Air University Review, March-April 1984

Conflict In The South Atlantic

the impact of air power

Dr. Robert W. Duffner

AS THE second anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas approaches, generals on both sides of the Atlantic are still trying to sort out the lessons learned from the conflict. Disappointed Argentines no doubt search for answers to explain why their numerically superior Air Force failed to stop the British. High on the British assessment list is a reevaluation of the role and effectiveness of Harrier jets and the integration of air assets as part of an overall balanced force structure. No matter how these issues are settled finally, one point stands out: air power will continue to have a decisive impact on the outcome of limited wars of the future.

WHEN conflict broke out in April 1982, most military experts expressed a high degree of confidence in the British army and navy. Once the British task force arrived in the South Atlantic, the navy quickly demonstrated its combat effectiveness. On 2 May, its nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror launched two Mk8 torpedoes, sending the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano to the bottom. A total of 360 men died. From this point on, the Argentine Navy remained close to the Argentine mainland and for all practical purposes did not participate in the conflict.1

Few will dispute that the combined British ground forces, the army's crack parachute troops and the navy's Royal Marines, were more than a match for the Argentine units made up primarily of 18- and 19-year-old conscripts. The well-trained and highly disciplined British foot soldiers simply were better fighters. In every major ground operation, in spite of being outnumbered by as much as three to one, the British defeated their adversary and inflicted heavy casualties while suffering relatively few casualties of their own.

Although the British maintained the edge in terms of naval and ground resources, the lines cannot be drawn as clearly for the air war over the islands. From the onset of hostilities, both British political and military leaders were worried about the ability of Royal Air Force and Navy air power to support the task force adequately in the face of Argentine numerical superiority which, at times, was as high as five to one. The British had good reason to worry, as the Argentine Air Force turned out to be a formidable opponent. Neither side established complete air superiority. Right up until the final push on Port Stanley, Argentine fighters penetrated British airspace consistently, causing substantial damage to the fleet; five ships were sunk and at least twenty others hit. British losses numbered 255 for the entire war, but almost 80 percent of these came at the hands of Argentine air strikes on the naval task force. The majority of the 746 Argentine casualties resulted from ground actions supported by artillery and naval gun fire.2

The Argentines held a distinct advantage in the number of combat aircraft available for immediate use in the conflict. These included approximately 44 French-built supersonic Mirage III and Mirage V fighters, 68 American-built Skyhawk A4P fighter-bombers, 8-10 British-built Canberra bombers, and 5 French-built Super Etendard naval attack aircraft and about 60 pesky Argentine Pucará light ground-attack aircraft. Flying against this numerically superior force were 14 Royal Air Force (RAF) Harrier GR3s and 28 Navy Sea Harriers operating off two light aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes (25,000 tons) and HMS Invincible (20,000 tons). A third vessel, the container ship Atlantic Conveyor, provided an alternate landing site for Harriers; but for the most part, its primary mission was to store aircraft, equipment, and supplies.3

What the British lacked in sheer numbers, they made up for with quality aircraft. Both RAF and Sea Harriers carried the improved version of the American-made air-to-air Sidewinder missile, the AIM-9L. The advantage of the 190pound AIM-9L was that the attacking Harrier aircraft did not need to approach its target from behind to allow the missile to home in on the hot exhaust of the enemy plane. Instead, the AIM-9L could be launched "straight on" toward the oncoming aircraft. The missile proved to be a deadly weapon, destroying, according to British claims, five Skyhawks and nineteen Mirages.4 It is not known how many, if any, of those were downed with head-on shots.

Harrier jump-jets performed well beyond the performance expectations of most military experts. The remarkable record of the aircraft is attributed not only to relatively sophisticated gadgetry, such as warning receivers and electronic countermeasures to confuse argentine antiaircraft weapons, but also to the skilled British pilots, the geographic limitations imposed by the location of the conflict area, and the older Argentine planes.5

Harriers were designed for vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL), which allowed them to land and take off like helicopters. By rotating the jet engine nozzles downward, enough thrust was generated to lift the aircraft straight up. This built-in "jump" feature offered certain tactical advantages, mainly that the Harriers did not require long runways. During combat missions, when air traffic conditions became too congested on the Hermes and Invincible, Harriers low on fuel landed at helipads on destroyers.6 There was one glaring exception to the impression that the Argentine Air Force lacked a lethal punch for air operations. A few Super Etendards, carrying French-built Exocet AM39 missiles (range, 45 miles), caused devastating damage to two British ships. On 4 May an Exocet, skimming a few feet over the water at 600 mph, found its mark and, although its warhead did not explode, caused fires that sank the destroyer Sheffield, which had been serving as an early warning station.7

