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Fighting Along a Knife Edge

The Falklands and Senkakus Wars

Lieutenant Commander Jeff Vandenengel, USN

(Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright C (2020) U.S. Naval Institute/

To Prepare for a Fight Over the Western Pacific’s Contested Islands, There is No Better Resource than the Falklands War

The 1982 Falklands War, featuring the only major conventional naval combat since World War II, is an excellent case study for the U.S. Navy (USN) as it prepares for any future conflict. The war is particularly informative for the USN as it looks for ways to establish maritime superiority in potential fights with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over contested islands in the Western Pacific. There are strong parallels in the political conditions, geographies, and military situations between the Falklands in 1982 and Western Pacific hot spots today, such as the Senkaku, Spratly, and Paracel Islands.

Admiral “Sandy” Woodward, the Falklands British Task Force Commander, wrote that the “British victory would have to be judged anyway as a fairly close run thing… We fought our way along a knife-edge.”1 Examining the lessons of the Falklands War may give the USN the advantage it needs to succeed in its own fight along a knife-edge─for example, the Senkakus War.

Falklands and Senkakus: Oceans Apart but Closely Related

In 1833, Captain James Onslow claimed the Falklands for Britain, a stake Argentina contested intermittently for the next 149 years.2 In early 1982, tensions over the islands were especially high, yet neither side thought it would lead to war. Britain did not believe Argentina would be so brash as to invade, whereas Argentina believed Britain, in the age of decolonization, was not willing to fight over the islands.3 There was little financial or strategic reason to fight for the Falklands, with their primary allure being their political and symbolic value.

Similarly, the Senkakus have been contested by China, Taiwan, and Japan for decades. It is easy to imagine a political situation like that of the Falklands that leads to a Sino-American war over the Senkakus. Looking to seize the islands to distract its population from domestic problems, the PRC could issue ultimatums and make military preparations for invasion. The U.S. could dismiss that aggression as mere posturing, which the Chinese could misinterpret as the U.S. signaling that it will not go to war over the islands. The end result could again be war over islands with little economic or military value.4 Woodward wrote on the way to war, “Of course, there’s no way the Falklands are worth a war, whether we win it or not—equally, there’s no way you should let the Argentinians (or anyone else for that matter) get away with international robbery.”5 That same rationale could easily be applied to the Senkakus.

The Falklands’ and Senkakus’ geographies are also similar. The Falkland Islands are small and inhospitable with a very small population. There is deep water to the east but also nearby littorals. The most important geographic factor in the war was the distances between the Falklands and the two nations fighting for control. They are a mere 400 nm from Argentina, compared to approximately 7,800 nm from Britain.6 This distance defined the war, forcing the Royal Navy (RN) to fight for the islands essentially unaided by the Royal Air Force, straining the fleet’s logistics, and necessitating the use of the nearest base at Ascension Island, still 3,300 nm away from the fight.7

The uninhabited Senkakus are also small and desolate. There is nearby deep water but also significant littorals in the East China Sea. The Senkakus are also very close to the potential aggressor, at just 220 nm from China, yet approximately 5,700 nm from the opposition, the U.S. in this case. Just as the British had to operate out of distant Ascension Island, the USN may be forced to rely on Guam and Hawaii as their primary bases if closer spots such as Okinawa are unavailable due to their vulnerability or for political reasons.8

Finally, the military situations of the Falklands in 1982 and the Senkakus today have important parallels. Both matchups feature near-peer adversaries with technologically advanced militaries, with both the RN and USN being larger than that of their adversaries.9 However, the RN’s and USN’s global obligations mean they cannot bring all of their forces to bear against an enemy able to devote their entire navy to the fight, thus reducing the size disparity. Additionally, politics and the desire to limit the conflict prevented British attacks on Argentina itself, just as a similar situation may stop the U.S. from attacking mainland China.10

