In particular, General Menendez, the supreme commander of Argentine forces in the Falklands, was a political appointee with little understanding of conventional military operations and no desire to command Argentine troops in battle against the British. His leadership was disastrous during the war, and he and his senior subordinates must bear much of the blame for Argentina’s poor showing.
Overall, Argentine forces performed poorly in the Falklands War, but even at this level of generalization, they appear to have still performed better than most of the Arab armed forces in most of their wars. Of far greater importance, however, much like the South Vietnamese armed forces, the strengths and weaknesses of the Argentine forces were very different from those of the Arab militaries since 1945.
Morale, Unit Cohesion, and Weapons Handling. At the bottom of the military hierarchy, Argentine soldiers performed poorly throughout the course of the Falklands War. In their defense, Argentina’s enlisted personnel were ill-prepared for war. Fully 75 percent of the troops in the Falklands were conscripts with less than six months of military service, while many of the remaining 25 percent were reservists called up for duty after the dispatch of the British fleet and sent to the Falklands without any refresher training. Only a few units, notably the 5th Marine Battalion, had troops that had served for more than six months, and even in the case of the Marines, few had served for more than a year. To make matters worse, Argentine Army training was notoriously poor, instilling little discipline or actual military skills in the short time each conscript was in the Army. As a result, Argentine conscripts “didn’t know one end of a gun from the other.”
Still, not all of the problems among Argentine enlisted ranks can be blamed on the military system. The troops brought other problems with them. Many of the Argentine enlisted men were illiterate. Most were from the tropical regions of the country and so were unused to the Arctic weather of the Falklands. Personal hygiene among the troops was poor, and in the climate of the Falklands, this led to rampant medical problems. Although most Argentines were ecstatic about the seizure of the Falklands, few wanted to fight Great Britain for them. Consequently, many of the troops lacked any commitment to their mission, and the winter weather and supply problems turned apathy into misery. British special forces units reconnoitering the Argentine positions “formed an impression of an indolent, apathetic army careless of military routines, indifferent to their officers, suffering acutely from the weather.”
On top of all this, Argentine ground units suffered from severe officer-enlisted frictions. The officer corps was a professional body with tremendous pride in its professionalism. Most officers saw their troops as useless, ignorant “short-timers” possessed of few militarily useful skills. Similarly, the enlisted personnel mostly considered their officers (and NCOs) martinets unconcerned with their well-being and pursuing a profession alien to their own lives. Argentine military culture had developed a severely stratified command structure by which the officers were encouraged to remain aloof from their troops as much to preserve their cherished corporate identity as to maintain a proper air of authority. After deploying to the islands, most Argentine officers made little effort to train their men, house them properly, or even see that they were warm, dry, and fed on a regular basis.
Given this background it should not be surprising that Argentine troops performed poorly in battle; it is actually surprising they did not perform worse than they did. Argentine enlisted personnel generally displayed little personal bravery or commitment in combat, and unit cohesion was mediocre at best. Some units threw away their weapons at the first sign of battle and waited to surrender. On many other occasions, they put up a determined fight at first, but when the British began to push through their lines, they broke and ran. Argentine officers frequently had difficulty putting together counterattacks or shifting forces from quiet sectors to stem British assaults because their troops simply refused to obey their orders to get out of the trenches and go into battle. Nevertheless, there were instances, such as at Goose Green, Mt. Longdon, and Tumbledown where Argentine troops stuck together, fought hard, maneuvered, and counterattacked until they were physically overpowered by the British.
Argentine enlisted personnel had a mixed record with weapons handling. Most Argentine soldiers were not good with their small arms, and neglected regular maintenance and cleaning. However, the British consistently reported receiving accurate fire from enemy machine guns, mortars, and artillery. This seems incongruous given the inadequate training given to Argentine enlisted personnel. One possible explanation is that a high percentage of the small number of career soldiers (or an unusual number of NCOs and officers) were assigned to heavy weapons crews to ensure that they were employed properly.
In contrast to Argentina’s enlisted personnel, its junior officers were actually quite good. As noted above, their officer corps cherished a corporate identity that gave them great pride in their skills as military officers, and while they generally disdained their troops, they were committed to their profession and turned out to be reasonably good tactical commanders. In addition, Argentine junior officers (and NCOs) generally remained at their posts and did not desert. Indeed, in most cases, it was the Argentine officers who tried to fight on while their troops fled. In his own account of the conflict, Brigadier Julian Thompson, commander of 3rd Commando Brigade, notes that “On Mt. Harriet, as elsewhere, the Argentine officers and senior NCOs fought hard and on several occasions towards the end of the battle tried to prevent their men surrendering by firing at them.”
