Sunday, 29 January 2012

The reality of capturing the Falkland Islands.

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.

The challenge.
Any potential aggressor intending to occupy the Falklands needs to plan an assault around the following factors.

  1.   A remote airbase with good ground defences, and located a not inconsiderable   distance from the nearest credible port is the centre of gravity. 
  2.  The defending force is well equipped, and has considerable operational experience accrued over the last 30 years of occupying the terrain.
  3.  There are multiple defensive structures dispersed across the facility which would require potent munitions to deny. 
  4.  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. 
  5.  There is a not inconsiderable maritime force located in the region, which is self sustaining and which may include an SSN.
  6.  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. 
  7. 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.


  1. Hi,
    Even though I am a complete civilian and have no military experience, I have concur with analysis of the situation. I am constantly astounded by the scenarios people come up with for invading the Falklands (even people who have served in the military which actually frightening) they range from the unworkable to ridiculous to the downright bizarre.

    What’s the old saying ‘the amateur talks tactics, the professional talks logistics’, it might be feasible for special forces to conduct a lightening raid on the MPA after all that’s what they are trained to do, but the Argentines have to land several thousand troops on the island, thousands of tons of supplies, vehicles and heavy weapons, enough aircraft and their associated equipment to form a forward attack wing and enough repair equipment to fix up the MPA suitable for their own use. With only their fast transport, bulk carrier and polar ship (even with impressed cargo ships) I think this is nigh impossible.

    Anyone can up with a reasonable strategy for taking the MPA, but happens then. MPA is a smoking ruin and if it is built like forward bases in Germany, it will have a runway denial charges built in, that means it could out of use for weeks and need heavy plant to repair it which needs shipping from Argentina.
    Mare Harbour would be action also, either demolition charges or from mortar fire from MPA, but even still looking at the photos ships coming have to come in and do a dogleg turn very slowly and are in a very exposed position to anti tank rockets coming quite a piece of terrain.

    To do all this would need a ally such as Brazil who has sufficient amphibious and transport ships, but this would mean having to take out the APT (south) which is a very risky and dangerous thing also this would be the Rubicon moment as the loss of a Royal Navy warship would be a declaration of war, and this would send cold shudders down Brazils Politian and Admirals, certain Brazilian fatalities for no real gain, don’t think so.

    And the big elephant in the room is surprise, I know we are busy in Astan, but we have a certain amount of ELINT and SIGINT based in the Falklands and wouldn’t be surprised that the NSA is not down there too listening into the up and coming Brazil.

    The point is Argentina might come but not yet


  2. I see the 3:1 ratio a lot, but I dont see any real basis for it.
    If you do outnumber the other side 3:1, you are almost certain to win, but I cant really think of that many examples of 2:1 attacks being bloody defeats, and none with "lack of manpower" as the primary failure.
    Actualy thinking about it, would 3:1 be sufficient to take the airfield, its not really an infantry war.

    Argentina has a plentiful supply of 155mm guns and they can hit MtP from the beach.
    An infantry force of 500 to block between the airfield and the beach, 20 or 30 guns on the beach, bombard the base into surrender.
    Certainly easier than getting 4500 men ashore, how hardened are the facilities, enough to shrug off repeated 155 hits? Certainly rules out reinforcement by air.

    I still agree the chances of invasion are low, the consequences of the SSN intercepting the fleet are impossible to mitigate, and far too bloody to be acceptable.

    But the islands garrison has some glaring weaknesses

  3. In terms of landing - the issue is firstly that Argentine capability can in no way put 155mms ashore. They dont have enough ships, or landing craft to do so. Secondly, the ground is extremely boggy in places, so they need to find a location where they can land, and get the howitzers ashore, and then fire them which is within range of MPA. I refer to my earlier point - the moment they are detected, all bets are off as a reinforcement plan begins. This also assumes they are not counter attacked, or subject to air attack, or subject to counter battery fire.

    To conduct the sort of amphibious landing required to do this would be an exceptionally overt act of war - the whole point for Argentina is that to take the islands, they need to do so by surprise.

    To suggest that the islands are vulnerable to a landing of 20-30 howitzers is to suggest the islands are vulnerable to a nuclear strike. Both are exceptionally unlikely to occur, as the Argentines simply cant do it.

