Following the Argentine invasion of the Falklands on 2 April last year, the most significant factor determining the British response was the House of Commons debate the next day. Having gained strong support from most of the Labour Party, and especially its leader Michael Foot, the Thatcher Government was able to continue and enhance its plans for a military response, the first units of the task force sailing for the South Atlantic two days later. For the first two Weeks after the task force sailed, the great majority of people in Britain did not believe that the crisis would escalate to a shooting war. The almost universal opinion was that mediation, probably by Al Haig, would ensure some kind of compromise settlement before the task force got south of Ascension Island. But even in these early days it was becoming apparent that the Ministry of Defence was committing an extraordinarily large fleet of ships in order to end the crisis by military means. A high proportion of the modern fighting ships of the Royal Navy, almost the entire Royal Fleet Auxiliary and over fifty ships taken up from the Merchant Fleet, combined to give the Government not so much a task force as a navy, and a very substantial one at that – larger than any other West European navy with the exception of the French, and carrying a comprehensive range of armaments including nuclear weapons. Indeed, for the three months of the Falklands crisis, Britain’s normally large contribution of modern ships to Nato forces was virtually non-existent.

An effect of the decision to send such a massive military force was to escalate the crisis to the point where the United States felt compelled to mediate. This, in turn, meant that it had to adopt a neutral stance towards the protagonists, refusing to come into line with Britain’s other allies in support for economic and diplomatic sanctions against Argentina. Only after the end of the Haig mission on 30 April did the United States declare its support for Britain, and only by that time did Britain have comprehensive international support for ending the crisis by non-military means. Yet immediately those circumstances existed, at the end of April, Britain’s response was a rapid escalation to full military conflict.

Most of the attention of recent months has been focused on the Belgrano incident. While this is central to arguments that Britain sought war when peace was possible, it is essential to see the Belgrano incident in its full context. Precisely when circumstances permitted strong non-military pressure on Argentina, Britain commenced the ‘killing war’, killing 400 Argentinians within 48 hours, in a series of military actions of which the destruction of the Belgrano was just one Moreover, the reasons given by the Government for following this course of action, both at the time and since, are simply not tenable.

The results of the action and subsequent military operations may within Britain have given tremendous support to the Thatcher Government, but have left an expensive legacy in the form of Fortress Falklands, now known to be causing a general distortion of Britain’s defence policy. They have resulted in circumstances where Argentina seems likely to maintain its claims to the Malvinas at considerable cost to Britain. Thus a violent short-term response by Britain has now resulted in a continuing crisis with no solution in sight.

Haig’s efforts at mediation suffered from the permanent weakness that, in Argentinian eyes, he was not neutral, but supportive of Britain. This was one of the factors which brought his mission to an end on 30 April, his role being taken over initially by the Peruvians, but also by the UN Secretariat in New York. Thus, by 30 April, Britain had the committed support of the US Administration, along with that of the entire EEC membership, Japan, the countries of the Commonwealth and many non-aligned states. That it did not also have support in Latin America was largely due to its decision to send such a large task force: Argentina’s position as a pariah state within Latin America may be said to have been improved by the British over-reaction.

By 30 April, Britain was in a position to bring remarkably strong economic pressure to bear on a weak Argentine economy. Its response, instead, was to embark on a comprehensive programme of military escalation, signally violent in its execution. Meanwhile it sought continually to maintain that its military operations were of a very low level – designed either to encourage a diplomatic solution by enforcing the blockade through damaging the Stanley runway, or to respond solely to Argentine threats against the task force. The sequence of attacks on the large Argentine military base near Port Stanley which took place on 1 May is, however, wholly inconsistent with these stated aims.

In the early hours of 1 May, a Vulcan bomber, operating out of Ascension Island, dropped a stick of 21 bombs diagonally across the Stanley runway, gouging one crater there but not fully putting the runway out of operation. The Ministry of Defence has claimed that the attack was aimed solely at destroying the runway and involved the use of high explosive bombs. Other authoritative technical sources reported after the attack that it involved the use of cluster bombs, weapons totally unsuited to the purpose of destroying the runway. The large attack by task force Sea Harriers which followed a few hours later certainly made substantial use of these bombs.

