BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:25 GMT, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Falklands and Afghanistan - two very different wars

Soldier in Afghanistan, left, and images from Falklands war

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The death toll for British forces in Afghanistan passing that in the Falklands in 1982 has been marked by much of the media. While they seem very dissimilar conflicts, some of the differences can tell us a great deal.

The Falklands War lasted only 74 days, was fought over British dependent territory, solely by British forces, against another state with well-equipped forces.

HMS Sheffield after Exocet missile hit, May 1982
The Argentines were equipped with devastating modern weapons

The war in Afghanistan is in its ninth year, involves a coalition of international and local forces and has been predominantly against an irregular and often nebulous enemy.

The Falklands War had a clear achievable goal which was met with the Argentine surrender. Much of the criticism of the war in Afghanistan focuses on the idea that there is no clear exit strategy, and that total defeat of the Taliban is an impossibility.

It is perhaps not surprising that when the conflicts are viewed side-by-side only stark differences are visible. But scratch the surface and there are interesting threads about the changing nature of military action and geopolitics.


For those old enough to remember the Falklands War, the figure of Ian McDonald looms large.

Falklands: 255 British deaths in 1982
HMS Sheffield: 20 killed, 4 May
Atlantic Conveyor: 12 killed, 25 May
HMS Coventry: 19 killed, 25 May
Goose Green: 17 killed, 28-29 May
Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram: 48 lives lost, 8 June
Afghanistan: 256 British losses, Oct 2001-8 Feb 2010
Nimrod crash: 14 killed, 2 Sept 06
Four killed, inc first servicewoman to die in Afghanistan, June 08
Eight killed in 24 hours, July 09

Mocked for his steady monotone, he became the face of the war as he announced sunken ships and other losses of life on television.

But unlike the war in Afghanistan, it was possible to tightly control the flow of information back from the distant Falklands.

There were plenty of journalists with the task force, but they were often reliant on satellite communications back to the UK, and they were controlled by the military.

After the sinking of the destroyer HMS Coventry on 25 May 1982 with the loss of 19 lives, it was nearly 12 hours before the details were revealed in the Commons.

In the era of rolling news it is hard to believe that if a ship was known to have been sunk, fuller details would not have emerged sooner.

Defence Secretary John Nott announces British troops are on the islands
The MoD tightly controlled the flow of information

The MoD was often criticised for going too far in controlling the flow of information.

"It was just awful," says Dr Andrew Dorman, of the defence studies department at King's College London. "The MoD has learned a lot more about how it deals with the media."

And the Falklands marked the first major conflict where British forces gave every relative the option to bring back their dead, says Dr Dorman.

"It was a bit of a turning point relative to whether the bodies came back or not.

"Now they all come back. There is much more personalisation of death - the MoD puts a picture out and so on."


While it must be acknowledged that there were prominent dissenting voices - MP Tam Dalyell for instance - public opinion was perceived to be staunchly behind retaking the islands.

As for the war in Afghanistan, the position is rather more nuanced. For instance, ICM polls showed British support for the joint US/UK mission was at 74% in October 2001, but 47% in July 2009. However, that was a significant improvement on a poll conducted in 2006 (see this analysis ).

On patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan
Support for the war in Afghanistan has fluctuated

And the support during the Falklands War was not unquestioning, says Dr Dorman, particularly at the end of May 1982, when a number of British ships had been destroyed.

"Lots of ships were being sunk, there was a real public opinion wobble. The push for Goose Green [a settlement] was to get a victory to help cement public opinion."

Support for the troops themselves was constant.

"The country was wholly behind what we were doing and behind us," says Simon Weston, the Welsh Guardsmen who survived the attack on Sir Galahad and later became renowned for his charity work. "There were parades - we came back to fanfares."

Support for the troops during the war in Afghanistan has come recently to focus on the tributes paid to soldiers when their bodies arrive back at Wootton Bassett, and the success of the Help for Heroes organisation.


"Both were wars that weren't predicted and the armed forces had to adjust to these," says Dr Dorman.