  4. my point was simply that landing a 5,000 strong infantry force was not the only way....

  5. Excellent article thank you.
    My question is - what has changed since the last invasion? Were all of these factors relevant at the time or are we relying more on the fact that we are expecting it this time? (please forgive my ignorance - I was three when the Falklands War started)

  6. Silks,

    In 1982 the island's defenders (Naval Party 8901) numbered a total of 68 Royal Marines and 11 Royal Navy personnel, and the air link was via the relatively short runway at Port Stanley (usable by C-130s but not by anything larger). No air cover, no air defences, no option for rapid reinforcement from the UK, and Port Stanley was the centre of gravity.

    Now, there's a much larger force on the ground, with a Typhoon flight and Rapier GBAD, at a location well inshore (so much less vulnerable to the "ninja frogmen" scenario), and Argentina's capabilities have shrunk significantly since 1982.

    Coming up with a "it's not *absolutely* impossible..." scenario for an Argentine success is one thing: coming up with "this is credible in detail and has enough chance of success to be worth the risk" is a different matter entirely.

  7. TrT,

    Even if the UK leant HMS Albion to Argentina, I think they would still find it hard to land a force of the size that you suggest. In a push maybe HMS Albion could embark the whole 20-30 155mm guns and personal (a British artillery regiment with 18 howitzers has about 500 men in it); leaving the two existing Argentinian amphibious ships to try to carry the 500 strong defence force plus supporting forces.

    Still using its 8 landing craft ( 4 LCU MK10 and 4 LCVP Mk5) would most likely take over 8 hours to land that number of guns and men.

    From what I could find, Argentinia has around 110 CITEFA Model 77 towed howitzers (plus a few pieces of a improved model), ~17 to 20 VCA Palmaria and ~25 AMX Mk F3 Self-propelled howitzers. The AMX F3 are from the 1950's and 1960's. So I would expect they would want to use the Palmaria and the Model 77's.

    The VCA Palmaria weighs about 40 tons, so is much too heavy and big for the LCVP Mk5s. And I believe that each LCU MK10 would only be able to carry one at a time. I also don't think that the LCVP Mk5s could carry a Model 77s including its towing vehicle, so they would most likely have to be landed using the LCUs. I don't know how many of them could be carried at a time, but maybe 3 or 4 (including towing vehicles).

    So to carry 18 VCA Palmaria Self-propelled howitzers and 6 Model 77 towed howitzers plus 6 towing vehicles could need 20 LCU trips. So thats 5 waves of the 4 LCUs.

    The LCU MK10 is reported to have a top speed of 8 kts. So if HMS Albion was kept at about 15 km from the beach (so that it wasn't within range of British shore based weapons). It would take each wave at least 2 hours from leaving util the landing craft return to HMS Albion to load the new wave. So they would be looking at 9 hours between when the first wave left the ship until the last wave has landed on the beach. In this time, I'm taking it that the 4 LCVPs would be transporting the regiment's personal and as many of its support vehicles as they could.

    This is without really thinking about how many rounds of ammunition you would need. And landing those rounds and the vehicles carrying. Plus what sort of force would the 500 strong defence force be? Just light infantry or with armoured vehicles? The more vehicles there are, the more support they would need.

    To me it seems to try to land such a force even if there was enough amphibious capacity, would be very hard as it would take time to land them and be vulnerable to counter attacks before they could land enough forces. Plus they would need to defend the amphibious ships and landing craft from attack. If they didn't have good air defence, a Lynx armed with sea skua missiles could cause major damage to the landing craft.

    During the Falklands war one of the biggest fears of the British forces was a counter attack on the landings before enough forces were ashore to protect it. So would Argentina decide to do a similar thing to the British forces did then and land away from the main forces on the island. They would need to get as many guns within range (~25km) of Mount Pleasant as quickly as they could, because as soon as the first signs of the attack are known, the count down to reinforcements starts. They would need to put Mount Pleasant out of action and keep it out of action so those reinforcements can't land.

    Although that still leaves the airfield at Stanley as a problem for the Argentinian forces.

