Falklands: The Expo War

More than conflict, the Falklands was a public show of the world’s best weapons.

Exocet IWM IMGP0333
Pictured above: An Exocet anti-ship missile on display at the Imperial War Museum in England. Only three AM-39 Exocets existed in the Argentine arsenal during the Falklands War, but these French-built weapons easily affected the course and nature of the conflict. (Photo from author’s collection)

For the latter half of the 20th Century, Western militaries were trained, equipped, even expected to confront the Soviet war machine. The penultimate match never occurred, and adversaries traded the Cold War for smaller, regional conflicts. Such was the case with the Persian Gulf War of Aug. 1990-Feb. 1991, when a coalition of nations expelled the Iraqi military from Kuwait. The desert conflict must have been a marketing dream for Western defense contractors, as some of the most sophisticated weapon systems were brought to bear in a single theater. Of course, Iraq was already an exposition for some of the world’s best weaponry. Nine types of surface-to-air missile (SAMs) in the Iraqi arsenal were Soviet in origin, and one missile, the Roland, was jointly-produced by the French and Germans. The command and control system that guarded Iraqi airspace was reportedly French-made. Divisions of the Republican Guard fired French- and Austrian-built howitzers and drove Russian-manufactured T-72 tanks and BMP infantry carriers. The Iraqis even nicked some MIM-23 HAWKs, an American-made missile system, after their invasion of Kuwait. The Gulf War proved a new constant in modern warfare, that no conflict was fought without the industrial involvement, and financial benefit, of faraway states. . . and that the best weapons from those nations often produced the most devastating results.

Approximately eight years earlier, another kind of “expo war” was unveiled in the Falklands, a cluster of islands in the South Atlantic long disputed by Argentina and Great Britain. The opening shots from 150 Argentine commandos on the Royal Marines barracks at Moody Brook, Port Stanley on 2 April 1982 was not just a demonstration of a junta’s resolve, but how effective weapons worked in a modern invasion. Two years earlier, Argentina spent approximately $3.38 billion on national defense, and had some very good toys—Western toys—to use in a stab for the Malvinas. More hardware, like  MEKO destroyers and frigates by Blohm und Voss, and Type 1700 diesel-electric  submarines by Thyssen Nordseewerke, were on order before the war. If anything, this impressive military endowment threatened a British military that trained to fight the Soviet Union, not a Latin American nation, and was hard-pressed to do either in the face of budget cuts. Nevertheless, the clash of so many reliable war machines generated mayhem and carnage, and many strange historical anecdotes, until the end of the conflict on 14 June 1982.

C-130s, Choppers, and Carl Gustav

Since World War II, air power had been the backbone of any modern military. Air power came not just from fighters and bombers, but scout planes, airborne tankers, transports, and command and control aircraft. By October 1980, Argentina had ordered ten MB-339 jet trainers from Italy for their next generation of combat pilots. As if to accent their airborne capability, the Argentine Air Force flew the captured governor of the Falklands, Rex Hunt, to Montevideo on a C-130 Hercules after the surrender of Port Stanley on 2 April 1982. This American-made cargo and transport plane, one of the finest of its type, made nightly runs to Port Stanley after the occupation. The next day, the Argentine Navy went to the island of South Georgia with one A-69 corvette, two Alouette helicopters and one Puma helicopter, all French designs. Before they surrendered, the Royal Marines at South Georgia fiercely rejected the ship with small-arms fire, plus three rounds from an 84mm Carl Gustav, the tried-and-true recoilless rifle from Sweden manufacturer Saab Bofors Dynamics.

Exocet, I presume?

HMS Invincible R08 IMGP0439
HMS Invincible (R05), a veteran of the Falklands, at the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth, England. Invincible and Hermes supported the Harrier fighter, and while the aircraft scored plenty of kills against Argentine air forces with the AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the placement of the carriers reduced the time Harriers could be on station for combat air patrols. (Photo from author’s collection)

On 25 May, a pair of Argentine Super Etendards went looking for the British carriers Hermes and Invincible. Their pilots discovered a Royal Navy battle group 70 miles from the Falklands and engaged them with sea-skimming AM-39 Exocets. Manufactured by Aerospatiale, the Exocet was one of the world’s most dangerous anti-ship missiles, though a bit of a gamble for Argentine naval air forces—the military owned only three. British warships threw up a screen of countermeasures and gunfire to repel two Exocets launched by the Etendards, but one missile broke through to sink the container ship Atlantic Conveyor. Twelve crew, including Captain Ian North, perished from the attack. Ten Wessex and three Chinook helicopters meant for landing operations were lost with the Conveyor. The Exocet coerced the Royal Navy to keep Invincible and Hermes further out to sea, which had the added effect of limiting the patrol range of their carrier-launched Harriers. Following the war, Argentina equipped an ASH-3 Sea King helicopter to fire the Exocet.


The British task force sent to the Falklands endured continuous strikes from Argentina’s fleet of A-4 Skyhawks, an attack jet first produced by Douglas in the United States and a veteran of the Vietnam War. Argentina was the first foreign power to acquire the Skyhawk for military use. Their A-4Bs, later re-designated as the A-4Q, were reworked in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo supported approximately fourteen of these A-4Qs, and would have replaced them with Super Etendards, had its catapult system been compatible with the latter warplanes. The Argentine Air Force had far more Skyhawks, as many as three A-4P squadrons, to spare in the conflict. Flying in the Falklands with the French Mirage III-E, the Skyhawks often swept low over the sea to avoid detection before raiding ships and ground troops. On 24 May 1982, HMS Antelope  (F170) responded to an A-4 raid in San Carlos Bay with horrific consequences—while one A-4 was shot down by the frigate’s Sea Cat launcher, a second collided with the ship, and a 1,000-pound bomb from a third sent Antelope to the bottom of the bay. The Israeli Air Force, a major player in its own right, had flown Skyhawks since 1967. One rendition, the A-4AR Fightinghawk, remains in the Argentine military, and the government has sought to buy spares for its limited fleet.

Of cruisers and carriers

HMS Cardiff D108 IMGP0477
Pictured above: HMS Cardiff (D108), another veteran of the Falklands War, at the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth, England. HMS Southampton (D90), which was damaged from a buoy collision in 1982 and unable to deploy to the South Atlantic, is tied up on Cardiff‘s port side. (Photo from author’s collection)

On 2 May, HMS Conqueror (S-48), became the first nuclear submarine to sink an enemy vessel with torpedoes. Her target was the cruiser ARA General Belgrano, one of the gems of the Argentine Navy. This Brooklyn-class cruiser was originally USS Phoenix (CL-46), launched from the New York Shipbuilding Company in 1938. Phoenix was an old warhorse. She and her crew were quite lucky on the morning of 7 December 1941, when she steamed out of the ravaged American naval base of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Phoenix survived Imperial Japan in the Second World War, and was ultimately transferred to the Argentine Navy in 1951. The cruiser was renamed Diecisiete de Octubre, then General Belgrano five years later. In 1982, after more than thirty years of naval service, the cruiser succumbed to a spread of torpedoes from HMS Conqueror. Some 368 Argentinians lost their lives in what was surely a demonstration of lethal, modern naval power. There was some irony that the modernized Belgrano carried the Sea Cat, a British anti-aircraft missile system, that proved useless against a Mark VIII torpedo. Perhaps it was just as well that Conqueror sank an ex-American cruiser—the Royal Navy had hoped to bag the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, an Argentine aircraft carrier that supported a wing of American-built A-4 Skyhawks, S-2 Trackers, and SH-3 Sea Kings. Veinticinco de Mayo would have been an embarrassing footnote to the conflict had she been sunk, for this mighty ship was once HMS Venerable, a Colossus-class carrier in Her Majesty’s Navy, and before Argentina, served the Dutch Navy as the Karel Doorman.


No amateur historian should delve into the Falklands War without first examining The Battle for the Falklands by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins (Norton, 1984). Period data on Argentina’s defense spending, purchases, and military structure came from The Military Balance: 1981-1982 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Facts on File Publications, 1981).

For those interested in the Persian Gulf War, I suggest two additional references: Shield and Sword: the United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War by Marolda and Schneller (Naval Institute Press, 2001) and Order of Battle: Allied Ground Forces of Operation Desert Storm by Thomas D. Dinackus (Hellgate Press, 2000).

Other suggested articles

The Sea Stallion in Vietnam

The Loss of HMS Hampshire

Shipping Into Boston

Do you have any historical perspectives you would like to share about this subject? Feel free to add your comments below!


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