Research Paper

Bridge over Troubled Waters: Ensuring US Naval Excellence in the South China Sea through Analysis of the 1982 Falklands War

The increased tensions between the United States and China in the contested waters of the South China Sea has led to a doctrinal awakening within US Navy’s Surface Warfare community.

Bridge over Troubled Waters: Ensuring US Naval Excellence in the South China Sea through Analysis of the 1982 Falklands War

By: Zachary George
Graduate Student, Masters of International Service
American University, School of International Service


The increased tensions between the United States and China in the contested waters of the South China Sea has led to a doctrinal awakening within US Navy’s Surface Warfare community. Between 1992 and 2014, the US Navy has never seriously considered the possibility of a large, traditional “blue water” confrontation between two modern fleets. The US Navy’s current tactical proficiency in sea-to-land strike operations, support of counter-terror/insurgency operations, (including those in Iraq, Libya, the Balkans), and the dilapidation of the once impressive Soviet foe reduced the importance of conducting traditional naval warfare exercises, such as offensive anti-ship strikes and emissions control procedures to mask their movements.

In 2015, the administrative head of the Surface Navy, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, called for a return to traditional open ocean naval tactics that focus on force-on-force battles. His new strategic precept, entitled Distributed Lethality, seeks the rearmament of naval vessels with newer and longer reaching anti-ship weapons while operating in a communications-denied environment. While the US Navy has engaged in some limited “blue water” naval engagements since the end of World War II, both naval tacticians and strategists have a few cases from which to draw applicable lessons. While World War II contained the largest naval battles ever fought in history, the tactics and operational art can find limited applicability with today’s modern weapons.

Therefore, to gain a better understanding of the challenges a modern expeditionary naval conflict, analysis of the only modern case in which two naval powers engaged in open ocean battle over territory is critical. The 1982 Falklands War was uniquely characterized by the use of modern naval technology, such as supersonic missiles and satellite communications. These capabilities exponentially increased both the speed and scope of military operations. Although Argentina and the United Kingdom possessed an array of force multipliers, victory still required overcoming the operational friction created by the conflict’s expeditionary nature, namely logistical hardships. The British obtained this victory in ten weeks by holding their dominance of the seas, and in all honesty, surprising Buenos Aires by quickly assembling and deploying a force to rescue a small footprint of the old British Empire. This defeat greatly undermined the military Junta’s legitimacy, and in 1983, Argentina returned to a democracy. In the following analysis, these factors are considered and then operationalized for US policy makers and warfighters who must shape a naval force ready for battle in the South China Sea against the growing threat from China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now and in the future.


Two devastating world wars, decolonization efforts, and an economic crisis in the 1950s forced the Royal Navy to make difficult budgetary choices that downgraded the fleet from a world hegemon to a regional power. The strategic precept driving this naval drawdown was an idea of fleet specialization, since the Royal Navy relied on the offensive nature of the United States’ carrier forces to combat the daunting Soviet Fleet. Instead of investing in carrier killing technologies, British warships focused on serving as NATO’s small, highly trained, and specialized anti-submarine assets that protected the Greenland-Iceland-UK Maritime Gap and the North Sea against transiting Soviet Northern Fleet submarines. This precept eventually redirected the Royal Navy’s acquisition efforts to center on anti-submarine weaponry and equipment in addition to manpower and training. These specialization efforts would ironically run contrary to the power projection requirements needed during the Falklands endeavor. The most striking example of the fleet’s downsizing in the late 1970s was the proposed lay-up of the helicopter carriers HMS HERMES and HMS INVINCIBLE, which would have removed Britain’s only robust afloat command and control assets. This lay-up was thankfully cancelled once the Argentines invaded the Falklands.

Along with financial constraints, the decolonization of former Crown dependencies left the UK with limited logistical options between the home islands and the isolated Falklands. This forced the British to operate their military assets without solid and short sea lines of communications (SLOC).” Post-World War II, the British granted independence to three countries in West Africa (Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria) and one in South America (British Guyana), which could have served as secure logistical ports and/or emergent repair depots between the British Isles and the Falklands. The closest British Crown Dependency to the area of operations was the 32-square mile Accession Island, located approximately 1,000 miles west of Africa’s southwestern coast. The island possessed only a small airfield that could enable flying in technical support personnel/contractors, who could tackle small problems, versus a robust naval repair facility, including drydocks, capable of conducting major battle repairs. Consequently, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Admiralty knew that they had to send Admiral Woodward and his Task Force to retake the islands with the following dangers:
1) A naval task force not structured for offensive amphibious operations,
2) Limited depth of replacement warships due to a downsized fleet
3) Limited or non-existent local fleet repair facilities or supply depots.

