The Landings at San Carlos, The Falklands, 1982. Credit: Royal Navy
The Falklands War was the last major amphibious operation between near-peer adversaries under modern conditions of global logistics, communications networks, and precision-guided munitions. While future amphibious operations will be executed differently, select lessons from the Falklands War are enduring. In some cases, lessons from the Falklands War are confirmation of how well the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps would have been prepared for a similar event. The most important lessons learned focus around logistics and sustainability, defense in depth, and amphibious warfare.
The Falklands War began on 2 April 1982, when Argentine forces invaded the undefended Falklands Islands and captured the capital of Stanley. The British task force set sail three days later to retake the islands. On 21 May, amphibious landings at San Carlos beach began. Finally, on the 14 June, Argentine forces surrendered Stanley back into British hands, ending the war in ten weeks and after less than a month of fierce fighting.
The British faced many logistical challenges that tested the sustainability of operations. The Falklands Islands are located 8,000 miles from Great Britain. The closest useable land base for the British was Ascension Islands, 4,000 miles away from the Falklands. This limited Britain’s ability to develop a sustainable supply change for prolonged operations.
Logistically, the British military did not have enough vessels to carry the resources the task force required for operations. To meet demand, 50 merchant vessels were requisitioned and retrofitted. To carry essential supplies to support British military operations, most of the ships were fitted with at-sea refueling capability. This was all done over the course of three days, with work continually done as the task force moved to Ascension Island en-route to the Falklands. The ships were loaded with supplies so fast that there were no inventories taken; all that was known was that a certain quantity of supplies were given to the task force.
During the amphibious landings at San Carlos, the British found their commercial merchant vessels were not adequately suited for amphibious operations. Despite being able to load and retrofit them, there were major problems off-loading supplies due to the unavailability of dock facilities. The ships were unable to load supplies onto the landing craft that were capable of landing the supplies on shore. The British were able to air drop supplies to ground forces, but only with difficulty. The larger aircraft that could drop supplies could only take off from a ground runway, the nearest being 4,000 miles back at Ascension Island. These aircraft had to be refueled multiple times there and back to deliver much needed supplies. Air-lifting supplies via heavy-lift helicopters was possible, but the Argentine air force controlled the air space and shot down all but one of the helicopters capable of lifting heavy loads of supplies.
The logistic and sustainability issues faced by the British in the Falklands are issues the U.S. Navy will face under similar circumstances. The U.S. Navy has maritime prepositioning force ships strategically positioned to supply the U.S. Marine Corps at sea. These ships, laden with vehicles, ammunition, food, water, cargo, and other equipment are prepared for rapid ashore delivery when needed, and can supply a marine expeditionary brigade and Navy personnel for up to 30 days.
Credit: Royal Navy
The British ultimately lacked defense in depth. Their outer air defenses were limited to four British Sea Harriers, each laden with only two air-to-air missiles. The aircraft’s only air radar was a short-range radar. The range of their radar required a greater range of patrol, limiting station time to 20 minutes. Large numbers of Argentine air attack forces could easily penetrate these defenses, and reached the British ships with ease. While many British warships had surface-to-air missile systems that provided some form of defense, the merchant-type ships had few defenses. The British warships had great necessity for electronic threat warning systems and decoy systems. The expenditure of chaff, to confuse radars on missiles and aircraft, was heavy.
The importance of antiair capabilities and antiship missile defense cannot be understated. The British lost two destroyers, two frigates, a landing ship, and a merchant ship to air attack. Nine other ships would have been lost had the bombs that hit them detonated (this is because Argentine forces used old munitions). Most of the aircraft from the Argentine mainland bases would not have reached the British ships had there been a well-rounded, full-sized carrier air wing in the opposing force. The composition of the British air wing in the Falklands War was limited only to Sea Harriers and a small assortment of helicopters. Had the British had aerial surveillance aircraft, interceptors, antisubmarine aircraft, early air warning aircraft, and a fighter aircraft that could maintain, sustained, long-range air patrol they would have had greater defense in depth, and ultimately greater antiair capabilities.
