Why did Argentina pick a fight with a country that had nuclear weapons?
The Falklands War ended with a decisive British victory over 30 years ago. Nevertheless, the war remains alive in the imagination of analysts and historians.
Although the conflict happened outside of the normal “zones of crisis,” it has long held the attention of students of warfare. The war, which involved a conflict over territory between two established nation-states with large, capital intensive military establishments, seems almost quaint today.
The Falklands War remains the only conflict in which a combatant has used a nuclear submarine, in anger, against naval targets.
On May 2, 1982, HMS Conqueror detected the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and two escorts outside a previously announced “exclusion zone.” The British had informed Argentina that the exclusion zone no longer applied to Argentine warships, and Belgrano was conducting an active military patrol at the time. Conqueror fired three unguided torpedoes, two of which struck the venerable cruiser, sinking it with 323 of her crew.
The sinking hardened Argentine attitudes, and ended any serious effort at international mediation.
Over the years, the sinking of the Belgrano has set the stage for some truly terrible commentary, much of it centering on the role played by Margaret Thatcher. Partisans point to Thatcher’s keen decisiveness in ordering the attack, when in fact Thatcher had virtually no role in the tactical decision-making. Critics (most with a poor understanding of the Law of Armed Conflict) suggest that the sinking amounted to a war crime.
Such claims would need to look up to see “specious,” and the Argentine navy has always held that the sinking represented a lawful act of war.
Nevertheless, the enduring controversy over the sinking of the Belgranohas become emblematic of the ways in which conventional acts of war have become legally complex. Policymakers and military personnel pay ever greater attention to the ways in which tactical decision-making has become legally actionable in a variety of different venues. Even relatively conventional military activities have become subject to litigation, often decades later.
Apart from legal and political considerations, the sinking ofBelgrano demonstrated the decisive impact of modern submarines. Without an effective anti-submarine capability, a surface fleet faces grim prospects. After Belgrano sank, the Argentine fleet largely refused to sortie out of fear of other British submarines.
This concern continues to color the efforts of the Chinese, Russian and Indian navies to shore up their anti-submarine capabilities.
Read the Remainder at War is Boring