included the air-to-air Sidewinder missile, and access to Ascension Island as a forward staging area.

Meanwhile, the British moved with extraordinary dispatch. The invasion took place on April 2, a Friday. By the Monday, a task force had been formed and the two about-to-be-sold carriers were steaming out of Portsmouth.

The war itself took about six weeks. On May 2, the British nuclear submarine Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, which had survived Pearl Harbor as the USS Phoenix. The Argentine navy was not seen again, but the air and land fighting to come would be fierce, and the outcome of the war uncertain until the June 15 surrender.

The British lost 250 men and seven ships. Two of the ships were sunk by French-made Exocet missiles, of which Argentina had only five. Total British and Argentine casualties probably exceeded the number of permanent residents of the islands over which the war was fought.

The Argentine defeat discredited the junta and paved the way for a return to civilian, democratic government. In Britain, the victory increased the stature of both Mrs. Thatcher and the Royal Navy. The closeness of the outcome also inspired a serious review of Britain's defense needs, and the sale of the carriers was rescinded.

Some of the lessons of the war were those thumped home again during the conflict in the Persian Gulf. The world remains a dangerous place. Authoritarian regimes do not share the democracies' dislike of war. Obvious weakness will not go long untested. And the safest nations are those which are prepared to defend themselves and their interests, with well-trained troops and the necessary equipment, wherever they are seriously challenged.

A Falklands farmer in Carlos Bay welcomed a British officer of the Parachute Regiment on May 21, 1982 and said he'd been expecting him. "We knew Maggie would come," he said. What he didn't know was that Maggie and her troops had come perilously close to not being able to come at all.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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