In 1982, British defence spending was geared primarily around the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the continuing troubles in Northern Ireland, Dr Dorman notes. After the withering of the British Empire, the idea of forces dedicated to defending UK colonies had waned.

Chinook used in simulated military exercise before troops head to Afghanistan
Chinooks were crucial then and now

A similar situation existed in 2001, where defence planning had been looking towards the Middle East and north Africa, not as far afield as Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan much of the dissent over the war has focused on the issue of equipment and whether British troops have the best available, or enough helicopters.

Lack of helicopters was a major problem in the Falklands War, but it was caused then by enemy action. On the 25 May 1982, two Argentine Super Etendard fighters carrying Exocet anti-ship missiles, and looking for either of the British aircraft carriers Hermes or Invincible, sunk the British cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor.

Three Chinook helicopters, a number of Wessex helicopters, mobile landing strips for Harrier jets and tents were among the equipment lost.

The loss of the Chinooks - which were to carry dozens of men at a time into battle as well as transporting equipment - was particularly important. But luckily for the British, a fourth Chinook was away flying when the missiles struck.

Unlike in Afghanistan, where unfavourable comparisons are occasionally made between British and US equipment, in the Falklands the same comparisons were sometimes made with the materiel that the Argentines had.

Argentinian helmets and weapons laid down after surrender at Goose Green, June 1982
The Argentinean forces were often very well equipped

"It was terrifying going into Stanley and seeing the piles of brand new equipment, more up to date than anything we had," says Hugh McManners, author of Forgotten Voices of the Falklands War and Falklands Commando, and who fought in the Special Boat Service during the war. "Thank god they were still in piles."

But the situation in the Falklands was not about long-term supply, it was simply about what could be deployed at such short notice to such a far-away location.

"They were absolutely at the limit to which the Navy could sustain an operation," says Hugh Bicheno, author of Razor's Edge: The Unofficial History of the Falklands War.

If there is a point of commonality in the equipment issue it may be about the difficulty of sustaining supply chains over such long distances.

"Trying to keep that air bridge going supporting a war over long distances is really challenging logistically," says Dr Dorman.


The Falklands War communicated the quality of Britain's elite forces, the SAS and SBS, and the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines, to a general public that was not completely familiar with their role.

The 1980 storming of the Iranian Embassy in London had really put the SAS in the spotlight, and both the SAS and SBS had a major role to play in the Falklands War.

Military theory was challenged as British forces attacked vastly numerically superior Argentine forces.

Officers might have learnt that a 3-1 superiority was advisable for attacking forces on ordinary terrain, says Mr McManners. During engagements like Goose Green that ratio was reversed, with about 1,600 Argentinean servicemen surrendering to 450 British.

But he says the idea that the British were always attacking inept conscripts is a myth.

"Some of the Argentinean units were extremely good, all very well equipped."


While the two wars now have the same number of fatalities, the rate at which those fatalities occurred could not be more different.

Those in the Falklands occurred in large bursts over a short period - like the 48 who died on RFA Sir Galahad, the 20 who died on HMS Sheffield and the 19 that died after the HMS Coventry was hit.

Survivor of HMS Sheffield attack attended to by medics in flash hoods
In 1982, British casualties came in big bursts

In Afghanistan, the largest single loss of British life was the Nimrod crash which killed 14. For the most part casualties have come in small numbers, often ones and twos.

The Falklands represents a unique conflict in British military history, says Mr McManners.

"Two technological nations, no-one had air superiority, ground forces being bombed with impunity, heavy use of artillery.

"You can't say never again but what one can say is the wars of the future are more likely to be high intensity counterinsurgency wars."