Later in the war, during the battle for Goose Green, much was made in the British media of the discovery of napalm intended for use by the Argentine forces. This was held to be an indication of the depths to which the Argentine Air Force would stoop. Here we have one of the more notable examples of media hypocrisy during the conflict. The RAF does not employ napalm for the reason that it has available more sophisticated anti-personnel weapons. The Hunting BL755 cluster bomb is the prime example. Each bomb consists of 147 bomblets, each of which produces on explosion up to two thousand high-velocity fragments, dispersing over an area of about one and a half acres. The effect on what are euphemistically called soft-skinned targets – a category which includes people – is devastating. That the Harrier attack on the Stanley air-base was far more than an attack on the runway aimed at enforcing the blockade is also shown by the fact that some of the planes attacked the grass strip at Goose Green, a facility wholly irrelevant to the supply of the Falklands from the mainland.

Later in the day, two of the task force frigates and a destroyer closed to within gunnery range of the Stanley base and proceeded with a barrage using their 4.5-inch radar-Controlled guns. Each of these has a rate of fire of 25 rounds a minute, giving a collective firing rate of over one a second. What is most significant here is that the shells were fused to burst in the air, not on the ground. They were thus equally irrelevant to any attempt to damage the runway. Only after this naval gunfire attack did the Argentines start an air attack on the British ships. The Argentines did not have too good a reputation for supplying full casualty figures, but even they admitted to 19 killed and 37 injured as a result of these three attacks. But it is the overall context which is important. Within 24 hours of the development of US support for economic sanctions Britain had begun the killing war. While claiming to pursue a policy of ‘minimum force in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution’, the British in fact committed the maximum available military force in pursuit of a military solution.

Just over 24 hours after the last attack on Stanley, the ancient Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was attacked and sunk by the submarine Conqueror with the loss of 368 lives. According to various statements from official sources forthcoming since the attack, the following factors were crucial: 1. The Belgrano was attacked almost immediately it was detected by Conqueror. 2. It was heading for the exclusion zone and closing on units of the task force. 3. It was armed with Exocet missiles and posed a formidable threat to the task force because of these missiles and its 6-inch guns. 4. It was heading for the shallow waters of the Burdwood Banks, where Conqueror could have lost it. 5. It was part of a three-pronged attack on the task force. 6. It was directing aircraft in attacks on the task force and had been involved in the initiation of these unprovoked attacks the previous day. Careful Parliamentary questioning, notably by Tarn Dalyell,* coupled with inquiries from journalists such as Paul Foot and from defence analysts, has shown that all of these assertions are false.

The Conqueror had been shadowing the cruiser for over thirty hours with orders to attack only if it entered the exclusion zone, but these orders were suddenly changed to an order for an unconditional attack at a time when the Belgrano was on a 280° course away from the exclusion zone, away from the task force and away from the Burd wood Banks, towards Southern Argentina. The cruiser was not equipped with Exocet (although its escorts, which were so equipped, were not attacked) and its 6-inch guns had a maximum range some seven miles less than the anti-ship missiles carried on task force ships. The Belgrano was not part of a three-pronged attack but had been on a regular patrol to give early warning of expected action by the task force against the bases of Rio Grande and Ushuia, prior to its being recalled to base more than twelve hours before the attack by Conqueror. Air attacks on the task force units only started after the task force attacks on Stanley and at no time was the Belgrano within radar range of task force units, so it could not have been directing the air attacks onto the ships.

Where the Belgrano affair becomes singularly murky is in relation to the Peruvian efforts to get a cease-fire and a settlement. These had been going on throughout 1 May and into the early hours of 2 May (the Belgrano was attacked at 3 p.m. South Atlantic time). During these Peruvian attempts at mediation, Francis Pym had travelled to Washington and had extensive meetings with Haig on the morning of 2 May. The Peruvians insist that they were in regular contact with Haig, who was relaying the results of their efforts to Pym. They also say that they were in touch with Mrs Thatcher’s adviser, Lord Thomas, and that London would have been continually briefed by the British Ambassador in Lima. They further claim, most forcefully, that the Peruvian President had direct phone conversations with Galtieri, and that the latter supported the Peruvian proposals and expected the junta to do so. It has also become known that the news of the sinking of the Belgrano was communicated to the junta while it was meeting to discuss the Peruvian proposals. The meeting then broke up.