Undersea Warfare Lessons

After diplomatic negotiations failed, Argentina invaded the Falklands on April 2, 1982, easily capturing the lightly defended islands.11 That week, three nuclear-powered submarines departed for the Falklands, arriving less than two weeks later and starting their search for the Argentinian Navy.12

On May 1, one of those submarines, HMS Conqueror, found the cruiser ARA General Belgrano and two escorts near the shallow water of Burwood Bank south of the Falklands. The next day, Conqueror sank Belgrano, scoring two hits from a mere 1400 yards away.13 That single attack “sent the navy of Argentina home for good,” as Woodward wrote.14 Out of fear of additional submarine attacks and acknowledgement of their weak antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, the Argentinians withdrew their surface fleet to port for the remainder of the war.

That astounding success meant that the submarine ARA San Luis was the single Argentinian warship at sea for much of the war. Despite facing the entire British task force on its own, San Luis completed a five-week patrol unscathed. San Luis staged attacks on British warships but missed each time due to weapon system malfunctions that caused the torpedoes to behave erratically.15 Meanwhile, British ASW efforts against that single target proved futile. Throughout the war the British fired an astonishing 200 torpedoes at false contacts, rapidly depleting their inventory. As Sir Lawrence Freedman dryly wrote in The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, due to ASW anxieties “the Atlantic whale population suffered badly during the course of the campaign.”16

The Royal Navy’s incredible success with their submarine fleet yet remarkable frustrations with ASW provide insights into how the USN can prepare to fight for undersea supremacy around islands like the Senkakus. Those lessons are focused on command and control of submarines, maximizing their combat potential, and the tendency to underestimate the difficulty of ASW.

Despite how concerned Woodward was about the threat the Belgrano group posed to his task force, Conqueror had to wait twenty-seven hours from first finding the cruiser before receiving Rules of Engagement (ROE) from the Ministry of Defence that permitted an attack.17 If Belgrano had successfully attacked Woodward’s carriers during that time, it would have likely altered the war’s outcome. Additionally, the political ramifications would have been massive when the public learned that hundreds of British sailors died while Conqueror was waiting for permission to attack an enemy already in her reticles. In a Senkakus scenario, U.S. submariners should be prepared to interpret and fight using complex ROE; most conflicts will be complex and not be a binary option between peace or unrestricted warfare. 

The Falklands War also showed that it is inadvisable for those political and military leaders to use submarines for anything other than the surveillance or destruction of enemy warships. British helicopters attacked and disabled the submarine ARA Santa Fe while it was surfaced completing an inconsequential troop and supply delivery, resulting in the loss of half of Argentina’s operational submarines for little gain.18 Submarines’ stealth means they cannot warn or deter enemy warships, making them ineffective at presence missions and at deescalating tense political situations; Belgrano had no indications that an enemy submarine was present until two torpedoes ripped open her hull. Around the Senkakus, USN leaders should resist the urge to send submarines on secondary missions they are ill-suited for. Let them focus on what they do best.

When submarines are unleashed on enemy shipping, the results can be decisive. The single submarine Conqueror launched a single salvo that sank a single ship and in doing so defeated an entire navy in an attack that had a “devastating deterrent impact.”19 Today, the USN should strive to ensure its submarine force is capable of similar feats. It should jealously protect its advantage in the undersea domain, especially because it is “the one domain in which the United States has clear maritime superiority,” according to former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert.”20

That superiority will not be in quantity throughout the coming decade, as the USN’s submarine inventory is dropping to an estimated low of forty-two fast-attack submarines in 2028.21 Nor will it be in technology, as the PRC is rapidly improving its military platforms, sensors, and weapons. The USN’s undersea edge will be rooted in its officers’ and crews’ superior training. Despite this precious differentiator, too much of the time that they should be devoting to training for the high-end fight is being devoted to administrative and extraneous tasks.22 PRC anti-access weapons will likely force the submarine fleet to fight the opening stages of the Senkakus War alone. Before the USN sends thirty-one Pacific submarines to take on a Chinese fleet with 129 ASW-capable warships, sixty submarines, and dozens of ASW aircraft, we must do everything possible to ensure our undersea fleet is truly ready for war.23

