IN HINDSIGHT all naval powers learnt lessons from the Argentine-British conflict in the Falkland Islands in 1982. Dr. Juan Carlos Murguizur had this to say in an article published in the International Defence Review earlier this year.
While it is true that in terms of NATO strategy the Royal Navy has been confined to a secondary role, it is equally clear that in all areas it was vastly superior in strength to the Argentinian fleet. In all the naval encounters of Argentina’s short history as an independent nation, the fleet had always been inferior to the enemy in terms of equipment, and yet, through improvisation and ingenuity, it had managed each time to overcome this disadvantage and emerge successful.
In the Falklands conflict of 1982 the location of the theatre of operations created such logistic difficulties for the British task force that, initially, Argentinian hopes were raised by the prospect of being able to repeat the successes of the past. These hopes were, however, dashed with the arrival in the area of British submarines – conventionally powered vessels to operate in the shallow waters of the continental shelf and nuclear vessels for the deeper waters beyond. It became patently obvious that it would not be possible to defend surface vessels against submarine attack and the decision was taken, wisely, to call all surface ships back into port; the decision came too late, however, to save the General Belgrano.
From the various contacts outside the exclusion zone, it became clear that the range of the Argentinian destroyer’s sonar equipment was much inferior to that of the British submarines torpedoes and it was possible only to try to escape detection in the hope of avoiding the torpedoes. The Argentine destroyer Segui was, in fact, located close to the mainland by a British submarine which refrained from using its torpedoes doubtless for political reasons.
On board British surface ships similar situation were experienced. When the small Argentinian submarine San Luis made one of its abortive torpedo attacks, three British vessels, two of them frigates or destroyers, made off in different directions at top speed.
Helicopters, the most effective ASW weapons, were severely hampered by the excessively heavy seas so common at these latitudes. Take-off, recovery and remaining in the hover when deploying the dunking sonar became very hazardous.
It seems clear therefore that, at present, in the oceans adjacent to South America, surface vessels are no real match for submarines. And one is bound, with this in mind, to question the wisdom of continuing the past policy of the Argentinian Navy, namely placing emphasis on surface ships. Pursuing this line of thinking, one could speculate that, even if Argentina had possessed four times the number of Type 42 destroyers and missile-armed corvettes (that is eight and 12 respectively and thus a sizeable fleet), the situation would not have been very different. In an encounter with enemy forces, many such vessels would have been sunk by British submarines, in all probability even before being able to engage the RN’s surface ships. On the other hand, with half a dozen submarines, it would have been possible to inflict grave losses on the enemy and even frustrate his invasion plans.