Argentine Military Effectiveness at the Falkland’s II

Pucara CAS aircraft

Argentine Air Force Performance.

The Argentine Air Force (AAF) fought remarkably well during the Falklands War, astonishing the British and much of the rest of the world. The politicization that crippled the rest of the military appears to have been absent from the process of pilot recruitment and promotion as AAF (and Navy) pilots were considered the nation’s military elite and were chosen based on very demanding mental and physical standards. Argentine pilots were extremely well-trained, most having been tutored by the French or the Israelis. The Argentines considered themselves to be the equal of Israeli pilots—whom they considered the best in the world—and their flying during the war gave some substance to this boast. AAF pilots were incredibly brave, showing a professionalism and determination that was absent from most of the military. In the words of Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, “The British were awed by the courage of the Argentine pilots, flying suicidally low to attack, then vanishing amid flashes of pursuing Seacat, Blowpipe, and Rapier racing across the sky behind them. Alone among the enemy’s three services, the Air Force seemed highly motivated and utterly committed to the battle.”

The Argentines suffered from several disadvantages. First, their bases were roughly 400 miles from the zone of operations, whereas the British carriers could steam in to less than 100 miles to launch and recover their aircraft. At this range, less than half of Argentina’s aircraft could even reach their targets, while those that could had only enough fuel for a quick bombing run before heading home. There was simply no loiter time to carefully choose targets, orchestrate complex attacks, or wait for conditions to become more favorable for an attack run. Second, the AAF had only very old planes—many of which, like the Mirages, were not optimized for ship attacks. These planes were outclassed by the British Harriers, and they lacked the physical and electronic capabilities to fend off British air defenses. The newest planes, and those best for ship attacks, were the five Super Etendards of the Argentine Navy. However, they were too new to be counted on, and too few (and with too few Exocet missiles) to really be a formidable threat. Third, with the exception of the five Exocets, Argentina lacked the proper ordnance to go after ships, and so was forced to rely on dumb bombs. Finally, the AAF had never planned or trained to fight a war at sea. Many of their pilots had never even flown over water. Only the handful of Navy pilots had any training in ship-attack missions. Consequently, the AAF pilots had to learn everything on the fly and ended up improvising most of their missions.

Despite these handicaps, the Argentines performed extremely well. Argentine pilots and air staff learned quickly. At bottom, however, the most important reason for the AAF’s success was that they proved to be superb flyers. Argentine aircraft on ship-attack missions flew the last 150 miles to the islands as low as 10 feet above the sea. They would cross West Falkland island at tree-top height. Then, at the last possible moment, they would pop up from behind the hills, pick a target among the ships in Falkland Sound, and then dive at the target, releasing their bombs at 150 feet but continuing on down to the deck to try to escape over the waves. The AAF flyers hugged the water and the terrain of West Falkland so well that the British rarely had more than a few seconds between when they detected a plane and when it released its bombs.

Despite their lack of training in ship attacks, Argentine pilots from both the Navy and the AAF proved to be very accurate with their ordnance. By Martin Middlebrook’s count, the Argentines launched 150 ship-attack sorties, of which 100 actually made it to the Falklands to mount an attack. Of these 100, 16 were able to put their bombs into British ships. Given the fact that many of those 100 planes were shot down, damaged, or otherwise hindered by British air defenses, 16 percent is a very impressive hit-rate—especially for pilots with no training in ship attacks, in planes not designed for these kinds of missions, with unguided ordnance, and who had never been in combat before. As an aside, those 16 aircraft put 25 bombs into 14 British ships. They sank only 6 British ships, however, because only 11 of the 25 bombs exploded. This was the great bane of the AAF: bombs improperly fused for the extremely low altitudes at which they were attacking.

