25 years ago the first major air-land-sea war of the Missile Age was fought over a few sparsely populated islands in the far-off South Atlantic. Being the first major naval encounter since World War 2 with large fleet units on both sides, the 1982 Falklands Conflict offers many useful insights on conducting future warfare:
- Numbers still count. Before the war, Britain was prepared to sell off a huge chunk of her Royal Navy, including a brand new aircraft carrier plus her 2 remaining assault landing ships, while reducing the number of Royal Marines. The timely Argentine invasion interrupted these plans with bare months to spare. Also, when several warships were lost due to cruise missiles and bombs, these were easily replaced in the frontline thanks to her large fleet of over 50 destroyers and frigates.
- Military heritage still matters. Though the British armed forces were a shadow of her Imperial self, it still could field several old and highly skilled infantry units, including the Parachute Regiment, Royal Marines, SAS Commandos, the Ghurkas. Such professional volunteers easily bested the ill trained conscripts of the Argentine Army.
- Cruise Missiles decide strategy. The single factor in the placement of naval forces, other than the exceedingly long logistical chain to the South Atlantic, was the new power and reach of cruise missiles, as proven dramatically after the sinking of HMS Sheffield by a single Argentine Exocet missile. The British carriers were forced to sail at their planes operational limit to distance themselves from this threat, and the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano was decided for fear she carried such weapons. The loss of a single aircraft carrier might have decided the war.
- Every ship is an aircraft carrier. The capabilities of the Harrier "jump jet" astounded friend and foe alike, with its capability against land based fighters, while being able to fly in the most adverse weather off any flight deck. Such planes could fly off a short runway of light carriers, or even a merchant vessel. The West's future jump jet, the F-35B Lightning could be spread throughout the fleet, along with new unmanned aerial vehicles, rather than limited to a few vulnerable and expensive platforms.
- The submarine is the new capital ship. This can be proved after a few observations of the sinking of the Argentine ship Belgrano by HMS Conqueror. The escorting destroyers chose to flee for their lives after the sinking, when in WW 2 they would have immediately attacked the aggressor sub. Likewise the Argentine Navy fled to port for the duration of the conflict. The lesson here is: Ignore the power of the modern nuclear attack sub at your peril!