Military Essays - The Falklands War

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War as a Strategic Tool of Policy: The Falklands War - "Did War prove to be a Successful Means of Achieving Political Objectives? Examine from both UK and Argentinean perspectives."

In an essay of this brevity it would be impossible, and indeed unnecessary, to discuss fully the history of the Falkland Islands; we will therefore begin by discussing the immediate origins of the conflict before going on to discuss the strategic, economic and finally political objectives of both participants before reaching a conclusion as to weather the war proved a successful means of achieving each sides political objectives.

Development of a Crisis.

Argentina had been smarting for some years after the 19th century British occupation of the Falkland Islands, but the matter began to come to a head when they raised the question of sovereignty at the United Nations in 1964. At that time the British position was that sovereignty was non-negotiable, but that they were open to discussions regarding contact between the Islands and Argentina, as well as issues regarding the welfare of the Islanders themselves. An the beginning of 1966, the British Foreign Secretary held discussions regarding the Falklands with officials in Buenos Ares and later a meeting was held in London with the same issue on the agenda. The British strategy during these discussions was to defuse and potential difficulties and to essentially to maintain the then current position. The Argentinean delegations, however, wanted nothing short of a return of the Malvinas to Argentine sovereignty; from the very beginnings of the growing crisis the two sides had differing and indeed mutually exclusive, political and strategic objectives. After the discussions the British publicly stated that they had no strategic, political or economic interests in the Falkland Islands, all of which were untrue as we will see.

The growing tension was not only felt among the higher echelons of Government, but also among the public, particularly in Argentina and on the Islands themselves. In September 1964 a light aircraft landed at Port Stanley and planted an Argentine flag, the pilot then took off and returned to Argentine without opposition. Exactly two years later a hijacked Argentine passenger airliner was forced to land on the Island and despite suspicions to the contrary the argentine government denied any involvement. These incidents helped to raise the existence of a British colony on its very doorstep to the Argentine populace, as did the British response of stationing a platoon of marines on the east of the Islands.

In November 1966 the British proposed a thirty year freeze on discussions, after which time the islanders would be allowed to decide their own future, this was rejected by the Argentineans as it did not serve their immediate political objectives of a return of the islands. In March of the following year the British subjected that, under certain conditions, they would be prepared to cede sovereignty of the islands to Argentina. There were conditions attached, however, most notably that the wished of the islanders would be paramount. The islanders themselves lobbied parliament and the matter was dropped. The condition that the wished of the islanders be sacrosanct was to become the key underlying theme of British foreign policy with regard to ownership of the islands. The islanders themselves wished to remain a British protectorate and thus the British Government were forced to discount all proposals to the contrary. To the Argentineans, sovereignty was the key issue; thus their respective political objectives set the two nations on a collision course.

With the political objectives seemingly firmly entrenched and mutually exclusive, it seems a little strange that the two sides continued to negotiate throughout the 1970’s. In the middle of June 1970, talks were concluded that resulted in improved communications between the Argentineans and the Falklanders. The Islanders were offered travel documents that allowed them to move freely in Argentine, as well as a generous range of financial incentives. The Argentines believed that they had made significant concessions and that the British had not reciprocated at all. In 1974 the British proposed a condominium, essentially joint control of the islands. The islanders themselves balked at the idea however. If the Argentine concessions of 1970 had been intended to sway public opinion among the islanders in their favour, it had evidently failed.

By the mid 70’s, the Argentine Government had evidently grown tired of attempts to seek a purely political resolution and their position hardened. Argentina began to increase the strength of its rhetoric and openly implied the possibility of invasion. This was followed at the beginning of 76 by an Argentine destroyer firing upon and attempting to board a British vessel. March 1976 say a military coup in Argentina; the military had no doubt been increasing in power as the hardening of the Argentine line on the Falklands of the previous few years indicates.

Soon after the coup in Argentina, a patrol helicopter from the HMS Endurance discovered an Argentine military presence on Southern Thule, part of the Falkland Islands, a clear violation of British territory. The British Government failed to react in any more serious way than making a formal protest. This Argentine base was allowed to exist unchallenged for five years, right up to the outbreak of the war in 1982. If there was any one factor in the pre war years that convinced the powers that be in Argentine of the lack of political and/or military will to maintain control of the Falkland Islands it was the failure to react appropriately the they unchallenged presence on southern Thule.

1979-80 saw, along with the election of a new Conservative Government in Great Britain, the revival of the lease back idea first proposed by the British in 1975; the idea being that formal sovereignty would transfer to Argentina whilst the British would maintain a military base and continue to administer the islands. The proposal was vehemently opposed by the islanders and their supporters in Britain. Despite this opposition, the Foreign Office pursued the policy whilst Lord Carrington advised the new Prime Minister Thatcher of the likely political consequences at home. The policy was eventually rejected. Following the breakdown of talks, a summit was held in New York, but, as reported in the Economist, the British diplomats were politically restrained and had little or nothing to offer regarding concessions over sovereignty. By the beginning of 1982, the Argentine military junta was thoroughly dissatisfied with the level and pace of progress and, although publicly stating that their aim was a diplomatic solution to the problem, the unstated agenda was sovereignty by the end of the year. The invasion was, perhaps inevitable.

