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Lessons for Australia today from the 1982 Falklands War

Modern Australian military theorists must look back to the Falklands War to glean essential lessons in distributed lethality and logistics in remote and island centric warfare, writes former naval officer and defence industry analyst Chris Skinner.

Modern Australian military theorists must look back to the Falklands War to glean essential lessons in distributed lethality and logistics in remote and island centric warfare, writes former naval officer and defence industry analyst Chris Skinner.

On 12 April 1982, the United Kingdom declared a maritime exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands, a British territory some 8,000 miles distant in the South Atlantic, that had been invaded by Argentina on 2nd April. This unprovoked attack occurred after many years of disagreement over the Argentinean claim on the islands as their territory. The timing of the exclusion zone was determined by the projected arrival on station of the first of the four nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN) to enforce the action.

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The invasion on 2nd April had taken the UK by surprise but that did not prevent an extraordinary response such that the first shipping task force sailed on 5th April with orders to rendezvous at Ascension Island, another UK territory mid-Atlantic, with forces to join from Gibraltar and other UK forces by air.

The conflict became deadly on the 2nd of May when the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by HMS Conqueror after which the Argentinian Navy withdrew to the mainland and played no further part in the war. This also applied to the single Argentinian submarine Santa Fe which had landed reconnaissance troops but otherwise took no other active role. Nevertheless, the UK Royal Navy (RN) anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces expended large numbers of anti-submarine weapons on non-sub targets.

The task force of elite troops of the UK Royal Marines Special Boat Squadron and the Paratroop Brigade, both fresh from arctic summer training in Norway were the first troops ashore on 21st May in San Carlos water in the north-west corner of East Falkland island some 50 kilometres from the Falklands capital Stanley, also the Argentinian force headquarters and concentration of the 13,000-strong force they had lodged.

However, the Argentinian Air Force pressed home numerous attacks from mainland-based aircraft carrying a limited number of Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and iron bombs resulting in sinking of six ships of the RN and the Ship-Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) Atlantic Conveyor carrying vital air-transport helicopters for troops ashore and other vital logistic supplies of missiles, ammunition, food and medical supplies.

RN ship losses included those fitted with the state-of-art Sea Wolf Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) system and older systems less effective against ASCM attacks, especially close to land where attacks were hidden until late in the engagement window and radar systems cluttered by the land masses.

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Ultimately, the landed troops covered the bleak mountainous terrain to attack the garrison force in Stanley emerging victorious on 14 June.

Lessons for Australia are manifold. At the geostrategic level, the possibility of occupation of an offshore territory can never be entirely discounted and therefore we must maintain operational plans for recovery of such territory should that unlikely event occur. Exemplars of such planning would sensibly include Christmas Island off the west coast of Indonesia or Macquarie Island halfway from Tasmania to Antarctica where Australia is already outnumbered by Chinese research personnel.

Part of such operational planning must keep day-by-day tabulations of available forces and their readiness and the necessary logistic supplies they would need for extended operations to recover an island territory.

The means to transport the troops and their equipment including air defence, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), command, control and communications, medical, mobile artillery and other offensive capabilities should be kept under constant review, both air portable and by ship. Shipping beyond Navy and other government vessels should be identified, and necessary legal access requirements prepared in case of need.

Most of all, however, the considerable losses on RN ships to a small number of ASCM attacks should have been a wake-up call on Anti-Ship Missile Defence (ASMD) which was significant even 40 years ago and today is many times more so, as evidenced by the large losses of Russian tanks in Ukraine to man-portable anti-tank weapons, employing much the same technology as ASCM.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) recently published a lengthy report (Vampire. Vampire. Vampire by Dr Sam Goldsmith April 2022) on the Chinese PLA-N anti-ship cruise missile threat to Australian and allied naval operations, where ASPI advocated many more vertical-launch missile cells be fitted to warships to deal with the much greater threat.

This does not in my view recognise the primary lesson from the Falklands War of the dynamics of engagement, and this will become even more important with the advent of hypersonic cruise missile attacks for which the engagement time available will be much reduced.

The critical issue is the defending kill chain from detection, most likely of multiple targets in the same time frame, prediction of target trajectories and hence evaluation of engagement sequencing and firing of defensive weapons and decoys. Then there is the need for further reattack or other support such as target illumination for at least the latter part of the engagement. All this is occurring in the face of swarmed attacks of cooperating and intelligent ASCM weapons that are designed to overwhelm the defensive systems. This can be ameliorated a little with Cooperative Engagement Concept (CEC) that has been practiced for many years but the overall saturation level of multi-ship ASCM defences is still a major concern.

The lesson from the Falklands might well become the realisation of the principle of distributed lethality, that is less eggs in each of more baskets. If this is so, then 10,000-tonne frigates are moving in the wrong direction and what we need instead is many more ocean-going tough little ships with excellent ASMD and good CEC between them.

The most important lesson from the Falklands War is you cannot prevail in the maritime domain by air capabilities alone. Shipping, undersea, space and most of all tough, versatile troops are essential for success.

Cristopher Skinner served 30 years in the Royal Australian Navy as a Weapons and Electrical Engineering Officer in six surface warships, in the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation, the Vietnam War and surveillance of the North-West Indian Ocean. In two of these ships, he was the action Weapons Control Officer for ASMD and AAW watchkeeper for area air defence dealing with engagement decisions in real time. Shore service included secondment to the Defence Research Centre, Salisbury, the US Naval Sea Systems Command to manage the lead-ship trials for a joint frigate project and the initial project director for the ANZAC frigate program of ten ships for Australia and New Zealand. He is a member of several naval and geopolitical institutes, but the opinions expressed here are his own.

Lessons for Australia today from the 1982 Falklands War
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