The Falklands War: lessons unlearned

You could almost certainly write a book on the unlearned lessons of the Falklands War. Alex Harrowell is aiming to track down a few in a typically provocative series of posts. These, however, seem like good ones to start with:

1) Infantry soldiers win wars.

Not on their own, certainly. But they are almost always needed to fight wars, and needed, if anything, even more when the task is ‘peacekeeping’ or deterrrence.

The British military, since 1945, has played a role in- not always actually ‘fought’ in- at least 26 conflicts. Some of these committments were pretty tiny and short-lived, but they include several long-running guerrilla wars (notably Palestine, Malayan Emergency, and Northern Ireland- and now the current occupation of Iraq); supporting roles in three full-scale conventional wars (Korea, the liberation of Kuwait and the invasion of Iraq) and the Falklands War itself, a full conventional air-sea-land war fought between Britain and another state.

The SAS were the key formation in Oman from 1970-75; the disastrous confrontation in the 1940s with Hoxha’s Albania was a purely Naval affair, and the RAF spent 12 years supporting the USAF in overflying, and occasionally bombing, Iraq. In every other conflict, British infantry and Para battalions, and Royal Marine Commandos, were deployed in large numbers and either won the conflict or prevented an immediate defeat.

So the lesson ought to be plain: the British military has spent 60 years relying on its infantry. Don’t cut their numbers. Logically, therefore,  the whole history of post-Falklands defence policy has been to cut infantry numbers.

Counting the 3 Royal Marine Commandos, and the Para Battalion roled as ‘Special Forces Support’ Britain now has 40 Regular infantry battalions. At the time of the Falklands, the country had 56, of which eight were deployed to the South Atlantic.

The most recent cut, of four battalions, came in 2004, at the hands of a Government that had sent troops into warzones five times and was currently attempting to fight two wars.  The rationale offered for the cuts does not appear, to put it mildly, to have been an honest one. The same is true for the even more serious problem of infantry undermanning: predictable in an Army which pays high rates to those with obviously transferable civilian skills (in practice this means the Royal Signals and very few other units) and rewards its key fighting arm with low pay. 

 With the MoD calculating that only one out of three battalions can be deployed at any one time- and with, further, a sixth of the Army’s infantry strength currently ruled out of operational deployments as they equip with the Bowman radio system- we can deploy perhaps 11 or 12 infantry battalions at any one time.

With hideous difficulties looming in both Basra and Helmand, we will need reserves – not of ‘soldiers’ but reserves of infantry- to prevent an outright debacle. And there are no reserves.

2) Wars are easy, think fools.

 The Falklands war was lethally hard, and only narrowly decided. Of course, you wouldn’t have guessed that from reading the newspapers at the time.

In its diplomatic and political context, the Thatcher government’s information management strategy becomes plain.  There was always a chance that the tendency in the Reagan Administration which favoured an Argentine military dictatorship over a democratic Britain- led, of course, by the freedom-loving Jeanne Kirkpatrick– would push their President into pressurising Britain to accept terms. This was more likely if the British seemed to be close to defeat, less likely if the British projected an air of confidence.

In the service of the latter, all sorts of stories about ‘Argies’ running away filled the tabloids. Their readers came to believe that it had been, as the football chant has it: ‘Easy…Eaz-eeee!’

 These views were never held by the Paras who took Goose Green and Mount Longdon, the Guardsmen who stormed Tumbledown or the Marines who seized Mount Harriet and Two Sisters; they were not voiced by the sailors who marvelled at the courage of the Argentine fighter pilots attacking them. They were emphatically never shared by the commanders of the Task Force: in particular, Rear Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward estimated at the end of the campaign that his ships could have fought for a maximum of ten more days before General Winter won the war for Argentina. There’s no doubt that Margaret Thatcher knew this too.

After the Falklands came the 1991 Gulf War- often, and stupidly, referred to as ‘The First Gulf War’, as if the Iranian and Iraqi leaders had not recently spent eight years slaughtering each other’s populations.  ‘Desert Storm’- or ‘Operation Granby’ among the prosaic British military- did genuinely seem ‘easy’: American and British casualties were very few, and a bombing offensive of a few weeks led to a ground campaign which lasted mere hours.

It was easy because the Iraqi troops were led by a cowed group of Generals owing loyalty to a gangster who understood everything about internal repression and nothing about war. Easy because there was never any chance of a guerrilla campaign. Easy because all Iraq’s neighbours wanted Saddam to lose (but remain, weakened, in power). Easy because, as General Anthony Zinni later put it, the American military had prepared for decades to re-fight the Second World War, and in Saddam Hussein they found the one man stupid enough to let them do so. And it was easy only for Coalition troops: the old realities of warfare reasserted themselves in the hills of Kurdistan and the cities of Southern Iraq.

After that there came the initially embarrassing UNPROFOR committment to Bosnia: but failures and difficulties there were largely un-noticed by the British public, all too ready to swallow the line about the ineducably savage ex-Yugoslavs. Some people drew another, seemingly sterner conclusion, and decided that the only thing preventing the Bosnian war from being easy was lack of will: a theory which Tony Blair seemed to prove in Kosovo in 1999, in Sierra Leone in 2000, in Macedonia in 2001, and in the same year, in a supporting role to the Americans, in Afghanistan. War was easy, if you had enough Will. Brendan Simms crowed, in December of that year, that only four British soldiers had been killed in  Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo combined.