Three weeks later, a second Exocet slammed into the side of the Atlantic Conveyor, sinking the vessel, along with its extremely valuable cargo of repair parts, Chinook helicopters, tentage, and more. The Super Etendard's inertial navigation system and the curvature of the earth permitted the plane to remain undetected by British radar. Once the plane entered British radar coverage, the pilot identified the target quickly with his radar, programmed the flight of the Exocet, launched, and departed the area immediately, not waiting to observe whether the missile struck its target. Hence, the Exocet was advertised as the "fire and forget" missile.8

However, according to most reported accounts, the Argentines had only five of the air-launched Exocets available. Because of the embargo imposed on Argentina by the European Common Market, the French had refused to fill orders for additional missiles.9

In spite of its spectacular successes against British ships, Argentina lost the air-to-air war decisively. Argentine fighter aircraft failed to shoot down a single Harrier. British Harrier losses totaled nine--four to accidents and five by surface-based air defenses--surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and antiaircraft artillery (AAA). The 400 miles from Argentina to the islands partially explained why the score was so lopsided. To make the 800-mile round trip from the Rio Gallegos Air Base on the coast severely strained the maximum operating range of the Argentine aircraft. Consequently, Argentine pilots had all they could do to reach the conflict area undetected and deliver their ordnance, "getting in and getting out" as quickly as possible.

They could not afford to stay around to recon targets or offer much opposition to the Harriers sent up to intercept them, for in doing so, they realized, they would run dangerously low on fuel and might have to ditch in the Atlantic on the return home.10

Because Argentine aerial-refueling capabilities were limited (two KC-130s, plus "buddv refueling" for Skyhawk and Super Etendard aircraft), the potential effect of the Argentine Air Force was reduced significantly. In contrast, the British Harriers operating off carriers did not face the fuel shortage problem and had the luxury of time on their side--factors that allowed them to perform recon and escort missions in addition to air-to-air combat.11

The importance of aerial refueling is perhaps one of the salient teaching points of the war. If Argentine fighters had been supported by a sizable air-refueling capability, they could have rendezvoused with air tankers near the islands. A massive, tanker-supported effort might have been able to tip the scales of the tactical air war more in their favor. On the other hand, the British were very dependent on the vital support role that aerial tankers played in logistical operations, reconnaissance/early-warning flights, and strategic bombing runs.

To sustain their task force, the British refueled tactical aircraft and transport planes (ferrying men and supplies) while in flight from England to the logistical base at Ascension Island, midway between the war zone and the home front. A few RAF Harriers flew directly from Ascension to the flight deck of the Hermes, refueled along the way by Victor K-2 tankers. Tankers also refueled Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft on more than a hundred occasions. These latter flights lasted approximately fifteen hours each; however, they did not pick up enough intelligence to have any substantial impact on combat operations.12

Air tankers contributed also to three long-range bombing runs made on the Port Stanley airfield to destroy the runway, any planes parked there, and associated storage facilities. Two other raids were directed at a radar site that was providing information on British air activity to the Argentine defenders. Although these attacks set a record for the longest combat missions in the history of air warfare (8000 miles--round trip from Ascension to the disputed islands), they failed to disable any of the Argentine facilities. The first flight on 1 May, for example, dropped twenty-one 1000-pound bombs, but only one of the bombs landed on the runway. This lone crater did not prevent the Pucará fighter and Hercules cargo planes from using the runway. Yet even though the Vulcans caused only minor material damage, dropping 1000-pound bombs in the early morning hours under the cover of darkness probably did have the psychological effect of lowering the morale of Argentine soldiers on the ground.13

Selection of the 4100-foot paved airstrip at Port Stanley as a target demonstrated the British concern for this prime piece of real estate. Once they arrived in the war zone, Harrier jets from time to time had attacked the airfield by dropping 1000-pound bombs but were unsuccessful. Antiaircraft (35-mm and 20-mm guns), plus Tigercat and Roland surface-to-air missiles positioned near the airport, posed too great a risk for the Harriers to mount an intensive campaign. Besides, as the war progressed, it became clear that British fighters could drive off most Argentine transport planes trying to land at Port Stanley, at least those attempting to fly in during daylight hours. In essence, the British had established a partially effective aerial blockade of Port Stanley, which was the logistical lifeline for ground troops on the islands.14 More important, they almost completely halted aerial resupply from Port Stanley to troops in other isolated garrisons throughout the island, depriving them of even limited stocks that would have been available.

