Don’t be put off by the Sergeant Fury-style title of Air War South Atlantic. This is an exceptional book, one with immediate implications for the U.S. defense budget debate. Ethell and Price, two war historians, have pieced together the story of what really happened in the Falklands by interviewing not high officials in London and Buenos Aires, but nearly every surviving British and Argentine aviator who fought in the war—some 150 officers and enlisted men. While there is a certain amount of “he gunned the throttle, heart pounding…” writing, this is not a war buff’s book: the authors see no glory in war, only necessity. The result is a story every U.S. military officer and congressman who is interested in making the military effective, as opposed to making it expensive, should read.
At the onset of the hostilities, Ethell and Price begin by showing, the British military did what successful militaries almost always do at the start of a war—scrap unrealistic arrangements designed to serve budget politics. In early 1941 George Marshall wandered the halls of the War Department, firing paper generals left and right and replacing them with junior officers like Dwight. Eisenhower and Albert Wedemeyer, outraging the bureaucracy, but providing himself with a staff of open-minded aides and potential leaders who didn’t have a lifetime of turfprotecting to distort their judgments. (By contrast, when the Vietnam war began, Robert McNamara, afraid to challenge the Pentagon hierarchy and enraptured of “expert” status, uncritically let the generals run amok.) Britain’s problem in 1982 was an aerial force stringently divided into Navy air-to-air and Air Force airto-ground planes. Fortunately for British soldiers, the Royal Air Force was willing to surrender institutional control over its fighters, which were quickly modified for dual-role operation from carriers and flown southward to join the fleet.
Once in the Falklands those jets—the vertical takeoff Harriers—dominated aerial combat, even though they were outnumbered three to one. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Harriers are small, dumb-looking fighters that can’t carry radar-guided missiles and can’t fly faster than sound; the U.S. Air Force has been resisting Harrier-type planes for nearly 20 years because they lack the speed, while the Navy has been resisting Harriers because, able to operate from short decks, they undermine the argument for super-carriers. (A few Harriers are now being purchased for the Marine Corps, at its insistence.)
Yet Harriers so thoroughly routed Argentina’s much faster, French-built fighters that, after the early weeks of the war, Buenos Aires put its pilots under orders never to engage British planes: instead they were to flee when one was sighted. Partly this was due to the skill displayed by British pilots; partly it was due to the effectiveness of the Harrier’s main weapon, the new “12” version of the Sidewinder heat-seeking missile. Ethel’ and Price, who at times deflate the British command’s exaggerated claims, say the success of the Sidewinder-L was real, crediting it with 19 kills in 23 engagements.
The Sidewinder-L is U.S.-made, and can be fired not only from behind an enemy airplane but from beside it and even (a rare circumstance) directly in front; it is, in concept, exactly the type of high “probability of kill” weapon Pentagon planners spend their days rhapsodizing over. Yet its existence and effectiveness (the Israeli Air Force has also achieved excellent results with the Sidewinder-L version) are seldom mentioned by the Pentagon, especially to Congress. Why? Because the Pentagon prefers radar-guided missiles. Though their combat performance record is dismal (the Israelis rarely even bother to fire them), radar missiles have the requisite technological dazzle. Also, they cost far more than the Sidewinder. In the Reagan administration’s fiscal 1985 budget, the Sparrow radar missiles cost $206,000 each, compared to $69,000 for the Sidewinder; a new radar missile called Amraam, which is in the process of flunking its tests, is projected to cost $900,000.
We are also selling the Sidewinder-L to nearly every foreign customer who will sign on the dotted line, an outrageous abdication of that most rare of military commodities, a genuine technological advantage. Heat seeking missiles are hard to design, but easy to manufacture, which is what makes them cheap and also very easy, once the design is set, to duplicate. The Soviet Ato1-2 air-to-air missile is an undisguised copy of the Sidewinder-B version. Now, to mollify contractors and support the Air Force’s selfdelusion that radar-guided missiles are what really count, we are shipping the L version all over the world. How long will it be until one falls into the wrong hands— and U.S. pilots must face a devastating weapon of our own design?
The British operated their Harriers from small aircraft carriers. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman has since often claimed in congressional testimony and op-ed articles that if only the British had had a “real” carrier, capable of launching large planes, it woulahave made short work of their opponents. This argument ignores the fact that there was a “real” carrier in the Falklands war, and it was useless: the Argentine carrier 25 de Mayo, built in Great Britain. Early in the conflict Argentina tried to employ the 25 de Mayo to attack the British fleet, but couldn’t. To become airborne many standard carrier planes must be launched into the wind. In the week that British ships arrived near the Falklands there was little wind, which knocked the 25 de Mayo out of operation. Harriers, on the other hand, because they do not depend on the wind to generate takeoff lift, were able to operate without interruption during the same period; they can also operate in heavy seas, when the deck of a carrier is pitching up and down, because they can hover for an instant before landing. Later, after a British submarine sank Argentina’s secondlargest ship, the cruiser General Belgrano, the country’s military dictators became so worried that the equally large and vulnerable 25 de Mayo would also be sent to the bottom—creating a public-relations disaster which would topple their government—that they withdrew it to port, where it bobbed, unused, for the rest of the Conflict.
