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The #Falklands War: China Learns From Argentina's Mistakes


by Austin Bay
March 6, 2012

Argentina is using the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War to tout its historical claim to the South Atlantic islands. The diplomatic ballyhoo includes trade threats aimed at Great Britain, with a belligerent hint of saber-rattling.

Argentina's April 2, 1982, invasion of the islands caught the world and Great Britain by surprise. Argentine forces smashed Britain's tiny garrison and proclaimed Las Islas Malvinas (The Falklands) sovereign Argentine territory.

The Royal Navy did not have a U.S. Navy-type super aircraft carrier. Argentina's military junta convinced itself that its superior jet aircraft would savage a Royal Navy fleet only possessing anti-aircraft missiles and a few Harrier jump jets. The junta bet the British government, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, would grouse but ultimately resign itself to losing the islands rather than risk losing its fleet.

Thatcher, however, proved she was a resolute war leader as well as a prescient economic revivalist. The junta gained quick respect for Thatcher and British subs. On May 2, 1982, the nuclear sub HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. Argentina's surface fleet fled the high seas and spent the rest of the war in port.

In June 1982, a British amphibious task force recaptured the islands in a brilliant campaign of integrated air, sea and land operations. Argentina's junta collapsed.

Never say never, but unlike 1982's junta, Argentina's 2012 democratic government is neither criminal nor desperate. London believes the discovery of oil and gas fields near the Falklands drives Argentina's 2012 antics. In 1982, the islands were poorly defended. 2012's garrison deters adventurism, with 1,200 troops supported by jets flying from Port Stanley's modern air base, several surface warships and (probably) a nuclear attack sub. Still, Argentine squawking will continue. Sustained political theatrics and threats might eventually convince Britain to cut Buenos Aires in on petro-royalties.

The 1982 war, however, continues to fascinate naval strategists. It was first and foremost a naval war, featuring strategic power projection, long-distance logistics, an amphibious landing in contested waters and cutting-edge technology (e.g., nuclear subs and aircraft-delivered anti-ship missiles). It was also something of a "near thing," until the British Army landed in force. Without a super-carrier, Royal Navy surface vessels did indeed suffer heavy losses to Argentine aircraft. Argentine diesel subs also vexed Royal Navy sub hunters.

In 2012, China has offshore oil fields in the South China Sea -- fields contested by Vietnam and other neighboring nations. Beijing lays historical claim to several Pacific islands along its littoral, including one named Taiwan. Peering further into the Pacific, Chinese war planners see Japan, Singapore and the U.S. territory of Guam. Chinese admirals also observe U.S. Navy super-carrier task forces.

A book-length study published last year by the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), "China's Lessons From Other People's Wars," devotes a chapter to Chinese interpretations and reaction to the Falklands.

The Chinese have concluded, according to the SSI, that Argentina failed to conduct an "accurate pre-conflict strategic assessment." Indeed, the junta underestimated British resolve. Chinese war planners intend to avoid that mistake. However, the Argentines were tasked with "preventing an outside power from interfering in a territorial dispute" -- a direct analog to Taiwan, in Beijing's estimate.

The Chinese believe Argentina failed to attack Britain's biggest weakness: its long sea and air supply line. The Argentines did not dramatically reinforce their ground units on the islands, nor did they upgrade island airfields to handle high-performance jets. Their aerial refueling capabilities were limited. As a result, Britain's jump jet carriers provided just enough air power to give the fleet a protective "bubble."

China intends to pierce any adversary's protective "bubble." Beijing has ballistic missiles designed to suppress Taiwan's airfields and conceivably U.S. bases on Guam. China intends to triple its arsenal of land-based maritime strike aircraft; robust air refueling capabilities increases their range. China is building more diesel and nuclear submarines, to attack supply ships and -- yes -- super-carriers. Trust that any Chinese invasion force successfully seizing an island will receive heavy ground, air and air defense reinforcements with alacrity. And never say never.

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