Strategic objectives.

The strategic importance of the Falkland Islands is very easy to assess, a simple glance at a map is enough. The islands were one of the very few bases for the British in the Southern Atlantic; from the islands the British could maintain a vigil upon activity throughout most of the southern part of South America. For this reason too, it was of vital (probably even greater) importance to Britain’s key ally, the United States. The importance of the islands in friendly hands can be suggested by the unofficial assistance provided to the British task force by the American navy. Thus Britain’s policy objectives were inseparably bound within strategic considerations.

The Argentineans perspective was precisely the reverse; they could no longer tolerate a base so close their coastline. An analogy may be seen in the position of the United States over Cuba during the Cold War. The desire to recover the Malvinas Islands was not new, but the military coup did provide new impetus to the policy, along with putting in power people who were not afraid to explore, and finally execute, the military option in order to achieve the objective.

Economic objectives.

The economic objectives of both sides as a cause of the conflict have been largely ignored by historians. In 1966 the British unofficially told the Argentines that they had no economic interest in the islands at all and that they were largely self sufficient. Although this may have been the case at the time, this position soon changed. By 1975 the British Government established a working committee under, Lord Shackleton, to investigate the economic potential of the islands. The report concluded the islands had enormous fishing potential, as well as potentially significant oil and natural gas reserves. The oil crisis of 1973 and a recent (1973-75) geological survey in the region had suggested the significant potential for the development of local oil and gas fields. Thus, economically the British Government could not allow the islands to pass out of the British sphere of influence. The Argentines were also aware of the economic potential of the islands as the geological survey was not secret, this led to suspicion in Buenos Ares that the “British were after the islands oil” The importance of the discovery of oil in the region can not be overstated as a reason for increasing tensions in the region. It would have been politically unsound to say the least for the British to cede control of significant new reserves to a foreign power so soon after a global oil crisis. To the Argentineans, the potential exploitation of a major new oil field just a few miles off their coastline, by a foreign power, was unacceptable.

Political objectives.

Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979; after wresting the leadership from Edward Heath after the electoral defeats of 1974. The early years of the new Thatcher Government were not easy; inflation was a major issue, as was the entrenched power of trade unions. Oil prices were high following a crisis with Iran, further fuelling inflationary pressures. High interest rates and an increase in VAT did not help the domestic economic position, nor did it help British industry, leading to record unemployment and recession. By 1980, both inflation and unemployment were double what they had been at the election the previous year.

The obvious domestic political result was a massive slide in popularity of the new Conservative Government and a significant personal decline in the popularity of the Prime Minister. By 1981 unemployment reached 2.5 million and there were riots in Brixton and Toxteth; the following year unemployment stood at 3 million, where it remained for five years. With this domestic backdrop it is hardly surprising that the British put so little emphasis upon the developing crisis in the Southern Atlantic., and the lack of appropriate response to the landings on Southern Thule.

The Argentine invasion allowed the Thatcher government to move the focus away from the failing domestic agenda to matters of foreign policy. She surrounded herself in calls of patriotism which the country responded to. The British task force was assembled with remarkable speed and despatched to the Falklands. The recovery of the islands was hailed as a personal triumph for Mrs. Thatcher, and the general feeling of deep political failure with which the crisis began, had been transformed into a sense of resounding and overwhelming success by its conclusion. The Falklands crisis was a major success for the Thatcher Government; confidence was restored, popularity was again high, despite the domestic situation not having improved at all.

For the new military junta in Argentina, there was only one possible course of action. Recovery of the Malvinas Islands was a priority. Military regimes generally do not pride themselves on economic success, but rely on strength of arms; an invasion of the islands became inevitable therefore. The unopposed landings on Southern Thule had had a positive effect in Argentina, reinforcing the belief that the islands would return (and soon) to Argentine control. The invasion came soon after and acted to stabilise the political situation in Argentina, the new regime was acting to secure the islands and thus the nation’s borders from foreign imperialist powers. Initially therefore, the invasion was a huge success, although it quickly turned to disaster as the Argentines underestimated the desire of the British to maintain control of the Falklands. Ultimately the invasion was as negative a force for the Argentine junta as it was positive for the Thatcher Government.


Despite the initial successes of the operation for the Argentines, the strategy of militarily occupying the islands proved an utter failure. Progress that was being made on diplomatic means of recovery of the islands, even if that had been some kind of shares control, was lost completely. The Thatcher Government began the crisis in deep difficulties on the domestic front, but a victory in warfare, the defending of the realm as it were, proved a resounding success for the Government and restored its failing popularity, despite the dire domestic situation remaining unchanged. The war was, therefore, a significant success for the British. With hindsight we can also say that it helped to lead to eighteen years of Conservative Government, a feat that would surely have been impossible without the Falklands campaign, or with any kind of a failure to recover the islands.


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The Economist, June 19th 1982

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