While the UK could leverage the robust presence of the United States in the European theater to offset the effects of the downsizing, Whitehall and 10th Downing Street likely never realized that soon it would have to face an enemy on British soil independent of the United States or NATO allies..


The Las Malvinas invasion, as the Falklands War is known in Argentina, was almost certainly a calculated, nationalist move intended to shore up public support for the newly installed military junta led by Lieutenant General Leopoldo Galtieri. The degraded Royal Navy’s expeditionary forces, the priority on defensive operations against Soviet submarines in Northern Europe, and the limited military footprint in the South Atlantic swayed Galtieri toward invasion. On April 2, 1982, Galtieri gave the invasion order and, in two days, the Argentinian Army raised their national banner over the British governor’s house in the capital of Stanley.

Although the Argentinian forces were ten times closer to the Falkland Islands than their foe, the distance and the isolation of the islands posed an operational challenge to establishing and sustaining a military presence capable of withstanding an attack. Reinforcements and provisions could only be sent via long-range airlift or sealift to the newly created garrisons at Stanley and the inland town of Goose Green, making such modes of transportation critical operational vulnerabilities. For example, by sealift, a transport vessel would need to travel 973 nautical miles from naval bases near Buenos Aires to reach the Falklands. At a nominal 15 nautical mile cruising speed, this journey would take approximately two days. This long logistical timeline, in a war fought with supersonic weapons, made the isolation of the Argentinian garrisons on the Falklands seem even more vulnerable.

Faster than sealift, airlift would first require Argentinian air supremacy over the Falklands. Yet, during the conflict, Argentinian control of the islands’ air domain was fragile at best. This was due to the Argentinian High Command’s decision not to expand the island’s rudimentary runways, which were created primarily for transport aircraft and helicopters. This decision resulted in their advanced fighter aircraft remaining on the long runways found on the Argentine mainland. The French–exported MIRAGE and SUPER ENTENDARD advanced fighters remained in Argentina throughout the war and relied on a complex aerial tanker network to “leap-frog” toward the battle space. This created fuel restraints that decreased their combat radius against the well-positioned British naval task force. Ultimately, the Falkland airfields only supported smaller American-exported A-4 SKYHAWK ground attack aircraft and helicopters that were not well equipped with anti-ship weapons.

If the advanced fighters could have been forward deployed to Stanley or Goose Green airfields, then their combat radius would have enabled them to intercept the British Task Force with multiple attack runs instead of single attacks. The possibility of attacks from multiple angles and runs would make the air defense of the British carriers HMS HERMES and HMS INVINCIBLE a harder tactical problem for Admiral Woodward. To combat this problem, he would need to fan out his warships to provide adequate air defense coverage down at least three threat bearings while having at least one warship between the inbound enemy aircraft and his command ships at all times for layered defense. This warship-stationing requirement, compounded with the necessity for refueling the warships, could result in even less anti-air assets available for 24-hour air defense coverage. During the actual war, the Argentinian fighters were forced to fly out from the homeland, receive fuel over the ocean, and then attack down a single threat axis against the Task Force at near maximum weapons release range. This decreased the Argentinian offensive kill-ratio immensely and did not take advantage of multiple attack angles or runs.


For the Royal Navy, their inability to conduct an offensive amphibious operation was a critical factor that placed their fleet in a vulnerable situation against air attacks. Selecting a non-opposed beachfront at San Carlos (located inside the protected inner Falklands Sound), instead of a direct assault on the well-defended and coastal Stanley, provided the task force with a simplified amphibious operation. Yet, this choice exponentially increased the threat from enemy fighters due to the fjord-like topography of the Falkland Sound. The hills adjacent to the sound decreased the warship’s air search radar horizons, limiting their depth-of-fire against each inbound air target, which knowingly used the hills for their advantage.

To increase depth-of-fire, a warship must detect the air threat at the maximum range of its air search radar, with search ranges varying depending on atmospheric ducting and other environmental factors. This maximum target acquisition distance provides the operator more time to make tactical decisions such as: target identification, weapon-to-target assignment, and ultimately a missile launch. If the target detection occurs at shorter ranges, the operator must conduct the same engagement sequence, albeit with time constraints. This reduces the salvo size or delays the launch order altogether. In the end, the Argentinian pilots took advantage of the geography, which allowed them to surprise the British task force and to sink the destroyers: HMS COVENTRY, HMS ARDENT, and HMS ANTELOPE.

