The steep price of honor in a high-tech war

Jane O’Hara May 17 1982

The steep price of honor in a high-tech war

Jane O’Hara May 17 1982

The steep price of honor in a high-tech war


Jane O’Hara

The balding captain of HMS Sheffield only had time to deliver the order “take cover” before the unforeseen threat struck. Within seconds, a lethal five-metre Argentine missilefired from an invisible aircraft almost 40 km away and skimming just over the waves—struck amidships, shearing through the gun-metal-grey nerve centre. Then came the explosion—a blast that turned the British destroyer’s hull white-hot with its raging power. As body paint peeled from the steaming aluminum hulk, flames raced through the ship reducing lower compartments to a fiery grave for 20 British crewmen working below. Five hours later, with the blaze still out of control and black smoke enshrouding the Sheffield in a cowl of destruction, Capt. James Salt gave the order: “Abandon ship.” Said the understated captain, acknowledging the fearsome power of today’s modern high-tech arsenal: “We were on a losing wicket.”

For Britain, the loss of the Sheffield—whose radar made it the “eyes and ears” of the fleet—was a stunning reversal in an undeclared war. It represented the nation’s first major loss of life and the first military setback in the five-week crusade to reclaim the Falklands from Argentina. While flags flew at half-mast in the naval city of Portsmouth whence the task force had set sail, and the port Sheffield called home, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wore widow’s black to explain the defeat to Westminster. The loss of the Sheffield clearly shocked Britons. But for the Argentines it merely evened the score. Two days before the Sheffield was hit, the British task force had let slip its own toys of war. It sank Argentina’s lone cruiser, the General Belgrano, with two electronically guided Tigerfish torpedoes unleashed from the British hunter-killer submarine, Conqueror. Argentina has not confirmed the death toll from the General Belgrano, but a solemn cortège of military ambulances lined the runway at Bahia Blanca, 640 km south of Buenos Aires, awaiting casualties, perhaps as many as 350 dead.

The mathematics of the suddenly rising body counts—the British lost two more Harriers and their pilots to the weather later in the week—was a sober reminder to both sides of the escalating costs of war. By week’s end the fighting had given way to further cosmetic con-

sultations around the peace table. But, with the two countries vigilantly holding fast to their nonnegotiable demands, discussions failed to trigger any real hopes for a peaceful settlement. In any case, it was not peace that was uppermost in many minds. What lingered after last week’s battles was the grim realization that a crisis that started out as an anachronistic gavotte de guerre has ended up as the latest competition in wire-guided warfare.

Perhaps more than anything, the fate of the two ships showed how radically the state of the deadly art had changed. For the first time, even in the world of non-nuclear warfare, men and morale had been outmatched by missiles and electronic gadgetry on the high seas. Says Thomas Gervasi, the American author of Arsenal of Democracy. “The British didn’t count on the fact that a Third World country like Argentina would have such sophisticated equipment. It is the first time that these weapons have been used and it’s bound to give all nations pause.”

Although missiles were in common use in the 1973 Middle East war between Egypt and Israel, the battle in the South Atlantic is the world’s first major naval combat in which they have been employed. According to experts with the authoritative publication Jane's Fighting Ships, the 682-kg French-built missile Exocet AM 39, which knocked out the Sheffield, also had its maiden voyage in a live military theatre last week. Its performance was devastating. The Exocet’s single 160-kg warhead did the damage it would have taken several Second World War naval shells to do. Britain’s computerized Tigerfish torpedoes, each carrying 275 kg of high explosives in its warhead, did a job that would have required four torpedoes in the Second World War. As a result of the attack, the spot price of Exocets on the international arms market was reported to have tripled overnight.

Although both sides in the conflict have kept the size of their arsenals secret, they are both believed to have roughly the same number of missiles. Nine Argentine and seven British warships are equipped with MM38 sea-skimming Exocets, one of two models capable of being launched from the sea. Argentina’s ace in the hole last week, however, was the French-built Super Etendard bomber, from which the air-varjant Exocet AM39 was launched on its •deadly accurate journey.

