Falklands then and now: Land Forces

Although it is the job of the Royal Navy to defeat the enemy surface threat and make conditions favourable for any amphibious landing, it is only the Royal Marines or Army who can take the fight to the enemy on land.

Historically the British Army has by and large been a small, professional force that has been described elsewhere as a bullet to be fired by the Royal Navy, and then retrieved. This happened in numerous imperial conflicts, and the Falklands was perhaps the last example of this kind of operation.

The picture in 1982

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

Paras guarding POW's in Stanley

1982 found the British Army in a curious position historically. For the first time in its history it had something of a primacy within the armed forces, with its huge treaty commitment to NATO in the shape of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). In 1982 a whole British Corps was stationed in Germany, consisting of 4 Armoured Divisions. This was largely of deterrence value, against the Warsaw pact across the inner German Border.

Alongside Germany, Northern Ireland represented a major commitment to the British Army from 1969 onwards. In 1980 11,000 troops were deployed in the province. The commitment to Northern Ireland also weakened BAOR, as troops from Germany also took turns serving there. Although this represented a drain on the Army’s manpower, it also had benefits. Referred to as a ‘Corporals war’, it gave young soldiers a steep learning curve.

Britain did maintain a small force designated for ‘out of area’ operations or to reinforce NATO’s flanks: in the main, this comprised 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines, and 5 Airborne Brigade. In public consciousness Paras and Marines always appear whenever there is a crisis. In 1982, however, armoured warfare in North Europe dominated British military thinking.

That 3 Commando Brigade and 5 Brigade comprised the land forces sent to the Falklands was natural, as they were the forces on high alert for out of area operations – BAOR could not be weakened, nor could Northern Ireland. The other troops sent to the Falklands – the Welsh and Scots Guards – had just finished public duties, but were all that could be spared.

By and large the performance of British land forces in the Falklands was exemplary. Even when heavily outnumbered, without air superiority and with scant helicopter support, their training, motivation and leadership won out. The reputation of units such as the Paras, the Royal Marines and the Gurkhas had a powerful psychological effect on the young Argentine conscripts.

The picture in 2009

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

Royal Marines conducting an amphibious exercise

The British Army has been radically reduced since the end of the Cold War, as part of the so-called ‘peace-dividend’. In addition the peace process in Northern Ireland has led to a draw-down in Army commitments there. This has also led to cuts.

Any future Falklands land war would again fall upon the infantry, given the terrain in the Falklands. In 2009, the Army consists of 37 Battalions of regular infantry. 22 of these are light infantry, 7 armoured, 4 Air Assault, 3 mechanised, and 1 demonstration. Of these 3 are performing public duties.

The Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade would be the ideal spearhead of any land forces to retake the Falklands, given their expertise and experience in Amphibious warfare. The Brigade currently consists of 3 RM Commandos and an attached Army Battalion. This would probably require reinforcing by at least another Army Brigade, as in 1982, as well as their supporting arms – logistics, engineering, artillery, and so forth.

At the time of writing over 10,000 British soldiers are in Afghanistan. Currently this consists of 4 infantry Battalions as well as supporting troops. Brigades serve in Afghanistan for 6 months, in some cases with 18 months in between deployments. When we consider work-up training, post-deployment leave, etc, the overstretch is even starker. If any Argentine invasion of the Falklands took place this would severely restrict the troops available, in the same way that BAOR and Northern Ireland did in 1982. If it happened while 3 Commando Brigade, the specialist amphibious infantry, were in Afghanistan, then any land force would be severely handicapped.

There are positives, however. Virtually all of the Army’s Battalions have been deployed on operations in Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years, against a formidable enemy in the Taliban. This can only have heightened professionalism and fighting edge, particularly among line infantry Battalions who are perhaps not as glamorous as the Marines or the Paras. An average line infantry Battalion would probably be more capable of fighting a Goose Green that it would have been in 1982.

However, the Argentine forces will in all likelihood also have improved on their 1982 state. The ending of conscription will have led to a more professional army. It can no longer intervene in internal politics, and hence resembles a modern Army that is soleley focussed on soldiering. It has also been able to co-operate more with allies, such as the US, and a thaw in relations with Chile has removed the need to station large forces on that border. This would free up specialist mountain warfare troops, unlike in 1982.


Although the British Army is much leaner than in 1982, it is in a lot of ways meaner. In addition, it is more flexible, both structurally and doctrinally. It is less focussed on one particular theatre, and out-of-area operations are now the norm rather than the rule. The line infantry on the whole is more experienced than it was in 1982.

Having said that, overstretch caused by operations in Afghanistan would severely limit the kind of force that could be generated. A best case scenario would see 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade both available; a compromise situation would either of the Commando or Air Assault Brigades reinforced by another Army Brigade, and a worst case scenario would see neither the Commando nor Air Assault Brigades available.