The Argentines had at least four weeks to build up supply stock levels before the British task force reached the islands. From May through the first week of June, some transports (landing at night) reached Port Stanley to bring in more supplies. If the war had lasted more than a few months, with the interruption of aerial resupply, it is doubtful that the Argentines could have held out for any length of time.

The Argentines made a serious misjudgment by not using the month of April to work on extending the Port Stanley runway. If they had accomplished this vital task, a more effective defense of Port Stanley could have been achieved. A longer runway could have accepted the much needed Skyhawks and Mirages, allowing them to perform both counterair and close air support missions. Operating from a land base on the islands, Skyhawks and Mirages would not have been so severely restricted by the limitations of fuel and distance. By significantly increasing the time that they could spend in the air and with at least a three-to-one advantage in fighter aircraft, the Argentine pilots might have been able to overwhelm the small British air force by numbers alone. Also, with the critical element of staying power working in their favor, they could have engaged in more recon missions to collect more accurate intelligence on the kind and location of targets. Even more important, Argentine fighters flying out of Port Stanley would have had a better opportunity to locate and successfully attack the British fleet. This achievement might have altered the outcome of the conflict.

The "what if" questions of warfare abound in almost any conflict, but in this particular case the importance of maintaining a secure tactical air and logistical base is illustrated clearly. The British supply lines extended across a distance twenty times greater than that of the Argentines. Yet the British were able to support and protect their air resources much better than the nearby Argentines. British air power, including surface-based air defense, in the end proved superior.

This is not to say that the British did not pay a price. Argentine air power posed a substantial threat, as demonstrated by the major combat engagements of the war.

AFTER their initial surrender of Port Stanley on 2 April, the British came back to win their first military victory at South Georgia, a small island in the Atlantic, 800 miles east of the Falklands/Malvinas. The advanced elements of the British task force reached the Falklands/ Malvinas in mid-April and were directed to recapture South Georgia held by a small contingent of Argentines. Driving the enemy off this island would serve three purposes. First, a British success early in the war would show the politicians at home that Margaret Thatcher's government was indeed pursuing the right course in dealing with outside aggression. Second, the fall of South Georgia would be a major step forward for the British military. Not only would it boost morale, but it would allow the field commanders to gauge the fighting ability of the Argentine soldiers. Finally, the fight would offer a unique "rehearsal" for the main assault on the Falklands/Malvinas.

Retaking South Georgia was risky business. The main task force was still en route, so the landing force had to go in without the benefit of close air support. However, air power did prevail to some degree with Wessex 3 helicopters from the destroyer Antrim, Lynx helicopters from the frigate Brilliant, and Wasp helicopters from the Endurance. On 25 April, a Wessex 3 spotted the Argentine submarine Santa Fe and damaged it by dropping depth charges. The Lynx and Wasp helicopters followed up by firing their SS-12 antiship missiles, causing the submarine to limp into King Edward Harbor, where its crew members eventually were taken prisoner. Although the 4.5-inch naval guns of the Antrim and Plymouth contributed additional firepower to turn the tide of battle, the British developed an appreciation for the air power contribution made by the navy helicopters.15

Air power was to have a much greater impact on the British landing at San Carlos, which began on 21 May. British soldiers secured the beaches unopposed on the ground, but the escort ships in Falkland Sound that supported the operation faced wave after wave of Argentine planes from two directions. The small Pucarás took off from Port Stanley and flew low to the ground, approaching the Royal Navy from the east. The first Pucarás bombed and badly damaged the frigate Argonaut, one of five ships that formed a forward defense line to detect aircraft coming from the Argentine mainland.16

The courageous Argentine pilots demonstrated their aerial skills by flying a low-altitude, terrain-hugging profile over West Falkland island to use the rolling hills as a shield against British radar detection. Just before reaching San Carlos, they "popped up" and then executed dive-bomb maneuvers on the British ships. The first group of Mirages dropped 1000-pound bombs and succeeded in hitting the Ardent, ripping holes in her deck and setting off a number of uncontrollable fires. Twenty-three of the crew died and more than thirty were injured before the Ardent sank.17