The amphibious landing at San Carlos forced the Royal Marines and British Army’s Second Paratrooper Regiment to trek across a barren landscape, which provided no natural cover against enemy aerial attack or reconnaissance sorties. Yet, this landscape did not work fully in favor of the Argentinian occupational forces. They lacked physical concealment against air strikes and the lack of trees, hills, and valleys were not appealing if the remaining infantry forces were ordered to hold on and conduct a limited protracted war once the British landed. If the Argentinians resorted to a protracted war as a last resort measure, the British public likely could not have stomached the high mortality rate associated with a prolonged war of attrition. After months of enduring conflict, a pressured British Government could have sent their fleet back to their home in Portsmouth and ended their attempt for Falkland solidarity.

One alternative assessment is that advanced military technology allowed both nations to easily overcome the geographic challenges of the Falklands War. With respect to the air war, development in missile technology, most notably the long range of the French-exported EXOCET anti-ship cruise missiles, allowed the Argentines to launch sorties safely from their home airfields. This ensured that the air regiment’s supporting cast (maintenance, operational planners, and logistics specialists) was protected from potential British bombing throughout the war. More importantly, it also allowed the Argentinian High Command to augment the smaller Argentinian Naval Air Force with land-based Air Force aircraft. This greatly expanded the number of strike assets, as opposed to relying on a small naval air regiment embarked on only one aircraft carrier. For the UK, intricate replenishment-at-sea networks and assistance from the US, in the form of air-to-air missiles and intelligence, mitigated their concerns about distance and enabled the restock of supplies while staying near the seaborne operational area.


For US Naval planners and tactical thinkers, analysis of the Falklands War provides many lessons in the costs associated with long lines of logistics and operations, which the US Navy would likely have to contend with during a confrontation with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea. The US Navy does maintain continuous seaborne and airborne patrols in the South China Sea from their forward naval bases in Japan, but the force footprint within the US Seventh Fleet is much diminished when compared to the Cold War. Notably, in the 1990s, the US lost naval bases in the Philippines, which are significantly closer to the South China Sea operational area. In addition, any future redevelopment there will likely be hindered in the near term, as anti-American Philippine President Duterte wants no further US military presence in the country, even though the two nations maintain a mutual defense agreement.

Therefore, US Navy must seek additional options to shorten the logistical lines within China’s ever growing anti-axis/area denial blanket. Already, the Navy is building ships that enable sea-basing, such as the Expeditionary Transfer Dock class. Yet, these ships are not armed even with basic defensive capabilities, leaving them vulnerable and in need of protection from other warships. With a total ship count hovering between 270 to 290 (well below the requested 308), the Pacific fleet will likely continue to have limited assets as the US stretches the Navy to deter Russia and support counter-terror operations in Syria and Iraq. While both President Trump and uniformed leaders are calling for an increase in force numbers to 350 warships, the lengthy acquisitions process hinders the development of a force this size until likely a decade or more. Remember, the British ran into the same problem when it enlisted unarmed supply ships to augment the task force with one ship, the Atlantic Conveyor, falling victim to a well-placed EXOCET missile.

Like their British and Argentinian predecessors, US Naval leaders have already realized that they will be facing a near-peer competitor force during any fight in the South China Sea, which is likely to include carrier-on-carrier warfare as the Chinese continue a strong shipbuilding campaign. The targeting and tracking of these operational centers of gravity will be critical during any confrontation and will require new tactics and weapons that have very little overlap with the close air support missions that naval aviators have flown during the last 25 years in the Balkans, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. This should make the world’s last carrier-versus-carrier battle required study by the Naval War College academics, war-planning staffs, and fleet officers. It is finally time to let go of the tenets learned in the now outdated American carrier victory at Midway and focus intently on a conflict that is closer to today’s digital communications and weaponry.

Lastly, for the US Navy to win in battle, it must understand the geographic impacts of an expeditionary conflict. Unlike the British who were fighting over only one pair of islands, the US must consider the labyrinth of newly created and future airbases and sea bases in the Spratly Islands, and their impacts on operations. Instead of simulating a carrier battle in the open ocean, the US must now consider forward deployed, island-based fighters in concert with seaborne assets launching from the Chinese carrier. What the US cannot do is fall into the trap of establishing a single attack vector instead of a multi-prong strategy.

While the aforementioned concept of Distributed Lethality sets the tone for the force; there is still a long road ahead before the US Navy is tactically and technically ready for modern 21st century naval combat operations in the Pacific. Nevertheless, the Falklands Campaign and its lessons must be used to fill critical information gaps as warfighters and policymakers continue to shape an expeditionary force ready to tackle their hardest operational problem since the Cold War.


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