Strategic Failure at the 1982 Falklands War

Updated on November 9, 2019
FJG de La Guadalupe profile image

The author studied Economics at the Eisenhower School in Washington DC and Strategy at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.

War Memorial for Falklands War
War Memorial for Falklands War

“No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”

— Carl Von Clausewitz, On War

On April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (known as the Islas Malvinas to the Argentine people) through a surprise attack that brought to culmination almost 140 years of controversy between Argentina and Great Britain over the sovereignty of the islands.[1] Great Britain responded to the Argentine invasion by sending a highly skilled naval task force that recaptured the islands within 45 days of the Argentine invasion. Although the Falklands War was short-lived, it was a very significant event for Argentina. The launch of aggression was the result of strategic miscalculations on the part of the Argentine military junta (regime), which risked everything on the operation: its political future, the economic stability of the country, and the overall stability of the region.

The Falkland Islands war provides an illuminating examination into the Argentine military junta’s failed strategic aims entering the war against Great Britain. The Junta’s series of misperceptions and miscalculations found its roots in the ruin of their strategy formulation. The Argentine ruling military junta failed to develop an effective strategy leading up to the start of the Falklands Islands War in 1982 due to a failed understanding of the strategic environment; imbalance of ends, ways, and means that created unacceptable risk; and missing a decision-making leadership structure necessary to support strategy development.

Strategic Scan of the Environment and False Assumptions

In the 1959 movie Ben-Hur, Pontius Pilate tells Judah Ben-Hur that a “grown man knows the world he lives in. For the moment, that world is Rome.”[2] This statement, though from a movie, is very indicative of International Theory Realists who believe in seeing and accepting the world as it is and then carrying out continuous strategic environmental scans to pick up on any changes that take place. The scans are crucial since they allow the process to systematically survey and interpret relevant data to identify external opportunities and threats. The military junta of Argentina misinterpreted the global strategic environment and therefore made overarching false assumptions regarding the United States and international support for their invasion of the Falkland Islands.

In his overview of the Falklands War, Stephen Badsey explains that the Galtieri junta took as precedents the failure of the United States to support Great Britain and France in the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 as well as the Indian annexation of Goa from Portugal in 1961.[3] The junta used the two situations above to establish the false assumption the United States would support their invasion of the Falklands since the United States would interpret it as de-colonization and it would push another European nation out of the Western Hemisphere. They felt they could prepare the ground diplomatically and that the strength of their claim to the Falklands would seem so obvious the international community that the British would accept the new reality.[4] They hoped the invasion would force the British to negotiate the transfer of ownership of the islands while the Argentines held the major trump card of possession. However, the junta misinterpreted the international stimuli leading them to make three crucial mistakes while assessing the environment.

First, the United States was in the throes of the Cold War and President Reagan was committed to strengthening America’s resolve against communism. Europe was central to its strategy to contain the Soviet Union. As a result, Great Britain, America’s most important ally in the fight against the Soviets, received American assurances that it would not interfere with Great Britain’s efforts to regain the Falklands.

Second, Argentina's invasion received resounding opposition throughout the international community in contrast to what the Argentine junta expected. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 502 on April 3, 1982, deploring the invasion by Argentina and requesting a cessation of hostilities followed by an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falklands.[5] The resolution, invoked by the United States and the European Economic Community, called for an end to the war and withdrawal of Argentine troops from the islands. The Argentine position was defended only by a number of Latin American countries.

Finally, the Argentine junta miscalculated the British military capability. Although Great Britain significantly downsized their military forces over previous years to fall in line with their new strategic posture, they still possessed an extremely well-trained naval force that could effectively project its power around the world. The result of these misconceived assumptions led to the development of an unbalanced and vulnerable strategy.

Argentine Imbalance of Ends, Ways, and Means

It was Clausewitz that clearly articulated “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means.”[6] Strategy serves as the purposeful intelligent design that shapes a framework that properly balances political ends (national objectives), strategic ways (patterns of action), and means (resources). Furthermore, strategy is crucial since it serves as the blueprint to focus and lead the national elements of power: diplomatic, information, military, and economic.

In developing national strategies, whether involving war or otherwise, leaders must consider the ends, ways, and means of the strategy as well as appreciating the risks associated with the strategy. Overreached ends, ineffective ways, under-resourced means, and improper risk analysis are sure ways to fail. So, before diving into an analysis, let’s look at the Argentine strategy.