The British frustrations with ASW are also instructive. The USN report on the Falklands stated, “The Royal Navy, long believed to be the best equipped and trained Navy in the Free World in the field of shallow water ASW, was unable to successfully localize and destroy the Argentine submarine San Luis, known to be operating in the vicinity of the Task Force for a considerable period.”24 That single Argentinian submarine faced an entire task force and did not hit a single target, yet it “created enormous concern… [and] dictated, at least as much as did the air threat, the conduct of British naval operations.”25 In a fight for the Senkakus, confronted by dozens of Chinese submarines, the USN will be faced with a significantly more challenging problem.26 They can prepare for that fight now by continuing to push robust ASW training and by developing significantly more ASW platforms. Most importantly, the USN should realize that if the entire British Task force could not find a single Argentinian submarine in a month, then securing the Chinese Near Seas for carrier strike group operations, the key to U.S. naval warfare, could take years.

Surface Warfare Lessons

By sinking Belgrano, the British submarine force quickly accomplished one of the task force’s primary missions of neutralizing the Argentinian navy. As the British surface fleet arrived, their objective was to defeat the air threat in order to safely land and support troops to recapture the islands.27

That fight started off with a shock when a Super Etendard jet launched an Exocet anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) and sank the destroyer HMS Sheffield.28 Journalists Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins wrote, “It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Sheffields’s loss upon the British task force. Officers and men alike were appalled, shocked, subdued by the ease with which a single enemy aircraft firing a cheap—£300,000—by no means ultra-modern sea-skimming missile had destroyed a British warship specifically designed and tasked for air defence.”29

After the Sheffield sinking the war became a battle for air supremacy as the Argentinians attacked British ships primarily defended by Harriers and missile defense systems. Despite gaining the upper hand, by late May the British had not achieved the control of the skies necessary to ensure a safe amphibious landing. The Argentinians were harboring much of their air strength, waiting to unleash it on the vulnerable amphibious ships and their escorts. Worsening weather and a stretched supply train meant that the British needed to execute that assault soon or be forced to withdraw.30

Accepting the risk, on May 21 Royal Marines landed at San Carlos, an isolated location across the island from the capital of Port Stanley. The troops landed without a single casualty, but Argentine aircraft attacks on the exposed ships were “indescribable in their ferocity.”31 Despite an equally tenacious defense, British ships suffered mightily in an operation analogous to Guadalcanal. On the first day alone, only two of the seven warships that entered San Carlos Bay escaped unscathed.32 For the remainder of the war, the surface fleet provided gunfire support and supplies to the Royal Marines as they fought their way across the island, capturing Port Stanley and ending the war approximately three weeks later.

For the U.S. surface fleet preparing for an engagement around the Senkakus, the biggest lessons are focused on scouting and tracking of surface ships and how to defend those ships against air and ASCM attacks.

First, the Falklands show how difficult it will be to effectively hide surface ships in a war for the Senkakus. In the air, Argentinian Boeing 707s transport aircraft, not even designed for reconnaissance, detected and tracked the British Task Force as it transited south, first gaining contact days before the British thought possible.33 Super Etendard pilots analyzed Harrier radar contacts to surmise the location of the strike group, using that to successfully launch an Excoet attack that destroyed the vital transport SS Atlantic Conveyor.34 Today, the PRC likely have a significantly enhanced ability to detect and track an American surface group. The PRC has dozens more surveillance aircraft, a first-rate unmanned aerial surveillance program, and a robust satellite network which, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence, allows the PRC to “observe maritime activity anywhere on the earth.”35 Around the Falklands, the Argentinians employed five surveillance trawlers to discretely report the position of the British Task Force.36 On a much larger scale today, the PRC can rely on their massive “Maritime Militia” of hundreds of trawlers and merchants, camouflaged amongst the thousands of civilian ships in the Chinese Near Seas, to discretely and accurately report U.S. warship locations using the Beidou positioning system.37

