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
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
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.