Argentine tactical leadership was creative, aggressive, able to act independently in pursuit of the larger goals of an operation, and able to react quickly and efficiently to unforeseen events. Argentine units frequently tried to maneuver on the battlefield to ambush or outflank British units, even though the British were on the offensive. Similarly, many Argentine units reacted rapidly to British maneuvers, repositioning themselves to best meet the assault. Argentine platoon, company, and battalion commanders shifted reserves to bolster threatened sectors and counterattacked entirely at their own discretion. Indeed, in a few cases, Argentine junior officers disobeyed the orders of their superiors to retreat and instead counterattacked to try to retake a fallen position. In many cases, however, their initiative was not rewarded because the troops under their command were unwilling to execute their orders. Argentina’s junior commanders also were very diligent about maintaining a constant cycle of reconnaissance patrols. However, Argentine troops hated patrolling: they made only halfhearted efforts and generally came running back at first contact with British forces.
As another mark generally in favor of Argentina’s junior officers, Argentine artillery fought quite well during the course of the war. Firsthand accounts of the fighting from the British side make numerous references to the accuracy and lethality of Argentine artillery and its ability to complicate British operations in a wide range of situations and conditions. Argentina’s artillery batteries demonstrated a good ability to conduct pre-planned and preregistered fire missions in support of established Argentine defenses. More impressive still, Argentine artillery demonstrated an ability to shift fire quickly and effectively around the battlefield. On numerous occasions, immediately after an Argentine defensive position fell, their artillery would quickly bombard the fallen position to try to prevent the British from consolidating their hold and to allow Argentine troops time to regroup and counterattack or fall back to new lines. When British units attacked from unexpected sectors, and even when they got into the rear of Argentine positions, Argentina’s artillery and mortars usually were able to redirect their fire within minutes and take the force under bombardment. Although British artillery usually prevailed in counter-battery duels, this was not always the case, and in some instances the British could not silence Argentine guns. The Argentines also had a small number of Rasit battlefield surveillance radars that they used well and could fire artillery missions accurately based on readings from these systems.
Although the evidence is limited because there were no mechanized units in the Falklands, Argentine forces seem to have done adequately in combined arms warfare. Argentina’s combat arms did reasonably well working together both in set-piece and ad hoc operations. As I noted above, Argentina’s artillery supported its infantry formations very well. Artillery missions were closely tied to the actions of the infantry and were quite flexible in their ability to support the infantry as the course of battle ebbed and flowed. In addition, the Argentine air force did a good, but not great, job providing support to ground forces in combat. The air force was good about flying reconnaissance missions in support of the ground operations. On a few occasions (most notably at Goose Green), Argentine strike aircraft flew close air support (CAS) missions that were timely and responsive to the needs of ground commanders. The greatest problems for the Argentines was that British command of the air made it very difficult for Argentine strike aircraft to conduct any kind of sustained effort in support of the ground troops. In addition, the Pucaras—Argentina’s primary ground attack aircraft—lacked the right munitions and so did little damage when they did fly CAS missions.
Still, Argentine junior officers were hardly perfect. Virtually all of Argentina’s tactical commanders appeared to know parts of the right way to conduct modern military operations, but none understood the entire range of command responsibilities and operational methods. For instance, at Goose Green, the Argentines had a good security screen but their counterattacks were weak and ill-timed. By contrast, at Mt. Longdon and Tumbledown, the Argentines failed to deploy an adequate security screen but counterattacked forcefully and immediately. Clearly, these officers were reasonably competent, and mostly had the right idea as to how best to conduct their operations, but they regularly forgot certain elements or executed others improperly.
This pattern of behavior suggests that the greatest problem among Argentine junior officers was inadequate training. They had been taught the proper techniques and seemed to have some intuitive understanding of military operations, but had not had the opportunity to practice frequently enough to get down the mechanics of military tasks to the level necessary to execute them in the chaos of battle. This explanation is supported by numerous references to the limited amount of time Argentine units spent training and exercising.
The performance of Argentina’s senior military commanders was mostly awful. The biggest exception to this rule was the planning of the initial invasion, which was quite competent even though it was not a terribly demanding assault. Beyond this, it is difficult to find bright spots. In particular, General Menendez, the supreme commander of Argentine forces in the Falklands, was a political appointee with little understanding of conventional military operations and no desire to command Argentine troops in battle against the British. His leadership was disastrous during the war, and he and his senior subordinates must bear much of the blame for Argentina’s poor showing.
The broad patterns of Argentina’s senior Army leadership on the island were a constant hindrance to their defense. Argentine tactical commanders enjoyed considerable freedom of action not because Menendez consciously decentralized authority, but because he and his staff mostly failed to exercise command. As a result of this negligence, the Argentines had great difficulty conducting operations involving forces from more than one battalion, nor could they shift forces from different units quickly to aid those in danger. Without the coordinating abilities and command authority of Menendez’s headquarters nothing could move, and he and his staff rarely recognized the need for such leadership.