Argentine’s primary rival in South America was Chile. It was important to develop a strategy that could bring Argentina to a position of supremacy in South America. As a result, Argentina’s overarching strategy was to establish regional dominance in America’s Southern Hemisphere. To make this strategy come true, Argentine leadership established the following national objectives (ends): control the Cape Horn passage, maintain access to the Antarctic, and prevent an alliance between Great Britain and Chile.[7] The ways they devised to support their ends was to invade the Falkland Islands to control the entry point into the Cape Horn passage. The resource to make this happen was the most obvious tool available to juntas, the military force they were a part of. At first glance, this external strategy seems rational and well developed. However, there was a contradictory internal strategy working in opposition of the previous one.

The junta desired political dominance in the Argentina (ends). They tried to achieve this by manipulating the economy, quenching all political dissent through domestic terrorism, and finally dressing the invasion as a strategic necessity when it was intended more as a diversion against failed policies the public was starting to realize. The diversion was done through the use of corrupt politicians, the police, and the military. So, which strategy was most important? The junta convinced themselves that both were important. They were trying to make two opposing ends (the internal and external) meet with the Falklands invasion. This was just not possible. Instead of making ends meet, the ends clashed against each other leading to false assumptions, contradictory objectives, and finally strategic failure since the plan to invade the Falklands was in the end, not feasible, acceptable, and suitable.

In order to make the invasion feasible a proper force needed to not just invade, but also occupy the islands in order to deter a joint naval and ground counter-invasion from the British. Even up to three weeks between the seizure of the Falklands and the arrival of the British task force, Argentina had nothing resembling a coherent political or military strategy mainly because their objectives were incongruent. The conflict was most clear when according to Cardoso, one of the key planners challenged his supervisor by asking an obvious question,

“Admiral — what is going to happen after we’ve taken the islands?”Anaya had a “cutting reply” for Lombardo: “don’t you worry about that, because that’s not your responsibility . . . . Limit yourself to working on the plan to take the islands; the rest can come later.”[8]

The Argentine junta’s only concern was getting into the islands and wished away the crucial requirements to hold the islands. Now, is the mission acceptable considering the costs?

Prior to any military action, the leaders must determine what the end looks like in order to start accounting for the risks and costs associated with either victory or defeat. It was crucial for the Argentine junta to understand the acceptability and suitability of the mission. Since the junta miscalculated the international strategic environment they were in, it led them to miscalculate the heavy costs Argentina would suffer as a result of failure. In the end, it cost Argentina over 400 military lives, the loss of international support leading up to the war, and it ended up costing the junta its political power in Argentina as they lost all military and political credibility with their innumerable mistakes. In the end, they were incapable of fully carrying out the Falklands Invasion as all elements of power were misused due to serious imbalances in ends, ways, and means of their strategy.

Even the best strategy can fail if a country does not have a cadre of leaders with the right capabilities at the right levels of leadership. In the case of the Argentine military junta, the authoritarian leadership structure was incapable of developing sound strategy due to its poor leadership its many ‘Yes’ men. It created an incoherent leadership environment of few facts and where false assumptions were in abundance.

Disadvantaged Decision-Making Leadership Structure in Argentina

The Argentine military junta who made the decision to invade the Falklands Islands, General Leopoldo Galtieri (President), Admiral Jorge Anaya, and Brigadier General Basilio Dozo, created untenable conditions in Argentina with failed economic policies and an authoritarian style of government that suppressed personal liberty and rights. Already under intense pressure for domestic troubles, the junta looked at an old controversy, the Falkland Islands, as an attempt to distract the Argentine people from their concerns at home. Why did they not focus their primal efforts on the economy and accountability? Simply put, it was not in their nature; they did not earn power to improve the nation but did it for power’s sake. They were focused on staying in power and were incapable of putting their nation’s interests above their self-interests. This becomes clear as one sees the Clausewitzian Triangle misbalance of the Argentine junta. The Argentine junta’s trinity rested solely on chance-the military from which their power emanated. They totally disregarded the people and the reason a legitimate government avails leaders.

