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1982 Falklands War: Seven Lessons for Japan

Falklands 1982

British sailors (Kenneth Ian Griffiths)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — June 14 marked the anniversary of the end of the 1982 Falklands conflict. At that time Japan was serving a two-year period as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and was thus involved to a limited degree on the diplomatic side of the conflict. This was still the time of the Cold War, rapid Japanese economic growth, and an era where some of the territorial disputes currently making headlines in Asia were still dormant. Although circumstances were therefore quite different, and every war is unique, there are still some valuable lessons, or at least considerations, that Tokyo may find useful. The following seven are a sample, including both political and military.

Lesson 1: Relations with allies are complex. Although the Falklands are often portrayed as an example of the “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States; and furthermore, of the strong connection between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the bilateral dynamics during the conflict were quite complex. While Washington ended up imposing sanctions on Buenos Aires and providing essential logistical support to London, this was by no means a foregone conclusion at the outset of the crisis. The Reagan administration was split and then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig embarked upon frantic shuttle diplomacy, while then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger provided essential aid to the British war effort from day one. Whatever treaties may say, in an actual crisis any country is bound to consider its whole range of interests. In deciding whether or not to use force, any country is bound to consider very carefully the likely reaction of third countries.

Lesson 2: Regional partners play a key role. When deploying forces abroad, the support or at least complicity of neighboring countries can make a big difference. Although Buenos Aires received diplomatic support from many South American nations, at the end of the day British operations were facilitated by the posture adopted by Chile and Brazil. Thus, even a bilateral conflict is bound to end up involving to some degree a wide range of actors.

Lesson 3: The imperative is not to be seen as the aggressor. Although international law may not always be the most important consideration in international relations, legal perceptions matter, at least to some degree. In the South Atlantic both sides strove to avoid being seen as the aggressor, with Buenos Aires claiming that since the Falklands (the Malvinas) were theirs to begin with, moving in did not amount to an invasion, while London achieved an early diplomatic victory with the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 502 negating such claim.

Lesson 4: Flexibility a must for the military. The Falklands were a reminder that a country cannot always choose where to fight, and that it is necessary for its military to retain the necessary degree of flexibility to be able to respond to very different challenges. This need must pervade its doctrine, training, and equipment, and is not always easy to achieve, since any additional degree of flexibility often comes at a cost, both financial and intellectual.

Lesson 5: Pay attention to fishing boats and airliners. There is often a thin line between military and civilian assets, which doctrine and Rules of Engagement must take into account. Thus, while moving south the Task Force came across both civilian airliners and fishing vessels in an intelligence-gathering mode, prompting some intense debates on how to react. The run up to the crisis also featured “civilians,” in the form of scrap metal gatherers landing on South Georgia island without permission from British authorities.

Lesson 6: Local airfields important in achieving air superiority. Although a look at a map may suggest that Argentina had an easy time deploying air power over the Falklands and surrounding waters, in fact things were very different. The limited length of Port Stanley’s runway, and smaller airfields, meant that the most powerful warplanes (including the Exocet-carrying Mirage) had to operate from bases on the Argentine mainland, thus spending time and fuel getting to their hunting grounds and having little margin left to search for targets. This negated to a large extent the geographical advantage enjoyed by Buenos Aires (which on the other hand faced much lower logistical constraints). British Harrier warplanes, operating from two light carriers, were not that close either (due to the overarching need to keep both ships safe from harm), until they could start employing improvised landing strips on the Falklands themselves. Any power trying to operate air assets over disputed islands without having at its disposal air strips and other support facilities located on those same islands is likely to find itself facing these same constraints that both the British and the Argentines suffered from.

This lesson does not seem lost either on Beijing or on Tokyo, and it is thus no surprise to see Japan planning to build new airbases closer to, or actually on, some of the disputed islands, while concerning China, Sam Tangredi, author of the recent book Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies, has noted that, “An airbase on Fiery Cross Reef would give China de facto military control over the South China Sea airspace since it would allow shorter-range tactical aircraft with a heavier weapons load to operate in the airspace, an advantage over having to send tactical aircraft from the mainland in event of a potential conflict.” Andrew Erickson, a China naval specialist at the US Naval War College, believes “nothing good” will come out if South Sea claimants start building airstrips.

Lesson 7: Victory on the battlefield does not always mean a political solution. Finally, we could say that the South Atlantic is also evidence that victory in the battlefield will not always translate into a settlement of the ultimate dispute, which will often linger on, casting a menacing shadow over future generations. Peace will only prevail if either that dispute is solved, or if all parties renounce the use of force to settle it.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University.

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