When the Chinese do find the U.S. surface fleet, the Falklands also show how difficult it will be to defend against air and missile attacks. Throughout the war, material and personnel problems prevented defensive systems from tracking or launching interceptors at numerous critical moments. Sea Wolf computers froze on HMS Glasgow, Sea Dart missile doors stuck shut on HMS Coventry, chaff from HMS Ambuscade likely saved that ship from an incoming Exocet but diverted it towards the key supply ship SS Atlantic Conveyor, and HMS Coventry swung in front of HMS Broadsword and blocked a shot at two incoming attackers. These seemingly minor problems resulted in two sunk ships and one withdrawn with heavy damage.38

Even if U.S. missile defenses are perfect, the sheer number of incoming missiles and aircraft threaten to overwhelm them. Today, a single Chinese Houbei missile craft has more ASCMs than the number employed by the entire Argentinian military, and the PRC is estimated to have an inventory in the thousands.39

Finally, British casualties indicate that when U.S. escorts are hit, modern munitions will typically incapacitate or sink them. Even though multiple Argentine Exocet and bombs did not even explode due to fusing problems, they still sank six British ships, and Woodward acknowledged that the British “would surely have lost” five more if other Argentine bombs functioned properly.40 In the age of ASCMs and one-hit ships, the USN’s reliance on a small number of large capital ships may prove to be a brittle plan.41

Carrier and Air Warfare Lessons

The British struggles with hiding and defending the fleet led to difficult questions on how to best use their two small aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and Invincible. They were the greatest assets in the British task force and the best means of defending against Argentinian air attacks.42 However, they were also the greatest British weakness and dictated the deployment and tactics of the entire task force. Woodward wrote that there was the “inescapable truth that the Argentinian commanders failed inexplicably to realize that if they had hit Hermes, the British would have been finished. They never really after the one target that would surely have given them victory.”43 Woodward’s solution was to keep the carriers as far out to sea as possible, almost exclusively using them for air defense.

In the Senkakus War, the U.S. should consider a similar utilization of its carriers. Focusing carriers on air defense allows them to execute a mission only they can do and protects the rest of the fleet to perform tasks they are better suited for, such as anti-surface warfare and strike in contested environments. With carriers in an air defense posture, they can remain further out to sea to reduce the likelihood of Chinese attacks, mitigate the reduced range of the airwing, and avoid the risk of losing their valuable fighters to formidable Chinese air defenses.44

Although the carriers will likely have a diminished role around the Senkakus, the Falklands War shows how they are still necessary. They were the only reliable source of British airpower due to the distance to the nearest airbase at Ascension Island; the Royal Air Force’s only contribution was five Vulcan bomber attacks that required seventeen in-flight refuelings and had “virtually no impact.”45 Numerous Argentine attacks were stopped by the mere presence of Harriers, and a driving factor for the weak British air defenses was the lack of airborne early warning, another problem solved by the presence of U.S. carriers.46

Winning the Senkakus War

A former commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet wrote that the Falklands War is a “gold mine of lessons.”47 As tensions continue to rise around the Western Pacific’s contested island chains, the USN should look to that gold mine to prepare for battle.

Simultaneously, today’s officers and sailors should study the war themselves and draw their own conclusions. The Chinese are reviewing the Falklands War.48 Every effort matters in a fight resting on a knife edge, and so we must outstudy them if we hope to outfight them.


[1] Admiral Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992), xviii.

[2] Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983), 5.

[3] Commander Kenneth R. McGruther, USN, “When Deterrence Fails: The Nasty Little War for the Falkland Islands,” Naval War College Review, March-April 1983, 48, 50.

