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A war in South America 39 years ago is still teaching China lessons about how to seize Taiwan

Benjamin Brimelow   

A war in South America 39 years ago is still teaching China lessons about how to seize Taiwan
  • In April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, which were the subject of a long-running dispute with Britain.
  • The British sent a force to retake the islands in what remains the most recent war involving large air, land, and naval battles.
  • China has closely studied that war, looking for lessons to apply in a future conflict over Taiwan.

Early on April 2, 1982, hundreds of Argentine troops landed on the Falkland Islands, known to Argentina as the Islas Malvinas.

The islands were a small British overseas territory some 400 miles east of Argentina and 8,000 miles south of Britain. Despite their small size and sparse population, the islands were the subject of a long-running dispute between Britain and Argentina.

The small British garrison surrendered by the afternoon on April 2, after several intense firefights. It was a badly needed victory for Argentina's military junta, which hoped to distract from its oppressive governance and other domestic issues.

The junta believed that Britain, facing its own domestic problems, wouldn't put up a fight from so far away.

They were sorely mistaken. Over the next 74 days, Britain sent 15,000 troops - aboard warships, logistics vessels, and even cruise liners - to retake the islands.

The Falklands War would see many military firsts, and 39 years later, it remains the most recent war between two states involving large air, land, and naval battles.

Because of this, Chinese military planners have studied it extensively, seeing a number of parallels between the Falklands War and a potential war over Taiwan.

A war of firsts

The war began in earnest on May 1, 1982, after negotiations over control of the islands broke down. The first shots were fired in the air by Argentine aircraft attempting to intercept the Royal Navy task force sent to secure the area for the invasion force.

Harrier jump jets, facing aerial combat for the first time, and their pilots proved to be excellent dogfighters. The British jets, armed with the new AIM-9L variant of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, downed four Argentine jets on the first day alone. It was the first large-scale deployment of the new Sidewinder.

Throughout the war, British Harriers would shoot down 21 Argentine aircraft without losing any jets to enemy aircraft, though 10 were lost to ground-based anti-aircraft systems and accidents.

Harriers and Vulcan strategic bombers - the latter flying from thousands of miles away - also began bombarding Argentine positions the same day.

Meanwhile, the Argentine Navy attempted to catch the British task force in a pincer maneuver. In the north, Argentina's sole carrier, the Veinticinco de Mayo, was prepared to attack with its aircraft, but they couldn't take off due to weather conditions.

A day later in the south, Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and two Argentine destroyers were attacked by HMS Conqueror, a British nuclear-powered attack submarine. Belgrano was hit by two torpedoes and sank within 45 minutes, killing 323 crew members.

It was the first and so far only time a nuclear-powered submarine has sunk an enemy warship. Horrified at the prospect of losing more vessels - especially its carrier - the Argentine Navy ordered all its ships back to home waters.

Indeed, two more nuclear-powered subs, HMS Splendid and HMS Spartan, were chasing the carrier and almost managed to attack before it slipped away.

The British also took casualties. On May 4, the destroyer HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet anti-ship missile fired by an Argentine Navy Super Étendard fighter jet - the first time the advanced missile was used in combat - killing 20 sailors and injuring 26.

As the Royal Navy unloaded the invasion force, it was repeatedly attacked by Argentine aircraft. In total, four British warships, a landing ship, and a container ship were sunk. At least 12 other ships were damaged.

The single largest British loss of life came in an air attack on the landing ship Sir Galahad, which killed 48 sailors and wounded 115.

Once ashore, the British fought multiple battles in freezing conditions across the islands' barren, windswept landscape. Combat was particularly hard in the mountains and hills, where the Argentines were dug in.

But the British steadily advanced. On June 14, the surrounded Argentines surrendered.

The British had lost 255 troops, with over 700 wounded. Argentina had been thoroughly beaten: 649 of its troops had been killed and some 1,600 wounded. More than 11,000 Argentine troops were taken prisoner. Argentina also lost a cruiser, a submarine, and about 100 aircraft.

Lessons for China

China's military wasn't involved in the Falklands in any way, but its analysts have studied the conflict extensively, largely because of the many similarities likely to be seen in a conflict over Taiwan.

In that scenario, China, like Argentina, would invade islands off its coast and then fend off a relief force - most likely from the US, which, like the British, would need to travel thousands of miles.

Vice Adm. Ding Yiping, a former deputy commander and chief of staff of the Chinese navy, wrote in 2000 that "for the future of military theory, development of military units and of military equipment, [the Falklands/Malvinas] war produced a deep influence."

The Chinese have identified where Argentine forces made mistakes and worked to ensure they would not repeat them.

Among the main Chinese conclusions was that Argentina seriously underestimated Britain's will and ability to fight while overestimating their own, that long British supply lines were a vulnerability, and that air superiority is of paramount importance.

Argentina didn't deploy its best troops in the Falklands out of concern about threats to the mainland, nor did it deploy tanks, though 10 AML-90 Panhard armored cars were sent to the islands. Argentina also didn't have a domestic arms industry able to produce weapons needed to fight the British, like the air-launched Exocets, of which Argentina had only five.

The massive British logistical network was able to operate largely uninterrupted because of inferior Argentine air and naval power. After Argentina's surface fleet was ordered home, the Navy relied on its last remaining submarine, ARA San Luis, to conduct attacks, all of which failed.

The lessons of the Falklands War can be seen in the Chinese military's meteoric rise over the last two decades.

Unlike Argentina, China produces its own weaponry and emphasizes anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. China's ballistic-missile arsenal, central to its A2/AD capabilities, is one of the largest and most diverse in the world.

China's Navy, now the largest in the world, is "largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors," according to a 2020 Pentagon report.

Among China's ships are two aircraft carriers, 32 destroyers, 49 frigates, and 49 corvettes. China's submarine force also gives it capabilities that Argentina lacked.

While the San Luis' attacks were unsuccessful, they did force the British military to remain on the defensive and expend most of its available anti-submarine weapons.

Argentina only had two operational submarines in 1982. China now has 60, including 10 nuclear-powered attack and ballistic-missile submarines.

China's Air Force and Navy together are the largest aviation forces in the region, with 850 fighters and bombers in the Eastern and Southern theaters alone. Particularly worrying are China's J-20 stealth fighters and H-6J bombers, the latter of which can each carry seven supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles as far as the second island chain.

Finally, the Chinese have invested heavily in their marine corps, dramatically increasing its size and armament, including building amphibious assault ships and landing platform docks.

Of the many conflicts Chinese military officials have studied, perhaps none are as comprehensive as the Falklands War. It remains a practical example of what a modern full-scale war in the air, on land, and at sea could look like.