On the second day at San Carlos, two 500-pound bombs landed on the Antelope but failed to explode. One bomb blew up as a British bomb expert tried to disarm it. The explosion tore a huge hole in the ship's side, sending a spectacular tower of smoke, fire, and debris skyward. The Antelope sank the next day.18

The problem of bombs that hit their targets but failed to detonate plagued the Argentines throughout the war. Some accounts estimate that nearly 80 percent of the bombs dropped on target malfunctioned because of poor wiring and delivery techniques. Releasing the bombs at very low altitudes (less than 40 feet) did not give the bombs sufficient time to arm themselves prior to impact.

On 24 May, bombs hit and damaged the landing ships HMS Sir Galahad and Sir Lancelot, which were bringing supplies to San Carlos. On 25 May, the same day an Exocet sank the, Atlantic Conveyor, Argentine pilots made repeated passes and finally sank the destroyer Coventry. From 21 May to 25 May, the British paid an even higher price for establishing a beachhead at San Carlos: four of their ships sank, while at least ten others were hit and damaged by bombs.19

Although they suffered severe naval losses during the San Carlos encounter, the British inflicted a more damaging blow to the Argentine Air Force. Mirage and Skyhawk pilots flew against incredible odds in terms of distance, radar detection, surface-to-air missiles, and Harrier jets.20 Approximately 109 Argentine aircraft were lost during the entire war. SAMs accounted for shooting down about 38 percent of them; the Harriers' kill ratio was 28 percent. The remaining third of the planes that the Argentines lost were shot down by small-arms fire or were captured/destroyed on the ground. Rapier proved to be the most effective land-based SAM, even though it had to be fired optically because the fleet's radar/electronics interfered with its radar. Foot soldiers carried the shoulder-fired Blowpipe, designed to hit both high-speed fighter aircraft flying low-level air strikes and helicopters operating in a standoff mode. The supersonic Blowpipe missile achieved its greatest success against Pucarás. More than half the SAM kills were attributed to Rapier and Blowpipe. The balance of SAM kills came from the ship mounted Seawolf, Sea Dart, and Sea Cat missiles.21

Britain suffered its worst casualties from Argentine air power on 8 June, when British troops were caught in a poorly planned and badly executed operation to land soldier sat Fitzroy. Two landing ships, Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad, anchored in Fitzroy inlet (four miles from Bluff Cove) without protection from naval escort ships, offered an inviting target to the Argentine Air Force. Mirages and Skyhawks capitalized on the opportunity by dropping bombs on both ships, which were loaded with troops ready to disembark at Fitzroy. Without naval- or land-based SAMs available to provide protective firepower, the Tristram and Galahad were extremely vulnerable. As a result, more than fifty lives were lost--the highest single-day casualty figure of the war for the British.22

Once the British absorbed their losses at Fitzroy, their move to retake Port Stanley progressed by using air strikes to soften up the Argentine strongholds for the final assault. These strikes, in combination with almost three days' continual artillery bombardment of Port Stanley and the surrounding area, led ultimately to the Argentine surrender to British ground troops on 14 June.

AIR power played a very significant role for both sides in the conflict over the Falklands/Malvinas. But one lesson which should not be ignored is that air power alone could not win the war. This assessment is not a departure from past doctrine but simply a reaffirmation of a time-honored principle of war: the combined actions of mutually supportive air, ground, and naval forces decide the difference between victory and defeat.

The absence of an adequate Argentine naval force and the inferior training of the bulk of Argentine ground troops resulted in Argentina's placing a disproportionate share of combat responsibility and expectations on the Argentine Air Force. This circumstance, coupled with the Argentines' failure to extend the vitally important Port Stanley airstrip and their very limited aerial-refueling capability, directly contributed to Argentina's defeat.