When it did react at all, the Argentine strategic command moved painfully slowly, allowing minor setbacks to turn into major defeats. Part of this problem stemmed from the fact that Menendez never kept a reserve and never expected British attacks at night, even on the eve of the final battle of the war. Throughout the campaign, Menendez and his staff were passive and plodding, demonstrating not the least bit of creative flare or aggressiveness. Whenever he was pressed either by his tactical commanders or by the leadership in Buenos Aires to move against the British, Menendez found excuses to do nothing. Sir Michael Carver remarked with expected British understatement that General Menendez was “particularly unenterprising.”
Menendez also made appalling decisions regarding specific aspects of Argentine strategy, preparations, and operations. He opted to defend only Port Stanley, and chose not to contest the landings, when British forces were at their most vulnerable. Menendez then undermined his own strategy by sticking two of his nine infantry battalions on West Falkland Island—where they were cut off by British naval and air power and incapable of supporting the defense of Stanley—and putting another at Goose Green, where it too was out of position to help defend Port Stanley. That left Menendez only six battalions to defend Stanley against eight British infantry battalions possessing far better firepower, training, and motivation as well as air and naval superiority. He simply wasted one-third of his force by deploying them where they could not contribute to his strategy of defending only Port Stanley.
Menendez and his staff created a bizarre and highly damaging command and control scheme. Rather than keep his battalions subordinate to their three organic brigade commands, he sent one brigade commander back to Argentina, placed all six battalions around Stanley under the command of another brigade commander, and then assigned the three battalions at Goose Green and on West Falkland to the third brigade commander. The six battalions around Stanley were more than one brigade headquarters could effectively control, while the other brigade headquarters had tremendous difficulty commanding battalions scattered over several hundred square miles on two different islands. Menendez and his staff exacerbated these problems by constantly dividing up battalions and recombining subunits into new formations. In most cases, those subunits were left under the command of their original formation rather than creating an ad hoc command to control all elements of the new formation. In other instances, such as at Two Sisters, Menendez divided key terrain features between two or more units not under the same commander.
Even in executing his preferred (and misguided) strategy of defending only Port Stanley, Menendez did poorly. First, he failed to defend Mt. Kent and Mt. Challenger, two major heights that dominated the hills around Stanley. The British were astonished that they were able to take these two positions without a fight. They were extremely strong natural defensive positions, and without them the British could never have attacked Stanley. In addition, control of these mountains allowed the British artillery and mortars to hammer the Argentines on the other hills with impunity.
Second, Menendez failed to pull troops off the beaches around the capital to reinforce the line of hills facing west even when it became clear that this was the direction of the main British thrust. Argentine intelligence had predicted time and again that the British would attack Stanley overland from the west. While Menendez was not the first field commander in history to ignore intelligence assessments that later turned out to be accurate, by early June he probably should have realized that they were spot on. Argentine patrols and aerial reconnaissance gave a good picture of the extent of the British buildup around Stanley and made it clear that this would be the direction of the main British assault. This being the case, Menendez should have had more than half his force covering this axis.
Even giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that it might have been reasonable for him to have believed that the British could still have had one or more battalions at sea on June 11 for use in an amphibious assault on Stanley, after June 11 there was no possible reason not to reinforce the western defenses. On that day, the British smashed five Argentine companies in the outer ring of hills west of Stanley. Consequently, there was no reason to believe that the remaining four companies defending the inner ring of hills (with less extensive fortifications) could hold back the British. So on June 12 Menendez should have recognized that, regardless of whether the British were going to land on the beaches around Stanley, they were going to cave in his left flank and take the capital from the west if he did not pull troops off the beaches and reinforce this sector. He never did, and three more battalions—another third of his force—were left sitting on the beaches, irrelevant to the battle.
The Argentine high command on the mainland was little better. Reinforcements to defend the islands were plucked from all over the country with little thought given as to whether they were the right forces for the job. In some cases, units were sent for political reasons, such as to ensure the support of particular cities or regions for the war by sending units raised and garrisoned in those areas. None of the units sent had any training in Arctic operations, and very few had any winter clothing or equipment. In general, the Argentine high command failed to think through what forces would be needed to defend the Falklands and then make the necessary arrangements to move them there. The entire 10th Mechanized Brigade deployed without its armor or other heavy weapons, combat engineers were sent without any of their specialized vehicles and equipment, and many anti-aircraft units were sent without their guns or SAMs. Conscript units were sent into battle with little or no training, and reserves were not given any refresher training before being shipped off to the Falklands, while the best units in the army were held back against an unlikely Chilean attack.