China’s Falkland Islands Lesson

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China’s Falkland Islands Lesson

The 1982 Falklands War and the growing tensions now could be instructive for Chinese naval strategists.

We’re rapidly approaching the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War (April to June 1982), which saw the British military reclaim the United Kingdom’s remote South Atlantic island possessions from Argentine invaders.

Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, a former British Army chief of staff, recently made headlines when he proclaimed that defense cuts make it “just about impossible” for British naval forces to wrest back the Falklands should Argentina occupy them again. The Royal Navy retired aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal last year, leaving the navy with zero capacity to project fixed-wing air power by sea until the troubled Queen Elizabeth-class flattops enter service, presumably around the end of this decade. London also sold the nation’s entire inventory of Harrier jump jets to the U.S. Marine Corps for spare parts, leaving the navy with zero air power to project until the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter enters service, also around the end of the decade.

Like nature, power politics abhors a vacuum. It’s probably no coincidence that Buenos Aires is ramping up its demands for the islands as Britain’s capacity to re-conquer them dwindles. Economically stagnant Argentina desperately wants to tap the natural resources found in the waters and seabed adjacent to the Falklands. A recent series of oil discoveries – most recently in the “Sea Lion” field eighty miles north of the islands – has spurred talk of a “black gold rush” in the South Atlantic. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has reproached London for exhausting “Argentinean natural resources” while vowing to “get [the islands] back.” Meanwhile, Britain’s shrinking expeditionary capability has reduced officials like Brig. Bill Aldridge, commander of British forces in the South Atlantic, to insisting that it matters little whether the British military can recover the Falklands; it will never lose them in the first place. Declares Aldridge, “I am not expecting to hand the islands over to anybody and therefore put us in a position to have to retake the islands.”

Maybe hope really is a strategy!

The latest kerfuffle has caught some attention beyond Argentina and the British Isles. You can bet strategists in China are monitoring events in the South Atlantic closely. These are people who do their homework. They afforded the 1982 conflict close scrutiny, finding much to commend and condemn on both sides, and many lessons to learn. A few years ago, my colleague Lyle Goldstein read their commentary on the Falklands and wrote an article documenting their findings. It only makes sense that Beijing would regard the campaign as a source of guidance for contemporary strategy. Just look at the map – a Western sea power fought a short war to reverse a weaker regional power’s seizure of islands it considered sovereign territory. Geography compelled the extra-regional power to stage military operations across thousands of miles of ocean, where the local power enjoyed such advantages as proximity to the combat theater, abundant manpower and resources, and intimate familiarity with the surroundings.

Sound familiar?

What lessons about strategy, tactics, and force structure is Beijing likely to derive from the British experiences then and now? Lyle’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the bumper sticker for the guidance China takes from the conflict: a local power can overcome a stronger outside power if it is more willing than its antagonist to bear the costs and hazards of war, makes good use of its “home field advantage,” and acquires certain specialized weaponry in adequate numbers.

For example, Chinese commentators highlight the battle damage inflicted by Argentine Super Étendard fighter jets firing Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles. When I taught firefighting and damage control in the 1990s, we started off each new class by showing a film from the Falklands. My favorite part was when the skipper of the sunken HMS Sheffield recalled thinking it was “slightly bad news” when he heard an explosion and turned to see one of the ship’s gun mounts spinning around in the air high over the ship. Monty Python humor aside, the death of the Sheffield confirmed that sea-skimming missiles could evade modern shipboard air defenses and wreak lethal damage. Whether this inspired the People’s Liberation Army Navy to premise its anti-ship tactics on “saturation attacks” that overwhelm a fleet’s defenses is an open question. More likely, such encounters reaffirmed tacticians’ preexisting preference for cruise missiles as an implement of war. Had Argentine aviators possessed more than a few Exocets, conclude Chinese observers, the outcome of the conflict could have been far different.

Or, there’s undersea warfare. Both navies put submarines to effective use as an offensive weapon; both performed miserably at finding and sinking enemy submarines. A Royal Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine made short work of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, prompting the Argentine surface fleet to stay safely out of range for the rest of the war. For their part, Royal Navy anti-submarine crews were unable to reliably classify sonar or magnetic contacts, so they “classified targets with ordnance.” That’s a fancy way of saying they dropped anti-submarine munitions on anything with a signature remotely resembling that of an Argentine boat. This ham-fisted approach had a perverse strategic effect: it virtually exhausted the Royal Navy’s war stock of antisubmarine weaponry at a time of surging tension in the Cold War. The division of labor among NATO fleets assigned British mariners the task of policing North Atlantic waters for Soviet craft. That was hard to do once the Falklands campaign emptied Royal Navy warships’ weapons magazines. Lesson: antisubmarine warfare is hard even for the world’s most advanced navies.

How will the PLA Navy and the shore-based arms of Chinese sea power put such lessons to work in future conflicts? Savvy commanders might strike at U.S. Navy reinforcements steaming westward across the Pacific far from Asian coasts, wearing them down during their long voyage. Argentina missed several opportunities to make things tough on the oncoming British task force before it reached the theater. That China would repeat this mistake is doubtful. Targeting logistics vessels carrying supplies to U.S. carrier or amphibious groups, for instance, would be a convenient way to disrupt any relief operation off Taiwan or some other hotspot. These lumbering ships are few in number, carry token defensive armament, and often cruise without protective escorts. They would be easy pickings for Chinese submarines, let alone multidirectional cruise-missile strikes of the kind Chinese rocketeers envision. Take out the oilers, refrigeration ships, and ammunition ships, and the fleet withers on the vine.

In short, as they consider how to pierce Chinese “anti-access” defenses, U.S. strategists could do worse than investigate what pundits from the “red team” are saying about the Falklands dispute – then and now.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-editor of the forthcoming ‘Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age’ (Georgetown University Press). The views voiced here are his alone.