    Its late so there is a good chance that I've made some mistakes in my calculations/figures, but I think I'm correct in that it would take hours to land a force of the size suggested.


  8. Matt
    But what if you bring the amphib right up to the beach, so its the last 200 metres, not 15km you need the LCUs to do?

    The only threat to it is going to be ATGMS anyway, so 5 miles out would be more than safe.

    My point wasnt so much to create a viable scenario, but simply one that was easier than landing 5000 men.

    Its not going to happen "in reality", because the risk of the UK finding out the plan and a couple of sections dug into the beach waiting for the LCU's to appear.
    Everyone fires an anti tank weapon, LCU's go under, the amphib is arrested by the British Warship in the area and escorted to the UK.

    But a battery of big guns in range of the airbase would be a complete disaster for the defenders, because they have nothing to fight back with.

    Landing a C17 on an airfield thats being shelled sounds, dangerous.

  9. [Note I had to split this post into two because it was too long, didn't realise it was as long as it is while writing it]

    Part 1

    Hi TrT,

    Would you really want to take a big amphib ship (or two) to within 200 metres of a beach that was within ~20km of Mount Pleasant. The UK forces might only have ATGMs and 81mm mortars but enough of them could still do some damage to ships that close to the shore.

    I think you would want to keep those ships not much closer than about 10km offshore. The defending UK forces would have at least ATGMs and 81mm mortars (even if the mortars didn't hit the ships they would still be a concern), plus maybe the rapier missiles could be used as they are command to line of sight.

    As you said it would be hard for them to achieve suprise considering the amphibs should be picked up on radar quit a while before they go near to any landing site.

    There also doesn't seem to be that many places where a landing could take place that is within range of Mount Pleasant. So I just think that for Argentina to land a force of that size directly within range of Mount Pleasant is most likely a lot harder than Argentina managing to land a few thousand lighly equiped men on the islands.

    They could try to land those guns further away before moving them across land to within range of the base. But the terrain on the falklands doesn't really lend it self to moving heavy vehicles and weapons across country.

    Plus I think keeping them supplied with enough ammunition to keep the base closed for long would be a problem even if the guns were at the landing site. If there had to be a supply route going miles from the landing site to guns then if would be even harder and the supply route would also need protecting. 1000 155mm rounds weigh nearly 50 tons, the RFA Bay class Landing ships are often quoted as being able to carry 200 tons of ammunition (The Albion class I believe carries less cargo than the Bay class). Even if all of that was 155mm rounds would 4000 rounds be enough to close the base and keep it closed? Maybe.

    Then there is also the runway at Stanley. Much smaller than Mount Pleasant but I think C130's can still use it. And a C17 should I believe be able to land on it. But (I think) would have trouble taking off again. But would the Uk think that is fine to get some reinforcements in and then they can worry about getting the C17s back out later by lengthening the runway

  10. Part 2

    Even if they could over come all the problems and got ~24 guns within range of the base. Are the UK forces really that defenceless against them? There are hardened aircraft shelters there, each surrouded by earthworks, plus engineers who could quickly start creating extra protected sites for the personell on the base. They certainly have 81mm mortars so the Argentinian forces have to make sure that no UK forces got within mortar range of the guns (especially if they are using exposed towed howitzers rather than self propelled howitzers).

    But there is also a chance that there are 105mm guns stored at Mount Pleasant. The Royal Artillery certainly use the range there for live fire exercises for the 105mm equipped regiments. The British Army website has some articles about some of the TA 105mm regiments deploying there for exercises, plus Officer Cadets going there to experience live artillery fire. So the question is, do they fly the guns and ammunition in and out for these exercises or do them keep a small number there. Seems more economical to keep a few down there. Of cause the guns would still need people who know how to operate them, but it seems to me that there would be a good chance that between the Royal Artillery personal there (in the rapier unit and maybe some range management staff) and the Royal Navy personal, that they could maybe get some guns operational (if they are stored there).

    I know you didn't mean it as a viable scenario, but I just think it is interesting to consider these types of scenarios and at least it sounds a lot more viable than some of the scenarios that some people come up with. The biggest problem with this scenerio to be viable is that Argentina only has two amphibious ships. One a converted Type 42 Destroyer which can carry around 240 troops and 2 helicopters to land them with. And the other one is a converted cargo ship that there is very little infomation about, but looks like its only way of launching landing craft is to use Deck Cranes to lower them over the side. So not likely to be able to land any heavy vehicles/weapons without the use of a dock.