The status of the Peruvian proposals remains one of the major areas for further research, the indications now being that a peaceful solution was very close. Even if that were not wholly true, there is one other aspect of the Belgrano affair which is little short of astounding. The decision to sink the cruiser, at a time when it was heading away from the task force and the exclusion zone, was taken in London by the war cabinet, some time on Sunday 2 May. It could have been taken at any time in the previous 24 hours but was actually taken when Mr Pym was in Washington, engaged in discussions with Al Haig, who was being kept fully informed of the Peruvian initiative. Thus the Belgrano decision was taken at an extremely sensitive time. Yet Mr Pym himself has admitted that he was not consulted about this major military escalation – indeed he was not even informed about the decision when it was taken! Even allowing for the remarkable inconsistencies in the Government’s varying accounts of the Belgrano affair itself, this aspect is little short of incredible.

Following the Belgrano sinking and the sub sequent loss of the Sheffield, the Falklands war proceeded to its conclusion with the loss of over a thousand lives, twice as many serious injuries, and a monetary cost in lost equipment alone running to £1500 million for both sides. It has also led to Fortress Falklands, which, as I have said, is formidably expensive and is now being seen as producing a distortion of Britain’s defence policy. The cost and consequences of Fortress Falklands are now the subject of a continual policy of cover-up.

The Government envisages no negotiations on Falklands/Malvinas sovereignty during the lifetime of the present Parliament, yet the Ministry of Defence persists in its efforts to view the costs of Fortress Falklands on the basis of marginal costs. Thus we would be spending the money on troops and ships anyway: the only cost of Fortress Falklands is the extra cost of keeping all these resources 8000 miles away. This alone is somewhat pricey – after all, it involves shipping fresh water to the Falklands from New Zealand. But the Ministry is confident that once all the capital costs of barracks, air-base, radar, road, harbours are met, Fortress Falklands will involve a marginal cost increase of ‘only’ £200 million a year – a mere £120,000 per islander, peanuts compared with the cost of the war itself.

Such a reckoning depends on the acceptance of marginal costing, but while this might be acceptable for a short-term operation of six months or a year, Fortress Falklands has a minimum life of six years and all the resources committed to it are, by reason of distance alone, simply not available for other purposes such as the defence of Britain or commitments to Nato. Not just marginal but full costs should therefore be assessed. Examination of the annual functional analysis of the Defence Budget in the light of the size of forces in Fortress Falklands shows the continuing cost of the operation, excluding replacement of equipment lost in the war and capital costs of new facilities on the island, as over £1000 million per year. On present projections, the cost of the war and the maintenance of Fortress Falklands from 1982 to the end of the present Parliament in 1987 will cost the UK more than £6000 million. On top of this is the distortion of defence policy, most noticeable in relation to Naval forces. It has recently been established that the Royal Navy has had to commit 25 per cent of its entire available force of destroyers and frigates to Fortress Falklands, not least because of the 16,000-mile round trip for every ship taking up station in the area. This is at a time when the Nato commander for the North Atlantic area is bemoaning the fact that he has far too few such ships for his purposes.

That such revelations are acutely embarrassing to the Ministry of Defence is shown by its reaction to this information during the Commons Defence Debate last July. Tam Dalyell raised the matter of the defence posture distortion during the debate, and even succeeded in reading out the contents of a 1,500-word report written by a defence analyst detailing the commitment of destroyers and frigates to Fortress Falklands. This was a remarkable achievement – in such debates ministers object strongly to Opposition members reading reports in the House. Dalyell repeatedly asked the Minister to comment on the report, inviting him to verify each component. Yet the Minister maintained an embarrassed silence, finally dismissing it as pure speculation about which he would not comment, even though the analysis was based on information published by the Ministry itself.

Fortress Falklands is the inevitable result of the determination of the Government in general, and the Prime Minister and the Navy in particular, to solve the Falklands crisis purely by military means. The result is anything but a solution. At some time in the future the Argentinians will gain sovereignty, probably via a leaseback agreement, for the plain facts of geopolitical reality are against Britain. Meanwhile Fortress Falklands has become a liability that will cause the Government continual trouble during the lifetime of the present Parliament.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences