Military professionalism

The battle for the Falkland Islands was triggered by the landing of a substantial Argentine invasion force at Port Stanley on April 2. There was brief resistance by some 30 British Royal Marines who surrendered to overwhelming odds after about three hours of fighting. The original Argentine invasion forces were said to number about 4,000 soldiers backed by the guns of warships under air cover.

Looking back on the story from that moment we can see that the British reacted with extraordinary speed--and with a military professionalism which is worth noting by all countries engaged in refurbishing their armed forces.

The British broke off diplomatic relations with the Argentines the day after the invasion. On the same day (April 3) they announced that a task force would be sent to the South Atlantic to deal with the situation.

Two days later, on April 5, the task force actually steamed out of Plymouth harbor carrying the troops which have now landed in the islands and are surrounding the Argentine invaders.

The crucial moment for both sides came on May 21 and May 22 when the British came ashore at Port San Carlos on the side of the main island nearest to the Argentine mainland. That area was within combat range of Argentine aircraft and based in their home territory. It took the British just 36 hours to put some 5, 000 troops ashore, sweep away local opposition and carve out a 10-square-mile beachhead.

The security of that beachhead was still in some doubt through May 25 when the Argentine Air Force mounted its biggest single air operation of the battle for the Falklands. They managed to sink both the British destroyer Coventry and a British supply ship, the Atlantic Conveyor. But they did not prevent the continued buildup of British forces on the beach.

By May 27 the British were ready for the next phase of the operation. Pushing out from the San Carlos base they headed for Port Stanley on the other side of the island. On the 28th one British force circling south took Darwin and Goose Green after an all-day fight. The British attackers were outnumbered by over two to one, but the larger Argentine force surrendered to them the next morning.

On the following day other British forces circled north and took Douglas and Teal Inlet on their way to Stanley. By May 30 the two encircling forces had linked up outside of Stanley and British naval forces were bombarding Argentine defense positions.

It had taken the British, operating at the far end of an 8,000 mile supply line, precisely 10 days to come ashore against superior numbers protected by land-based air cover, make good their beachhead, fight a series of quick actions and complete the encirclement of the original invaders. It has been a brilliantly conceived and executed military operation.

This is what highly trained professional volunteer soldiers provided with modern weapons can do when they are up against conscripts possessed of some modern weapons, but not with a complete weapons system. Even then the Argentines should have had an easy time consolidating their conquest of the islands.

The Argentines were within combat range of their own home air bases. They should have been able to dominate the air over the islands. And they should have been able to make better use of their superior numbers in preventing the establishment of the British beachhead at San Carlos.

This is also what is meant by ''power projection,'' i.e. the ability to move effective military forces at a great distance from home bases.

There is nothing new in the history of warfare about the superior military effectiveness of highly trained, professional soldiery. History is dotted with stories of small forces of volunteers standing up to large conscript masses. One of the earliest was the story of the Greeks holding the pass at Thermopylae for three days against the vast hordes of invading Persians. Weaponry also counted there alongside of superior Greek professionalism. The Greeks had longer spears and bronze armor. The Persians used cloth padding and wicker shields.

The moral others should notice is that you do not measure military power by numbers. Quality, training, and motivation are more important and can overcome superior numbers - sometimes with amazing ease. And having the more modern weapons can be important.

Meanwhile would-be petty conquerors have had notice that not anyone can expect to pull off a quick piece of international banditry and get away with it. And there is a reminder that old Europe still retains a pool of highly competent military professionalism which can operate in far away places--when needed.

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