[4] Michael E. O’Hanlon, The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small States (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019), 38-40.

[5] Woodward, One Hundred Days, 81.

[6] Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Volume II, War and Diplomacy. (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), 49.

[7] Office of Program Appraisal, “Lessons of the Falklands.” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, February 1983), 16.

[8] Robert Haddick, Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 91.

[9] U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018), 84, 123.

[10] McGruther, “When Deterrence Fails,” Naval War College Review, 52.

[11] Richard C. Thornton, The Falklands Sting (Washington: Brassey’s, Inc., 1998), 130.

[12] Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, 50.

[13] Ibid, 292.

[14] Woodward, One Hundred Days, 164.

[15] Jorge R. Bóveda, “One Against All: The Secret History of the ARA San Luis During the South Atlantic War,” Naval Center Newsletter, April 2007,

[16] Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, 214, 728.

[17] Ibid, 289.

[18] David Brown, The Royal Navy and the Falklands War (London: Leo Cooper Ltd., 1987), 101.

[19] Commander Christopher Craig, D.S.C, RN, “Falkland Operations II: Fighting by the Rules,” Naval War College Review, May-June 1984, 24.

[20] Vice Admiral Michael J. Connor, USN, “Advancing Undersea Dominance,” Proceedings, January 2015,

[21] Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, May 17, 2019), 9.

[22] Lieutenant Jeff Vandenengel, USN, “A Deckplate Review: How the Submarine Force Can Reach Its Warfighting Potential,” Center for International Maritime Security, April 30, 2018,

[23] U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2019), 116.

[24] Office of Program Appraisal, “Lessons of the Falklands.” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, February 1983), 47.

[25] Admiral Harry D. Train II, USN (Ret.), “An Analysis of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands Campaign,” Naval War College Review, Winter 1988, 40.

[26] U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018), 29.

[27] Woodward, One Hundred Days, 21.

[28] Ibid, 14.

[29] Hastings and Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands, 155.

[30] Ibid, 161.

[31] Commander Nick Kerr, RN, “The Falklands Campaign,” Naval War College Review, November-December 1982, 19.

[32] Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, 467.

[33] Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, 215.

[34] Commander Jorge Luis Colombo, ARA, “Falkland Operations I: ‘Super Etendard’ Naval Aircraft Operations During the Malvinas War,” Naval War College Review, May-June 1984, 19.

[35] Office of Naval Intelligence. “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century.” (Washington, D.C.: Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015), 19, 22.

[36] Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, 256.

[37] Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia.” (Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, March 7, 2016),

[38] Hastings and Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands, 159, 216, 225, 227.

[39] Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2014), 16.

[40] Woodward, One Hundred Days, xviii.

[41] Commander Phillip E. Pournelle, USN, “The Deadly Future of Littoral Sea Control,” Proceedings, July 2015,

[42] Kerr, “The Falklands Campaign,” Naval War College Review, 21.

[43] Woodward, One Hundred Days, xviii.

[44] Captain Henry J. Hendrix, USN (Ret.) (Ph.D.), “Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation.” Center for a New American Security, October 2015,

[45] Office of Program Appraisal, “Lessons of the Falklands.” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, February 1983), 6.

[46] Hastings and Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands, 217.

[47] Train, “Falkland/Malvinas Islands Campaign,” Naval War College Review, 50.

[48] Christopher D. Yung, “Sinica Rules the Waves? The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Power Projection and Anti-Access/Area Denial Lessons from the Falklands/Malvinas Conflict,” in Chinese Lessons from Others Peoples’ Wars, edited by Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen. U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, November 2011, 75.


Lieutenant Commander Vandenengel is the flag aide for commander, Submarine Forces. During his tour as weapons officer on USS Alexandria (SSN-757), he completed two western Pacific deployments and won the RADM Willis Lent Award as the most tactically proficient submarine department head in the Pacific Fleet.

Published: Fri Feb 21 17:49:26 EST 2020