• Forty years ago, the UK and Argentina went to war over the Falkland Islands.
  • The Falklands War involved major operations by air, sea, and ground forces.
  • Decades later, the war still shapes the thinking of militaries facing similar scenarios.

In April 1982, Argentine commandos landed on the Falkland Islands, a remote, rugged archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The Falklands were British territory that Argentina claimed, and the invasion came after years of tension between the British government and Argentina's ruling military junta.

Once on the ground, the Argentine special operators went straight to the British governor's house, the headquarters of the local government. The small garrison of Royal Marine Commandos barricaded itself there but surrendered after a short, fierce firefight.

Photos of captured British troops — marching with their arms up or laying flat on their bellies — were soon circulating around the world as Argentines celebrated in the streets, compounding the British sense of humiliation.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, facing her own domestic challenges, vowed a strong response. The clash that followed would be one of the biggest but least-remembered conflicts between major forces in the second half of the 20th century.

A conflict of 'firsts'

Argentina Navy cruiser ARA General Belgrano sinking, May 2, 1982. Foto: Rafael WOLLMANN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The Falklands, only 300 miles from mainland Argentina, have been a sore point between Argentina and the UK for centuries. Argentina has disputed British control of the islands since British settlers colonized them in the 1800s.

In many ways, the Falklands War was a conflict of "firsts." Both sides had competent militaries with strong air, naval, and ground forces, making it the first major conventional combined-arms conflict since World War II.

On the afternoon of May 2, the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror launched three Mark 8 torpedoes at ARA General Belgrano, an Argentine light cruiser. Two torpedoes found their target, sinking the warship and killing 323 of its 1,100-member crew.

Conqueror became only the second submarine to sink a warship in combat since World War II — a distinction it still holds.

As the British armada approached the islands in spring 1982, the famed British Special Air Service conducted its largest commando raid since the end of World War II.

British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes leaves Portsmouth harbor loaded with Harrier jump jets and Sea King helicopters, April 5, 1982. Foto: Bryn Colton/Getty Images

On the night of May 14, an SAS squadron of about 45 troops assaulted the Argentine airbase at Pebble Island. Argentine attack aircraft based there could threaten the British invasion force en route to the Falklands.

The raid was successful. The SAS operators destroyed all 11 aircraft at the airbase and knocked out a radar station without suffering any serious casualties. A few days later, however, 18 SAS troopers, some of whom had been at Pebble Island, were killed when a Sea King helicopter crashed into the Atlantic Ocean during a routine flight between ships.

The war almost saw another first at sea.

The two navies' aircraft carriers nearly engaged in what would have been the first aircraft carrier battle since World War II. Only weather prevented Argentina's ARA Veinticinco de Mayo and the UK's HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes from clashing in the South Atlantic.

Both navies maintained a strong concern about the other's anti-ship weapons throughout the war. Argentine missiles claimed one of the container ships that the British converted into an aircraft carrier and the destroyer HMS Sheffield, the first Royal Navy warship sunk since World War II.

Instructive to this day

An Argentine Panhard armored car destroyed during the Falklands War seen near Stanley's airport, March 21, 2007. Foto: DANIEL GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese military planners have studied the Falklands War with an eye toward potential similarities to a conflict with Taiwan, especially if the US comes to Taiwan's defense. Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and has vowed to absorb it, by force if necessary.

The Falklands and Taiwan are both relatively small and isolated. The UK is more than 8,000 miles from the Falklands. Taiwan is 1,700 miles from Guam, the US military's main hub in the Western Pacific, and about 5,100 miles from Pearl Harbor, the US Navy's home base in the Pacific.

Judging from Chinese military journals, China's People's Liberation Army is paying particular attention to the role British special operators played in the Falklands.

Argentine veterans of the Falklands War next to a Dagger fighter jet at the Monument to the Malvinas War in Pilar, Argentina, March 7, 2022. Foto: JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images

The SAS and their naval brethren, the Special Boat Service, were crucial to the British victory.

The two units conducted direct-action operations, carried out special reconnaissance, coordinated long-range fires, and undertook unconventional-warfare missions — all of which enabled conventional British forces to defeat the Argentines and retake the Falklands.

The Chinese military might wish to replicate that British success, using special-operations forces to undermine Taiwan's defenses and open a path for conventional Chinese forces.

The Falklands War was one of the 20th century's most complex conflicts, but it has largely slipped from memory. Forty years on, however, it still informs the doctrine and planning of militaries around the world.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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