Some of the information in this article is drawn from The Falklands War: The Full Story by the Sunday Times Insight Team.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Whilst it is true to say that in 1982 both sides were technically equal, to try and draw a comparison with toady's operations in Afghanistan is not easy. For example in 1982, body armour was unheard of. Our battle dress was a vest, shirt, woolly pulley, combat smock and that was your lot.
Thom, Gloucester

the most important similarity between these conflicts and all conflicts that British soldiers have been involved in IS the British soldier. Regardless of the advances in technology or change of politics and location, all these conflicts have ordinary men (and more recently women) in uniform with a hard hat and a rifle as the sharp end of the pointy stick. These people are our neighbours, friends and family, and regardless of your political viewpoint, they are out there risking life and limb for the United Kingdom and its people.
Richard L, Lincoln, UK

Part of the issue with media control of the Falklands was that the media couldn't be trusted to protect the armed forces. At one point officers were incredulous to hear on the BBC world service that the Argentine air-sea missiles were not exploding because the Argentines were dialling their timers too long for the incredibly short delay between release by Argentine aircraft and connection with British ships. How stupid to report this on air so that the enemy could become more effective at blowing up our ships. Rightly journalists were ejected for their inappropriate reporting which seriously endangered the lives of British service men and women. Can journalists be trusted to discern whether a story is in the national interest, or just a good scoop?
Paul Ede, Glasgow

I was a 19-year-old sailor, who had been in the Navy for just 17 months and had joined my first ship, when were sent to the Falklands. The objectives were clear; obtain the surrender of the Argentineans' and reclaim the Falklands. The war in Afghanistan is to prevent the reestablishment of training camps and to support a fragile government.
In the Falklands we could bombard their positions all day long. We could openly engage the enemy day or night, and we knew who they were as they were wearing the uniform of the enemy.
The Afghan situation is very different. Politicians call the shots, we are rarely allowed to attack, the enemy wears the same clothes as the civilians and they live in villages amongst the population.
Should we end this fight because it's a difficult one? It's like saying to Portsmouth FC, you are up against Chelsea this week, better not show up. Portsmouth FC would think differently, as does the British Armed Forces.
Ron, Gosport

At the time of the Falklands in the office where I worked there was about a 50/50 split in support at the beginning of the conflict. Then HMS Sheffield was sunk with large loss of life and a sense of outrage spread ("How dare they sink one of our ships and kill our men"). From that point on I saw the "Bulldog Spirit" emerge. At the end of the conflict I would say that support was about 90%. The difference between then and now, I believe, is that firstly the Falklands conflict was perceived as a wholly British affair and not a coalition one, and secondly the rate of attrition of our forces has been gradual with no single large loss due to enemy action.
Tim Clark, Ashby de la Zouch, UK

My husband spent several months in the Falklands in 2007 on an overseas posting with the RAF. I was surprised to learn that we still have a significant number of troops in the islands, either posted or on training missions. The key with the Falklands is that it is a matter of self-determination. The Falkland Islanders WANT to be British and we are therefore obliged to defend them. If they were to turn to us and say they would rather be independent or Argentinean, then we would leave quietly without fuss. The same applies to Gibraltar.
C, Suffolk, UK

As a service man or woman, when you are sent to deal with the enemy, that is your job. I am a Falklands vet and in 1982 whilst 8,000 miles from home, bobbing around in the Southern Atlantic I felt that our presence was justified and legal. For those of our Armed Forces that have served in the Gulf or Afghanistan, they must have often wondered about the legality of their presence and about how little the politicians that sent them there knew the stark reality of the war they were trying to fight. Political will is dangerous to anyone in the Armed Forces - you could end up losing your life not in defence of your own country. It is why I joined the Royal Navy back in 1974; to defend and serve the country.
Nick Smith, Dartmouth, UK

Whilst there are some similarities between the two wars, notably a clear UN mandate & the dedication of all the British servicemen and women, civil servants & contractors involved, we should bear in mind the gap of nearly 30 years between the two campaigns. The world at large moves on so rapidly as to make direct comparison with 1982 & 2010 almost as meaningless as if we tried to compare the Falklands War with World War II battles. However, one thing is clear - in 1982 the British Forces had some technological advantages over the Argentines eg: the capabilities of the Harrier fighters. This did not happen by accident but through years of steady investment in defence R&D which is now being heavily cut. We will probably get away with it this year, possibly the next, but after that, things look doubtful. If we cannot sustain technological advantages such as we had in 1982, we will let ourselves down and more importantly our boys & girls at the sharp end, wherever that may be.
Leighton Yeo, Reading, UK

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