In the Argentine Army, it could also expect to face a more professional, better trained and better motivated enemy, who would be able to deploy more reinforcements, particularly elite troops and specialist mountain warfare units.



Filed under Army, Falklands War, Royal Marines, Uncategorized

22 responses to “Falklands then and now: Land Forces

  1. Grim

    A good post and nice to see a little optimism for once. I would like to point out that for short deployments (6 months tops) a substantial force can still be mustered, as in Iraq. This requires using the reserves and TA but is possible.

    Whilst I don’t suggest using them in the Falklands too heavily, they could relieve pressure on other commitments of the army whilst they fight in the Falklands. Harmony guidelines can also be suspended in a crisis to shore up numbers (we can’t have gone from World War 2’s in to the end to completely soft can we? The Yanks manage 15 month tours still!)

    Alternatively Afghanistan could be scaled back to meet commitments, either by drawing down some ops for a while or asking NATO allies to fill in for us (as they did for us in 1982 with a few of our NATO commitments back then).

    If these new and improved Argentine troops created a longer term conflict, recruiting can always go back up. Unlike massive hardware like ships, troops can be raised pretty quickly given the political will and some extra cash. Think how many ex-forces personnel are out there in civilian life who might be persuaded to return for a while.

    …Just possibilities and thoughts. As always, feel free to disagree.

  2. Grim

    Sorry forgot, just to add, our troops’ equipment will also have got better (as will the enemy’s), but ours has been tried and tested and improved now by nearly a decade of constant infantry conflict, so it may well give us the edge in a similar way to the improved training and experience.

  3. James Daly

    thanks for your comments Grim. I agree that this is one respect where we could probably rise to such a crisis and where there are some positives to be taken. We probably do have the capacity to make an immediate response in the short term, and then hopefully reconfigure as you describe in the long term to make more troops available.

    Possibilities and thoughts are exactly what I hoped to inspire with this series. If it makes even one person see how vital defence is…

  4. Grim

    I do enjoy reading these pieces as it does make me think and consider alternatives that I wouldn’t necessarily think about usually.

    Unfortunately i’m already onside with the general argument that defence is vital and has been left to wither and die for too long.

  5. James Daly

    I’m glad you enjoy them Grim. I’m glad they seem to have been received pretty well on the whole, apart from a few sniffy comments in some quarters. What really strikes me is how Defence is nowhere on the political agenda – we have a general election in a few months time, yet no-one is talking about defence. We all as taxpayers fund the armed forces and if people start talking about these issues then the Government might not get away with the mistakes that they do.

  6. Jed

    James your right the ground forces are much leaner and meaner. So IF we could get them landed unmauled, they should be in an even better place than last time. The equipment available to our combat hardened veterans is also much better. While they might have a small number of CVR(T) available, which may have have been deployed the first time round (!), the survivors of the RM’s Viking procurement would be the ideal vehicles for the terrain. However we are sorely lacking in tactical helo lift, so in this case, things may be no better than 1982.

    In 1982 the standard section was 10 men, based on an ‘assault’ element with SLR and a ‘support’ element with 2 light role GPMG. Night vision equipment was minimal, and the heavy Carl Gustav 84mm recoiless gun was the bunker buster of choice. Nowadays the 8 man section has the SA80A2, possibly with under barrel 40mm grenade launcher, the Light Support Weapon version of the SA80, the 5.56mm Minimi LMG, and still has bi-pod GPMG if required. Add in some light weight U.S. 60mm mortars, and 155mm light weight howitzers in place of 82’s 105mm Light Weight Gun and we definately have more fire power at our disposal.

    Sadly, our amphibs still carry slow conventional landing craft, and the lack of available helo’s suggest we might not have any more flexibility in choosing a decent landing site than we did last time, and army’s need logistics, and so as Grim said, although the comments on our ground forces are positive, lets be realistic, we probably could not get them there alive, if we did we could not provide them with any better tactical flexibility than in 1982, and due to the demise of the both the RFA and the British Flagged merchant fleet, they would probably run out of food and ammo before securing the islands… 😦

  7. James Daly

    From what I’ve seen of them the Vikings would seem to be ideal for the terrain in the Falklands, if the CVR(T)’s could manage it in 1982 I’m sure the Vikings would have no trouble.

    I’m going to mention it in my article about airpower, but the Apache gives us a useful option too – I know space on Ocean might be a problem, but even a couple of them would give the Ground Forces some fire support to call on.

    I think its probably one of the saddest aspects of this whole debate, that the ground forces are pretty well placed to fight a war such as the Falklands, but that getting them there and then keeping them there would be the sticking point. It really would be the Longest Day. It underlines how strange it is to maintain an expeditionary naval policy, and the amphib assets to match, but to not have the capability of giving it air superiority or to supply it.

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