Current air wings are comprised of a well-rounded composition of aircraft. Within the wings are fighter squadrons, a carrier early warning squadron, a tactical electronic squadron, and an antisubmarine complement. This composition allows for better control and vision of the skies, allowing for better defense in depth.
The British forces needed better antiship missile defense systems. The number and capabilities of British missile and ECM systems were limited, and had no close in weapon systems (CIWS) to provide terminal defense against incoming missiles. These systems would have defending against missile attacks. Most U.S. Navy ships today have been CIWS and chaff systems, and most have radars capable of reaching beyond what the British had. These systems should continue to be an essential for Navy vessels as a “last ditch” effort. However, the reliance of CIWS needs to be assessed. CIWS systems are notorious for needing repair or systems maintenance. Most ships that only have one CIWS do not have any redundancy for this system, something that should be assessed.
The Falklands landings demonstrated the continued viability of amphibious operation. The British managed to land on the islands, provided supplies to ground forces as they made their way across the island to the capital, and ensured the success of the operation. The British succeeded in an armed conflict against a near peer adversary located 8000 miles away from the British homeland. However, this victory was not without loss, and not without lessons learned. Of the lessons learned from the Falklands War, key ones shine through.
Early warning of air attacks, airborne and shipboard antiair defense, and effective self-defense weapons in the amphibious ships would have substantially reduced losses for the British. While the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps do have these capabilities, the redundancy, reliability, and supply these systems needs to be constantly reassessed. The CIWS is an effective system but shows a trend of needing maintenance. Chaff launchers are effective, but as the British observed, they quickly used their supplies. U.S. carrier air wings are well rounded, but some platforms are no longer modern and cannot effectively fulfill their mission set.
The importance of heavy-lift aircraft in the amphibious environment cannot be understated. The British were limited in the amphibious landing by the lack of heavy-lift helicopters. The use of the CH-53E’s and V-22’s are very important in the flow of supplies and manpower. However, the Sea Dragons are nearing 40 years old, there is no plan to replace them, and no more are being produced. This type of helicopter needs to be reassessed and the program should be revitalized. Ospreys are capable aircraft with a wide mission set, yet are prone to being grounded with mechanical issues.
Maintaining a large number of amphibious capable ships is important. The British ran into issues offloading their supplies from their requisitioned merchant vessels, ultimately leading to breakdowns in the supply chain and loss of life. Specialized amphibious ships are essential for amphibious assault because of their rapid offload capability, survivability, and ability to lift specialized military equipment. In an analysis of the Navy’s amphibious warfare ships for deploying Marines overseas, the Congressional Budget Office found that our current inventory, and projection of ships in inventory, is far behind what the Navy and Marine Corps say they need to meet mission demand. If an armed conflict the scale of the Falklands emerges we would need even more amphibious vessels.
While the Falklands War may have occurred 34 years ago, it still offers insight into what challenges are to come as we enter an era of uncertainty and tension between near-peer powers. Lessons from the past should not be ignored, and should instead serve as a reminder for future conflicts.
In-flight refueling equipment, fitted to carrier-capable C-2 Greyhounds, make refueling and long-range logistic support possible for U.S. carrier battle groups. This also enables air dropping equipment and supplies to ground forces, which the British required and found difficulty in doing to. This is especially important as land runways are not always available in situations requiring cargo-capable aircraft.
One capability that the U.S. Navy has is the availability of heavy-lift helicopters. The CH-53 Sea Dragon, while old, provides a key capability that constrained the British The importance of these heavy-lift helicopters cannot be undervalued. The British only had four of such aircraft, which was a constant limit on their capabilities. The carrier air wings used for amphibious operations should use these to their upmost ability.
The vast quantities of munitions used in the Falklands reinforces the need to have constant supply lines and logistical support. The experiences from the Falklands call for an evaluation of policy regarding the disposal of older weapons, as they are still useable and when supplies are constrained they might be needed.
During the Falklands War, the British faced Argentine aircraft repeatedly penetrating British defenses in daylight. These attacks hampered resupply of land forces, ship movement, and ultimately brought great harm to British forces. The success of the Argentine forces was largely caused by Britain’s lack of antiair capabilities, antiship missile defense, and airborne early warning.