British combat operations in the conflict were successful not only because of the Argentines' fundamental military weaknesses but also because of the superb leadership and highly coordinated planning efforts carried out by the Royal Navy, Army, and Air Force at all levels of command. The navy provided a safe operating base for aircraft and furnished the needed fire support for ground actions. Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Harriers, operating side by side and flying off the same carrier decks, worked closely with one another to deliver maximum firepower on the enemy. A derivative of the Royal Air Force Harrier, the Royal Navy Sea Harrier was originally designed for fleet air defense. It demonstrated its flexibility, however, by performing air defense, ship attack, and--until the Royal Air Force contingent arrived--reconnaissance and ground attack. The air force made other important contributions by executing long-range bombing runs, conducting Nimrod reconnaissance missions, and performing aerial-refueling operations to sustain the 8000-mile logistical lifeline.

BRITISH Air Power made its greatest contribution as part of an integrated combat effort. Assessing the degree to which each service contributed to the final outcome of the war is not yet possible, in part because official military assessments on both sides have not been completed. However, one point is clear: The generals and admirals who one day may face the prospect of fighting a limited war in a remote region of the world must recognize and stress the importance of a balanced force concept. Implementation of this policy requires a potent air arm. As demonstrated in the South Atlantic conflict, air power, one essential element of an effective combined force, played a key role in determining both victory and defeat.

Kirtland Air Force Base,
New Mexico


1. Drew Middleton, "Electronics Tips the Scales of Combat," New York Times, 11 May 1982, p. A6.

2. Charles W. Corddry, "Britain’s Near-Thing Victory," Air Force, December 1982, pp. 50-53; Alistair Horne, " A British Historian’s Meditations," National Review, 23 July 1982, pp. 886-89.

3. Paul Eddy, Magnus Linklater, and Peter Gillman, War in the Falklands: The Full Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 205-11; "The Falklands Campaign: The Lessons," presented to Parliament by the Secretary of Defence (London: Her Majesty's Stationery, 1982), p. 9.

4. USAF Fact Sheet 82-25, "AIM-9 Sidewinder," July 1982; Derek Wood and Mark Hewish, "The Falklands Conflict--Part 1: The Air War," International Defense Review, No. 8/1982, pp. 977-80.

5. Wing Commander John D. L. Feesey, RAF, "V/STOL: Neither Myth nor Promise--But Fact," Air University Review, September-October 1982, pp. 80-82; William S. Lind, "Simple Tanks Would Suffice," Harper's, September 1982, pp. 22-24.

6. Feesey, pp. 80-82.

7. Peter Archer, "On British Carrier, Pilot Recounts Order: Engage," New York Times, 10 May 1982, p. A9.

8. Val Ross, "Closing the Vise on Port Stanley," Maclean's, 7 June 1982, pp. 22-24; Eddy, Linklater, and Gillman, pp. 173-75.

9. Drew Middleton, "Wanted: More Arms," New York Times, 10 May 1982, p. A9.

10. Wood and Hewish, pp. 977-80.

11. General T. R. Milton, "Too Many Missing Pieces," Air Force, December 1982, pp. 48-49.

12. Lawrence Freedman, "The War of the Falkland Islands, 1982," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1982, pp. 196-210; Corddry, pp. 50-53; Wood and Hewish, pp. 977-80.

13. General T. R. Milton, "Drawing Lessons from the Falklands War," Air Force, July 1982, p. 89; Freedman, pp. 197-210.

14. William Border, "Britain Attacks Falklands Again," New York Times, 10 May 1982, p. A8.

15. Mark Hewish, "The Falklands Conflict--Part 3: Naval Operations," International Defense Review, No. 10/1982, pp. 1340-43: Freedman, pp. 197-210.

16. Eddy, Linklater, and Gillman, pp. 212-14.

17. Ibid., p. 218.

18. Wood and Hewish, pp. 977-80.

19. Ibid., p. 218.

20. Freedman, pp. 197-210.

21. Mark Hewish, "The Falklands Conflict--Part 2: Missile Operations," International Defense Review, No. 9/1982, pp. 1151-54; Corddry, pp. 50-53.

22. Jane O'Hara, "The Noose Tightens on Port Stanley," MacLean's, 21 June 1982, pp. 14-17; Freedman, pp. 197-210.


Robert W. Duffner (B.A., Lafayette College; M.A., Ph.D., University of Missouri) is a historian at the U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratory, Kirkland AFB, New Mexico, and a major in the U.S. Army Reserve assigned to the 4153d USAR School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the U.S. Army, he served as a rifle platoon leader and as company commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He has also been a part-time Instructor of History at the College of Sante Fe, New Mexico.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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