In air-to-air engagements the Argentines fared badly, but it is hard to make the case that this was because of poor dogfighting skills. The extreme range drastically diminished the time Argentine fighters could devote to aerial combat, while the low altitudes at which they conducted their attacks were the worst possible for their Mirages and Daggers but best for the British Harriers. However, the single most important British advantage was the AIM-9L Sidewinder, which could be fired from any angle, while the Argentines had only older French and Israeli missiles that had to be fired close-in at the rear of the target. British, Argentine, and American sources all agree that the AIM-9L was the key to British victory in air-to-air combat. On May 1, the Argentines sent several Mirages and Daggers out to escort the strike aircraft only to have them trounced by the Harriers with advanced Sidewinders. Thereafter, the AAF high command decreed that there would be no more dogfighting, and instead, all aircraft would attempt to avoid the Harriers as best they could and concentrate solely on ship attacks. Consequently, it is difficult to hold their air-to-air record (24 Argentine aircraft shot down for no Harriers) against the AAF. Indeed, British pilots remarked that when attacked by Harriers the Argentine pilots proved very good at evasive maneuvering to try to shake their pursuer and proceed with the bombing run.

As noted above, the AAF made some efforts to support Argentine ground forces. However, for a number of reasons, these strikes made little difference to the outcome of the fighting. The great distance from the mainland made it almost impossible for the AAF to use its A-4s and Mirages for ground support missions. Moreover, most of the time, British Harriers made it impossible for the Argentines to fly missions with their Pucara ground attack aircraft. The British all felt that the Pucara pilots were excellent flyers, but they lacked the proper munitions—such as cluster bombs—to harm British infantry.

The direction and planning of Argentine Air Force operations were of a very high caliber. The AAF conducted constant aerial reconnaissance missions, beginning with long-range flights by a specially configured Boeing 707 to monitor the fleet as it made its way across the South Atlantic to the Falklands. Reconnaissance patrols preceded every mission, and their information was quickly and efficiently incorporated into strike planning throughout the process—even updating or redirecting missions as the attacking planes flew into the zone of operations. To overcome British jamming, the Argentines employed spotter aircraft, usually Neptunes, to designate targets for attacking aircraft, illuminate them, and provide any additional guidance needed by the Skyhawks and Mirages. Argentine air strikes were well designed to minimize the effectiveness of British air defenses while still providing the pilots with a reasonable chance of hitting their targets. Their plans were flexible and highly responsive to unforeseen developments. They found creative ways to take the British unawares by disguising strikes, bringing them in from unexpected angles, or suddenly deviating from established patterns.

The AAF leadership cannot go blameless, however. In particular, they made several crucial mistakes in terms of their strategy that undermined the Air Force’s contribution to the war effort. The most serious of these was their determination to go after the British warships and ignore the transports. The UK aircraft carriers were clearly crucial to the British operation, and the Argentines were justified in their prodigious efforts to try to get at them. However, the destroyers and frigates were the most expendable element of the British task force: they were the one asset of which the British had more than enough. On the other hand, the British transports were vital, vulnerable, and in very short supply. Throughout the first weeks of the landing, London was terrified that the Argentines would go all out after the transports. The troops, equipment, and supplies for the ground forces were literally crammed onto a handful of ships. Had the Argentines been able to sink three or four more British transports, rather than warships, they might have forced the British to pack it in altogether.

Combat Support and Combat Service Support Functions.

Argentina’s intelligence services turned in a mostly mixed performance. Strategic intelligence was pretty bad, while tactical military intelligence proved to be quite good. Argentina’s national-level intelligence services were heavily politicized and so usually told the junta exactly what they wanted to hear. Their gravest mistake was to predict that the British would not go to war in response to an invasion of the Falklands. This was what the junta wanted to hear, and from this error flowed many other Argentine problems.

At tactical levels, however, Argentine intelligence proved quite good at its job. Army intelligence correctly picked the British landing site, they forecast the British move against Goose Green and then the overland advance against Stanley rather than an amphibious assault, and they gave General Menendez an accurate read on the progress of the British advance across East Falkland and their buildup around Stanley in early June. The Argentine air force and naval intelligence services did an outstanding job tracking British ship movements and relaying them in real time to approaching strike aircraft. In perhaps their finest feat of all, Argentine intelligence tracked radar contacts with British Harriers and then used this information to pinpoint the location of the two British carriers—information that was then used to set up an Exocet strike on the carriers. The carriers turned out to be right where they were supposed to be, but the missile was decoyed and then shot down by an escorting destroyer.