The insignificance of Argentina’s real carrier—and the effectiveness of Britain’s smalldeck ships, which Lehman has sarcastically and successfully dubbed “Gary Hart carriers”— suggests the battleship paradox: the only thing you can do with a battleship is lose it. Since early in World War II battleships have been nearly irrelevant to naval combat, but have continued to captivate the public’s attention. When the German Bismark fought the British Hood, all eyes focused on the event, suggesting as it did a medieval single combat. The Bismark sank the Hood, but luckily for the British the Bismark was in turn sunk by aircraft shortly afterward; and since the most recent event is the one that sticks in the mind, the British victory coming last seemed more significant.
When Reagan sent the battleship New Jersey to Lebanon, he ran the risk of having it sunk to what surely would have been intense public outcry and another round of hand-wringing, “Whither American Might?” commentaries, even though a loss of the New Jersey would have had little or no relevance to real U.S. naval power. In short, employing the big ship promised minor gains—there is little indication New Jersey’s shelling of Lebanese positions altered the tenor of the fighting there—in return for a major risk of a propaganda catastrophe, the same risk Argentina faced with the 25 de Mayo, and elected not to take.
As regards the Harriers, Ethell and Price also conclude from their interviewing that something that was supposed to happen did not. In order to take off vertically the Harrier has an engine nozzle that can be rotated or “vectored”; this, in theory, gives the aircraft an ability to jump sideways while flying, or “vector in forward flight” (VIFF). When Harrier destructions of supposedly more capable aircraft began to add up, reports surfaced that Britain’s secret was using VIFF to play a clever trick: deliberately letting Argentine planes come up from behind, then jumping to the side and firing as they passed by. These stories were front-page stuff and recounted enthusiastically in the U.S. press. Yet British pilots, Ethell and Price say, never once used VIFF tactics, and actively scorned the idea (for technical reasons which would take too long to recount). Why were VIFF stories so widely played? At the time it seemed like an honest mistake; I know that if I had been covering the Falklands war as it was happening, I would have made many errors. But, there was another factor. VIFF was the only aspect of the slow, dulllooking Harrier that could conceivably be described as “new” or “advanced .” Thus it made good copy, especially for a press corps that is for the most part ignorant of military history, one that is anxious to jump on verbal gaffes by Caspar Weinberger or cost overruns documented by the GAO but terrified of challenging basic military assumptions about tactics or weapons— even though the record of recent wars, including World War II, shows that such assumptions can be dangerously wrong.
This blindness is best seen in the “no more Normandys” story that British commanders succeeded in planting. It took nearly a month for the British fleet to reach the Falklands. During that time military sources were saying, and reporters faithfully repeating, that there would be no more Normandys: that the invasion would be a lightning helicopter assault right into the midst of Argentine defenses, not an amphibious landing. This notion was so widely proclaimed in the press that Argentine officers began to believe it, and planned their defenses accordingly. Then, when the fleet arrived, it staged a Normandy, bringing troops ashore with landing craft many miles away from the center of Argentine defenses. British commanders, it turned out, had never even toyed with the idea of a direct helicopter assault, which they considered suicidal. This set off a wail of agonizing over the fact that the press had been lied to, which, of course, it had; a firmly justified humanitarian lie that reduced the waste of life on both sides.
But, the other question was begged. Why did reporters fall for this lie? Wasn’t there anybody in the press corps familiar enough with military reality to know that a helicopter-borne invasion would lead only to slaughter, whereas the most successful amphibious operations—Inchon, Leyte, Normandy in many respects —have employed the “hit ’em where they ain’t” strategy of landing away from fortified positions? The day before the invasion I happened to be at a social event where one of The Washington Post’s top editors was castigating me for a story I had written detailing the combat record of U.S. helicopters. He suggested that I would soon want to write a retraction because, “You won’t believe what these Sea Kings [the main British helicopter] are going to do. They’re absolutely awesome. It’ll be strictly a helicopter invasion.”
Like VIFF, the helicopter invasion story seemed to capture the fancy of reporters because it was the most “sophisticated” tactic the British might have employed. Yet the actual use of British helicopters drew little press attention. U.S. doctrine calls for helicopters to fly directly into combat, exposing themselves to enemy guns. Ethell and Price report that the British never took their helicopters into battle, reserving them instead for behind-the-lines transportation of men and equipment, a role in which they served admirably. In aerial action Britain lost only ten of the 172 helicopters it took to the Falklands, despite flying many of them almost constantly for more than a month in the bad weather that followed the first week’s calm. Compare this with the Pentagon’s loss of nine helicopters in just four days’ fighting in Grenada.
Also captivating of the press was the Exocet missile, which sank two British ships—another high-technology, holy-cow story. Overlooked was the more revealing news that four more British vessels—three of them new air-defense warships loaded with the latest, most expensive, radarguided weapons—had been sunk by regular old “dumb” bombs, dropped by aircraft passing directly over their decks. Ethell and Price say that the actual picture was far more drastic: 75 percent of the Argentine bombs that struck British ships failed to detonate, according to their count. The frigate H.M.S. Plymouth, during a single raid, was struck by four, 1,000-pound bombs, any one of which could have sunk her but none of which exploded. Had all these bombs—or even half of them—gone off, the fleet would have been forced to withdraw, and Britain would have “lost.”