    I think the main issue with coming up with a viable scenario, is that there are some scenarios that might be possible but they have a big "might" attached to them. Do the Argentinian forces really want to take a chance on a plan that might just work out but could just as easily not work out. Logic suggests that to take the decision to reinvade the Falklands, they would want to have a plan that had a very good likelyhood of success. To me it seems that the UK forces stationed on the Falklands are at about the minimum level that is needed to make any plan for a invasion a big gamble. If the UK forces were reduced by much then that situation could quickly change, and on the other hand if they were increased by a even quite modest amount then I think any invasion, with the sort of forces Argentina has or is likely to get, would be all but impossible. The reason they go for near to the minimum level could be for either economical or political reasons or a combination of both.If the UK forces were reduced by much then that situation could quickly change, and on the other hand if they were increased by a even quite modest amount then I think any invasion, with the sort of forces Argentina has or is likely to get, would be all but impossible. The reason they go for near to the minimum level could be for either economical or political reasons or a combination of both. If the UK stationed a really big force there, then Argentina would have more ammunition to shout about to the other South American nations.

    Personally I think that stationing a small Royal Artillery attachment equipped with FireShadow there would make any invasion plan even harder than it already is, and wouldn't be much of a enlargement of the current force levels.


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  14. The 3:1 rule is nonsense, I'm afraid. It's derived from US-army Bde level op planning in Korea, and ultimately, via Marshal, into contemporary lore.

    It's not scale invarient (i.e. Larger ops require lower ratios, smaller potentially larger), and dominated by other factors, such as surprise.

  15. 3:1 is a "rule of thumb" that has been in use throughout the Cold War with NATO armies and Soviet alike, and is still taught now. That's for assaulting an enemy that's not well-prepared. For a professional, dug-in defender you should phone a few friends and bring 5:1. FIBUA requires 10:1.

    A force landing on remote islands such as the Falklands would need the appropriate assault force for the immediate objective, plus a contingency.

    Even the Argentinians will not be contemplating the use of force.


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  21. It is odd that in your evaluation no mention is made of Wideawake Airfield on Ascension which is now the "Achilles Heel" as far as the Falkland Islands is concerned. Without this asset there can be no "Air Bridge" to reinforce the Falklands Garrison.

    Four companies of troops would be sufficient to take over the airfields at Mount Pleasant and Ascension, the former to permit rapid deployment of troops and aircraft to the Falkland Islands and the latter to deny use of Ascension as a staging post to the UK Government.

    The 1,200 UK troops deployed have at the most 300 "combat troops", the rest are technical specialists. If the Argentines used their Special Operations Forces Group our troops would be hard enough pressed to put the matter in doubt, ask the SBS and the SAS who came up against them in 1982, those Argentine troops performed well enough to earn the respect of the best that we have got.

    1. Please invade yourself.

  22. What about the eurofighters, do not have bombs to drop on a landings?

  23. shooting down the approaching reinforcement aircraft on its final approach to MPA would surely be relatively simple for a small commando group hidden in the bog. Large aircraft are notoriously vulnerable when landing.

  24. Assuming a worst case scenario: "The Islands are indeed captured". I do not believe that would be the end of it. A lot has been made of the fact that our Navy is 1/2 as big without Aircraft Carriers. But I'm pretty certain that if you transported ARA General Belgrano to The Battle of Trafalgar, it would sink the entire British, Spanish and French fleets without receiving a scratch. RN may be 1/2 the size but if it is four times more effective than it was 30 years ago, not only is this a cost benefit - but a military one also.

    Against a credible opponent, the lack of Carriers would be a distinct problem. Against Argentinians with their antiquated fighter bombers, RN Air Defence is more than adequate.

    In addition, I believe our SSNs would pound the Argentine Air Bases from 1000 miles away with Block III & IV Tomahawk Cruise Missiles with absolutely no risk to themselves - a facility we did not have in 1982. And if we really had to, make a mess of Buenos Aires as well - I think world opinion would not object to this