On the other hand, Argentina’s handling of information was very poor but in fundamentally different ways from the Arab militaries. Rather than the endemic lying and obfuscation that crippled Arab operations, Argentine forces suffered from an unwillingness to share information, both among services and within the Argentine Army chain of command. Operational security was lax, greatly aiding British intelligence collection efforts. In addition, because the constant political infighting had taught Argentine officers not to trust one another, none were willing to share information even when the shooting started. This situation was especially pernicious among the senior officers who distrusted each other and their subordinates completely. As a result, it was the general rule that senior commanders (including the high command in Buenos Aires) kept junior officers in the dark about even the most basic information regarding their own or enemy forces.

The record on Argentine logistics was similarly poor. In battle, Argentine troops were frequently hindered by shortages of ammunition, and away from it they lacked food, clean/warm clothing, sleeping gear, tents, medical supplies, weapons’ cleaning materials, spare parts, and virtually everything else. Of course, Argentina’s greatest logistical problem was the British blockade around the islands, which made any movement of forces and resupply difficult once the British fleet arrived in the South Atlantic.

But Argentine logistics problems cannot all be blamed on the British blockade. Buenos Aires had failed to make any real logistical plans or preparations for supporting a garrison on the island before the invasion, and so were overwhelmed when they were suddenly called on to support a multi-brigade combat force. Consequently, Argentine forces began experiencing shortages of food and medical supplies almost immediately after the invasion and nearly a month before British warships ever arrived in the area. Argentine officers were indifferent to the care and well-being of their troops, and even in those cases where their officers were diligent, the Argentines lacked the helicopters or all-terrain transports to be able to get supplies to the front lines in a timely, regular fashion. Whenever Buenos Aires decided to add more troops or equipment to the forces already in the Falklands they invariably failed to make the necessary provisions for the additional supplies these units would need. As a result, reinforcements simply increased the logistical burden on the force defending the islands. As Nora Kinzer Stewart put it, the Argentines “were simply unable because of their inexperience in logistics to distribute these supplies in a rational manner.”

Argentine logistical problems were compounded by the crippling interservice rivalry within the Argentine armed forces. Some cross-service cooperation was possible at the highest levels of the junta only because the senior military leaders recognized that their fate would be determined by the outcome of the war. However, at the next rung down the military hierarchy, there was tremendous antipathy and a malicious unwillingness to cooperate. All three services took responsibility only for supplying their own forces on the islands, especially after the British SSNs arrived. Since the Army had no way of getting supplies to the island without the Air Force or Navy’s aid, they suffered the worst. Eventually, some high-level discussions forced the Air Force and Navy to carry some Army supplies to the islands, but the Army never received what it needed. Although Menendez was nominally in command of all air, sea, and ground forces in the Falklands, in practice he had great difficulty getting the Air Force or Navy to obey his orders. Both the Navy and the Air Force monitored British ship movements around the islands but refused to share their information with each other.

Argentine technical skills varied greatly.

The Argentines demonstrated a fairly impressive capability for employing high-tech equipment, modifying weapons, repairing sophisticated technology, and devising technical solutions to military problems. For instance, when war broke out between Argentina and Great Britain, French technicians had not yet performed the various operations that essentially “married” the Exocet to the Super Etendard and allowed the planes to fire the missiles. In support of their NATO ally, France broke its military ties to Argentina before the Exocets and Super Etendards were properly linked up. Indeed, the French believed this operation so complex that they told the British not to worry about the Exocets because the Argentines would not be able to do it themselves. Yet, the Argentines did it, and did it very quickly. However, the other side of this coin is that routine maintenance among Argentine units was abysmal. Even the Argentine Air Force suffered from maintenance and repair problems that quickly reduced its sortie rate. The inability of Argentine armorers to make the simple adjustment to their bomb fuses to allow them to detonate when dropped from low altitudes also undercuts the image of Argentine technical prowess.