Yet the inability of Britain’s high-tech antiaircraft ships to deal with small numbers of planes dropping old-fashioned bombs (the radar systems, Ethel! and Price note, had a tendency to “hiccup” when the pressure was on, and since the official theory held that these systems were infallible, there were few guns to back them up) has not been a story in the U.S. press. Neither has the fact that the U.S. Navy’s new $55 billion antiaircraft ship project, Aegis, uses devices and principles very similar to those that failed to distinguish themselves in the Falklands.
In May, after the first Aegis cruiser was able, in a carefully controlled test, to shoot down ten of 11 drone missiles, The Washington Post billed the story as “Navy Smoothing Wrinkles Out of Air Shield.” The Post’s story did not mention that most of the drones had been destroyed in individual engagements, not in saturation attacks, which are the standard of naval warfare and what British radar ships faced in the Falklands. So far there has been no book that does for Grenada what Air War South Atlantic does for the Falklands. This is due, in some degree, to an unfortunate byproduct of British press manipulation; emboldened by London’s lying to the media, the Pentagon gained enough courage to bar U.S. reporters from the Grenada mission. This time, however, it was done for the wrong reasons. Instead of hoping to save lives, the Pentagon’s goal was to make sure no cameras and notebooks were around to record any bungling or especially the pandemonium that prevailed because of the lack of inter-service coordination.
At one point during Grenada, for example, some Army soldiers were pinned down on a city street; the squad leader found a pay phone with which he placed a credit-card call to his superiors at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who then called the Air Force, which brought in planes to assist. This anecdote was told to a press conference by Air Force General David Nichols, who cited it as proof of the majesty of the long-distance satellite communications between North Carolina and Grenada, and it was reported as such. What kind of system is it that provides no means for an Army officer in trouble to talk directly to the Air Force? In which colonels and generals behind the scenes serve as glorified clerks, routing messages?
Like the Iran raid—where Marine helicopters flew from Navy ships to meet Army troops in Air Force planes—in Grenada the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army all had roles, as did most of the factions within the services. And the result, again lightly reported (under the present pact of journalistic standards reporters can be as nasty as they want about any event being painted as an official “failure,” but you can’t knock success) was in several important aspects disturbing.
For example, in Grenada the U.S. employed overwhelming force both in numbers and in quality. We not only enjoyed a seven-to-one advantage in troop strength, but pitted our very best units—Marines, Rangers, Seals—against Cuban irregulars, who until shortly before the fight had been laying concrete. The U.S. had an overwhelming advantage in firepower, with naval guns and some armor versus no artillery and no armor; in air power we had absolute superiority, there being not a single enemy plane in the air. (Cuban troops also had only simple antiaircraft weapons; no SAM missiles and no large-caliber cannons.) U.S. Army commanders insisted on carrying out their phases of the operation with the most complicated, expensive means possible—helicopter assaults and paratroop drops. It was the Marines, operating in smaller numbers with simpler tactics, who secured most of the island. Indeed, the fact that Weinberger allowed himself to be bullied into letting nearly every Pentagon interest group grab a share of the Grenada action calls into question whether he has any grasp of the military he supposedly runs. Weinberger sent the Marines, who have a poor record of defending stationary positions and an excellent record of capturing enemy territory, to Beirut to defend a stationary position; he then sent the Army to Grenada to stage an amphibious assault. Doesn’t he know the difference between the Army and the Marines?
The showing of U.S. helicopters was another case in point. Not only did we lose as many helicopters in four days of clear-weather flying against a lightly armed foe as Britain lost in a month under severe conditions—because Army commanders insisted on flying the helicopters into active battle, the same tactic that failed so miserably in Vietnam—but many of the aircraft knocked down were UH60 Blackhawks, the Army’s newest, most expensive helicopter at the time and one that was supposedly designed with the record of Vietnam in mind. The Army didn’t even seem to learn from short-term experience. At one point, its elite Delta commando force was sent against Richmond Hill prison using the standard made-for-TV-movie tactic of flying up to it in a helicopter in broad daylight; the aircraft was driven away by small arms fire. The following day, according to a report released by the Congressional Military Reform Caucus, another Delta helicopter was back with exactly the same tactic, and again it was driven off.
The present United States military learns from theory, but not from practice. The Pentagon has ignored many of the lessons of its own Vietnam war, has ignored the lessons of Israel’s wars using Pentagon equipment, and now seems intent on ignoring the lessons of the Falklands. Its F-l6 fighter, which was designed around the Sidewinder missile, is in the process of being converted to mount Amraam. The Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter, which is likely to be its next multi-billion dollar acquisition, includes in its early stages—can’t you guess?—the ability to VIFF. If only Ethell and Price would turn their talents to the U.S. military, asking lower-level soldiers what is actually happening, as opposed to what Pentagon press kits say is happening; and if only someone on Capitol Hill, where committees fund now and ask questions later, would listen.