Well, we know where that led. To Basra, and to Helmand, where more Britons will die, Brendan Simms not among them. 

Simms, and men like him, fill me with contempt. If you are going to advocate war, do so. But not on the grounds- which would be morally frivolous even if they were not factually absurd- that war has become a risk-free business. Find out about war before you shout for it, and then if you do still call for it you will know that ‘easy’ wars are the exception; high casualties and great risks are features of most wars and are latent in all.

Of all the unlearned lessons of the Falklands, this disturbs me most. Anyone who read the memoirs of the Scots Guards Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, or of Para Toms like Ken Lukowiak and Vince Bramley, or the histories of Martin Middlebrook or Max Hastings, or who spoke to soldiers, knew that for the British military the Falklands War had been savagely fought and nearly lost. Were these books read by any of the men who formed our Cabinet in 2002 and 2003? I doubt it. They were a bunch of lawyers and lecturers who attended football matches to demonstrate their populist credentials, and they knew the rhythm of the chant: ‘Easy…eaz-eee!’


4 Responses to “The Falklands War: lessons unlearned”

  1. Surreptitious Evil Says:


    With regard to your first point – the PBI – what is necessary is the appropriate force mix for the job in hand. Both, historically, for Northern Ireland, and for the current operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, the job is on-the-ground peace-making/keeping and that does require dismounted troops. Clearly, the most professional dismounted fighting troops we have are the infantry battalions – heavy and light.

    However, the current decimation-several-times-over is not necessarily because the infanteers are not well regarded by the (military) hierarchy – Generals Jackson, Rose & Delves all came from a line background. Recruitment and retention are clearly significant problems and not necessarily ones that are trivially solved by retention bonuses. (In your infantry numbers, you may also want to include the Rock-Apes.) The current FAS, with its ending of so many years of tradition, has not been done solely for the purpose of pissing off the old’n’bold (although Jacko having come from a “big regiment” background clearly helped). The ending of the ridiculous “arms plot” re-roling and improving the career opportunities available for senior NCOs and mid-seniority officers at Regimental Duty are both entirely worthwhile aims (although, from a personal level, I do wish that they could have done it within a tighter brigade structure, and kept the regiments. Still, I am not, and never will be, a Regimental Colonel.)

    As well as the necessary military force mix for the task, the overall force structure needs to be appropriate for the tasks the government is going to give the military. As this mob’s current policy seems to be “Whatever George says,” this is rather hard. We are too structured, still, towards the Soviet hordes pouring over the Inner German Border, and this needs to change. I had some ideas here and there are many other, probably more worthy, commentators from the recently ex serving fraternity (especially Lewis Page.) Perhaps it is time for us to remember the US Marine Corps dictum – every marine is a rifleman!

    Your second point is very valid. (I would recommend Hugh Bicheno’s book “Razor’s Edge” for a different slant on the Falklands.) The current attitude of the lawyers, union hacks and [cough] professional [cough] politicians who runs and particularly the MOD is dreadful. The “can do, will do” attitude that is the core of the UK military outlook is so alien to these statist freaks that they seem to think that they can get away with the continual underfunding and denigration (for part(l)y political purposes) of the military. And we are letting them get away with it.

    I remember that brief honeymoon period when the greatest risk to UK personnel in Iraq seemed to be from road traffic accidents – violence of any sort is dangerous, military actions generally involve extreme violence, and the uncertainty of counter-insurgency operations, especially in alien cultures, has proved again and again (since WW2) to be a particularly dangerous example of the breed.


  2. purplepangolin Says:

    Another great post. Have you considered allowing people to comment here without having to log in to wordpress? I often enjoy reading the comments of others on a piece that I have found thought provoking but I think many are deterred by having to log in.

  3. danhardie Says:

    Purple: the Word Press account takes a few seconds to acquire, and I’m keeping it because I hope it will deal with spam: not a big deal now, but potentially a problem as the number of posts increases.

  4. danhardie Says:

    S.E: Yes, Bicheno’s book is excellent in parts (particularly its treatment of domestic Argentine politics and the histories of individual land battles; he’s the one writer to make a real effort to describe the topography, which was crucial). It also has a number of flaws: all sorts of assertions are made without a single substantiating reference and the account of strategic decision-making is unclear, to put it politely.

    Defence procurement: I agree entirely and will post on the topic, if I can find something intelligent to say. Alex ‘Yorkshire Ranter’ Harrowell’s blog has a great deal of wisdom on this, and many other, topics.

    End of the arms plot: yes, a definite good move. And the move towards permanent garrison towns is excellent news for for both soldiers and their families. I think Jackson was very good at bringing in beneficial long-term changes, and utterly lousy at reacting to contingencies, eg making sure that funding increased in line with deployments.

    Rock Apes (RAF Regiment)- I don’t want to sneer and know very little about them. They can certainly do a good job as perimeter and convoy security, or providing QRFs: but can they actually perform the range of tasks that an Army bn or Marine Cdo can?

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