In earlier posts, the author has looked at the threat posed by Argentina to the Falkland Islands, and has suggested that if you ignore bellicose public statements, then the reality is that the islands are unlikely to be attacked by Argentina anytime soon.
In this final post on the subject, the intent is to explore some of the challenges surrounding any potential aggressor who wishes to attack the islands, and the sort of planning considerations that they need to consider when factoring in an attack. This is perhaps more timely given that yet another senior general (Sir Mike Jackson) has now claimed that if the islands were lost, then the UK could not recover them.
Any potential aggressor intending to occupy the Falklands needs to plan an assault around the following factors.
- A remote airbase with good ground defences, and located a not inconsiderable distance from the nearest credible port is the centre of gravity.
- The defending force is well equipped, and has considerable operational experience accrued over the last 30 years of occupying the terrain.
- There are multiple defensive structures dispersed across the facility which would require potent munitions to deny.
- The facility is located some distance from international airlanes, and is unlikely to see significant commercial air traffic. There are multiple satellite facilities to provide radar coverage. There are air defences present, both air and ground based.
- There is a not inconsiderable maritime force located in the region, which is self sustaining and which may include an SSN.
- Any attack has to be conducted in a manner which denies the defending force the ability to reinforce, and must force a surrender of all occupying forces in under the time it would take to begin the reinforcement plans from the UK.
- Any prolonged attack is going to lead to calls for talks, and be highly damaging to international opinion against the aggressor. A swift fait acompli is essential to secure victory.
What this means is that any Argentine commander has to consider some immensely challenging tactical problems which in turn build in time delay. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and it is likely that any assault will encounter delays. Lets now examine these considerations in a little more depth.
When considering the defence of Mount Pleasant Airfield (MPA), commentators who have not been to the islands often make the mistake of assuming it is a small facility which could easily be overrun. The reality is somewhat different - it occupies a large area of ground, and has many highly dispersed facilities. While the main admin / life support hub is located in the near legendary 'death star' complex, the remainder of the facility is spread over a large geographically dispersed area. This means that any assault has to factor in the challenge of denying multiple facilities, many of which may be defendable, and in doing so while operating on unfamiliar terrain.
To even get close to the facility would require a significant march by troops. Not exhausting in itself, but it would probably require insertion of special forces by SSK - this limits the locations that landings can be conducted. The terrain of the islands is not particularly conducive to building shelters, and the islanders are exceptionally suspicious of outsiders. At best the Argentines could hope to land a small SF force (roughly 50 men), which then has to avoid detection while it marches to the airbase.
At this point, it then has to conduct an assault against a large, well defended facility which is designed for the purpose of being used to fight a defensive battle, and they have to do so against a garrison which outnumbers them 30-1. They have to complete this assault and force the British to a position where they wish to negotiate for surrender prior to the airfield commencing reinforcement flights.
The airfield was designed in the 1980s at the height of the cold war, and reflects much of the thinking at the time. It is likely that it could easily be repaired in the event of a denial attempt, and there is likely to be sufficient room to permit landings in the event of damage. It would take a very significant attack to deny the runway to the point where it could not be used further. Such an attack would require equipment and munitions accuracy beyond that currently possessed by Argentina.
Any air movements, either transports to land troops, or bomber attacks are going to be picked up by early warning radar stations. There will be significant warning of inbound air attacks, and there are plentiful defences in place to handle them. Any air attack has to conduct a long overwater transit, and then will only have seconds on station to deliver its munitions. It will be doing so against a force likely to be expecting it. Similarly, if transport aircraft were inbound, then if needs be, they need not even be shot down. The base could merely park sufficient vehicles across the runways at regular intervals so as to prevent the plane from landing. While some bad fiction writers postulate about the idea of an Entebbe style strike, the reality is that the planes have to land first to deliver this strike. Again, a failure to land first time and commence the assault will see the reinforcement plan kicking into action. Also, given the lack of air traffic in the region, one would hope that it is unlikely that anyone would be fooled by an aircraft faking an SOS message and then landing to disgorge hundreds of armed troops.
The defensive structures of the base suggest that significant munitions would be required to deny some facilities. It is all very well landing 50 SF, but what happens when people deploy into trench and bunker complexes which require artillery or mortars to deny? This then requires the landing of further troops ashore with the ability to call in support fire - in turn this requires both the ability to find a beach where a surprise landing can be carried out and artillery moved into position to conduct fires missions, and to do so without being detected. Again, the author would suggest that the sighting of an Argentine battery digging in, would be enough to trigger the reinforcement plan activation.
The rule of thumb is that an assault against well dug in and defended troops, particularly well motivated ones, with reasonable supplies, is that it requires a ratio of 3-1 attackers to defenders to be certain of success. Assuming a garrison of 1500, this means that Argentina would need to move sufficient troops to land 4500 troops on the ground to conduct the attack. More troops would be needed to provide support, and logistical work. Let's assume 5500 troops are needed to be certain of putting the attack force together.
Firstly, the Argentine navy doesn't have the ability to conduct an amphibious operation carrying 5500 troops. In fact, very few navies do. Even the Royal Navy, arguably one of the worlds more potent amphibious forces, would struggle to deliver more than 1500 personnel in its current structure. To successfully land the troops, supplies and equipment needed to crack MPA in a conventional assault, Argentina would need to be build the world's second largest amphibious force, develop the doctrine and training required to ensure that they could land successfully, and then ensure that their troops are capable of doing so without messing the plan up. These troops are then required to land, march a significant distance to the objective and conduct an assault against a well dug in force which is likely to expecting them. Significantly, this force will have got a reasonable amount of operational experience, compared to an Argentine force which hasn't seen action for 30 years. The Argentines are expected to do this while maintaining complete surprise, as if the reinforcement plan starts, and more UK troops are flown in, then they go from 3-1 ratio, to likely 1-1, or worse. Oh, all the while, Argentina needs to maintain the element of complete surprise while building up, training and delivering this invasion force to the Islands.
The other key point - if Argentina has built an amphibious fleet, and then sails it with deliberate intent to the islands, it needs to be certain that the UK maritime assets have been denied. Otherwise, they will need to be prepared to encounter a range of maritime capabilities, potentially including nuclear submarines, that will present a significant tactical challenge.
The final point - this attack has to be done in a manner which denies the defending forces the ability to operate, and for their commander to feel he has no option but to surrender, and this has to be done in under 24 hours, or else reinforcements will arrive. This would require an untested force engaging a defensive force which has spent 30 years preparing the ground for this fight. The fight will have to occur on the defenders terms, and would pose an enormous tactical challenge to the aggressor.
There is some suggestion in some quarters of fantastical ideas of cruise liners disgorging SF into Stanley - which would be a challenge given the lack of adequate berths, or alternatively somehow capturing the town. While this would be challenging, it still comes back to the earlier issue of a lack of manpower to actually get on the ground, and also the fact that MPA is the centre of gravity. In extremis, the loss of Stanley would not lose the UK hold on the islands. MPA is the key, and it remains a well defended installation.
While much remains uncertain, and while this author deeply hopes that such a situation is never tested for real, he would suggest that any potential attack against the islands using current Argentine ORBATS would result in a very bloody and humiliating defeat for Argentina, and one that is completely unnecessary.
UK policy is not to lose the islands in the first place - the author would suggest that the current force laydown ensures that this remains a realistic policy goal.