A government’s structure and arrangement will have a profound effect in its decision-making style. The Argentine military junta’s military organizational structure, its rise to power and its alarming domestic repression provided valuable insight into its pre-war decision-making process. When the junta was making the decision to launch a war of aggression in the Falklands in 1982, it was clearly operating under a dictatorship-style government where government officials did not have to prove themselves and were not held accountable to Argentine voters.[9] As a result, they were able to develop a Falklands war policy without any debate or input from constituents who would end up paying the costs.[10] In effect, the Falkland Islands War strategy was developed with the utmost secrecy where both the general public and fellow members of the Argentine government were unaware of the policies under discussion.[11] Professors Arquilla and Rasmussen indicated that the military structure of the government hindered the making of war strategy in such a way…

…that the military effectively ran the government, even to the extent of constraining decision making of members of the junta, fatally vitiated chances for peaceful settlement. Just as important, perhaps was the chilling effect that the power of the Argentine [armed] services had on any meaningful debate of the decision to fight a major war. Thus, a social norm of ‘reticence’ on the part of the military officers to criticize war plans, or to call for more prudential behavior, was imposed, and may be a sign that the psychological phenomenon of . . . ‘groupthink’ was in play . . . .[12]

The Argentine military junta’s structure, built for political survival, was incapable of developing the type of comprehensive strategy the Falklands War warranted.

Argentine Strategy Alternatives

In the end, the Argentine junta’s strategy failed since they improperly assessed the strategic environment. This created false assumptions and created an imbalance in ends, ways, and means. This mainly stemmed from the struggle on deciding whether their internal (versus a poor economy and social needs) or external (versus Chile) objectives was most important. And finally, the strategy failed since a junta’s leadership structure is an anti-thesis to good strategy formulation. So, what could they have done differently?

The Argentine junta should have made its external strategy, focused on its main competitor Chile. The challenge to overtake Chile as the main power in South America could drive the nation to exercise all elements of power in much efficient and positive ways. It would also have been much more feasible, acceptable, and sustainable compared to taking on Great Britain. Diplomatically, they needed to continue politicking the international community on the need to peacefully transfer the islands to Argentina, its rightful owner in the eyes of most of South and Latin America. Sure, Argentina would have to exercise strategic patience as the world slowly came around to their point of view. But it was a plausible course of action. Informationally, they needed to continue the campaign of painting the British occupation of the Falklands as an evil remnant of colonialization that would shame the British to drive for further negotiations. Finally, an externally focused strategy on Chile and regional dominance, could have served as a driver for economic focus and advances to create economic alliances throughout South and North America.

Endnotes

[1] Luis Andarcia, LTC. “Falklands’ War: Strategic, Intelligence, and Diplomatic Failures,” US Army War College Student Essay, Carlisle Barracks, PA., May 1985, pgs.22-36.

[2] Ben-Hur, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, released Aug 1969.

[3] Stephen Badsey.”An Overview of the Falklands War: Politics, Strategy and Operations”, NIDS Military History Studies Annual, National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo, Number 16, March 2013. P. 139-145.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Don Lippincott (revised by Gregory F. Treverton) "Falklands/Malvinas (A): Breakdown of Negotiations," and Appendix B, "Early History and Legal Issues," 1986, pgs.1-18, 20- 23.

[6]Howard, Michael; Paret, Peter, eds. Carl von Clausewitz,(1984) [1832]. On War [Vom

Krieg] (Indexed ed.). New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p.87.

[7] Amy Oakes. “Diversionary War and Argentina’s Invasion of the Falkland Islands,” Security Studies 15, no.3, pgs. 431-463.

[8] Luis Andarcia, LTC. “Falklands’ War: Strategic, Intelligence, and Diplomatic Failures,” US Army War College Student Essay, Carlisle Barracks, PA., May 1985, pgs.22-36.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] John Arquilla & Maria Moyano Rasmussen, “The Origins of the South Atlantic War,” 33 J. LATIN AM. STUD. 739, 740 (2011).

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jimenez

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      • lions44 profile image

        CJ Kelly 

        3 days ago from Auburn, WA

        Nice job. Great look at the failed thinking of the Junta. Although I remember at the time, analysts were uncertain about Britain's ability to retake the Islands.

        It did one good thing that benefitted Argentinians, brought down the Junta.

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