The air-launched Exocet, which has a 70-km flight life, was thought to have been carried by the radar-elusive Super Etendard to within 40 km of the Sheffield before it fired. And the attack bomber’s stealthy manouevring—below

the Sheffield’s radar horizon and beyond the scope of the human eye— has raised critical questions concerning the future of naval warfare. Clearly, the days of big-gun, big-ship antiaircraft fire are over. In future, jet pilots need not worry about even spotting opposing cannons, let alone seeing the whites of enemy eyes. They will be content to operate at long distances, stalking one another with radar and heat-seeking missiles, dancing an airborne ballet of electronic counterpoints to avoid one another. “There won’t any longer be mass

confrontations,” said Maj. Bob Elliott of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “From now on it will be a game of hide-and-seek, with ships dodging around at considerable distance from each other trying to launch surprise missile attacks.”

The announcement that a $47-million British destroyer had been kayoed by a $660,000 missile set off a worldwide reassessment of naval strategies. It may mean rough seas for military budgets that have set aside mega-dollars for large and vulnerable surface fleets. On the one hand, critics argue (a debate that has been ongoing ever since Japa-

nese aircraft sank the British battle cruiser Repulse and the battleship Prince of Wales in 1941) that surface fleets may be obsolete in the face of such awesome computerized weaponry. That debate is particularly critical to the U.S. Navy, which is steaming toward a goal of a 600-ship fleet. Already under way are plans to recommission at least four Second World War battleships and to build two huge nuclear carriers at a cost of $3.3 billion each.

According to U.S. Navy Secretary John Lehman, the Sheffield disaster neither means that surface ships are dinosaurs nor should it cause any radical change in naval planning. It was simply a case of the Sheffield taking to sea without the necessary anti-missile missiles, such as the Sea Wolf, which can explode enemy hardware on the wing just seconds short of its target. That is a point also being pondered by the two finalists in the competition to build six frigates for the Canadian Armed Forces. Neither finalist would say what anti-missile capacity they intend for their designs, but the lessons of the Sheffield will undoubtedly not be lost on them.

While Lehman stopped short of criticizing the British for leaving the Sheffield open to naked attack, he maintained that U.S. warships would never sail to a danger zone like the South Atlantic without covering their flank. “We would not put any ship outside the range of air cover,” said Lehman. “If you send any combatant out without air cover, either land-based or sea-based, they are vulnerable.” The thinking was

Long isolated from world opinion Argentines pick and choose the myths they'd like to live

obviously shared by Britain, which last week bolstered its fleet with long-range reconnaissance Nimrods similar to the U.S. AWACs early-warning aircraft and 20 more Harriers, which were flown from Britain to Ascension Island.

It was the first of many battle preparations made by Britain last week. And the moves were interpreted by many experts as the preliminary steps toward full-scale invasion of the islands. Early last week, the Thatcher government requisitioned the luxury Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2 to ferry 3,000 infantrymen—including a group of the legendary knife-wielding Gurkhas—to the Falklands. With 5,000 troops already tossing around on the increasingly hostile seas, the latest wave could be used

as a garrison force after the islands have been taken. While potted plants and portraits were removed from the staterooms during a refit of the QE 2, Britain reeled off a further announcement to show it meant business: the defence ministry extended the previously imposed 200-mile war zone to within 12 nautical miles of the Argentine mainland. Any Argentine warship or military aircraft caught within the new “no-go” zone will be considered hostile by Britain. In effect, it is an attempt to secure the fleet by keeping the Argentines safely landlocked. The tough British initiatives came at week’s end when the war zone had fallen silent as a bell jar following the earlier days of high-altitude bombing, full-scale sub-

marine warfare, aerial dogfights and missile warfare.

Militarily, at least, Britain appeared to have the upper hand. Prior to the loss of the Sheffield, it had recaptured the British dependency of South Georgia, cratered the Falklands’ airstrips with a Vulcan bomber and Harrier jump jets, bagged two Argentine planes and sank three enemy craft, including the General Belgrano, once American-owned and one of the few ships to survive the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Late in the week, however, Britain reported that its already-strained air forces sustained another loss when two of the remaining 19 Harriers vanished from radar screens while on patrol in the Atlantic’s autumn mists.

The break in the fighting—an unofficial ceasefire—gave both sides a chance to regroup, to consider the casualties of combat and to prepare future strategies. But there was also reluctance on both sides to intensify the fighting before all the peace options had been found to be useless. And with U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s divisive shuttle soundly grounded, the reins of diplomacy fell firmly into the hands of UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar. Working from blueprints of various other peace plans put forward by Haig and Peruvian President Fernando Belaúnde Terry, Pérez de Cuellar rendered his own six-point proposal. That called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Argentine troops, the rollback of the British flotilla, the beginning of negotiations, the lifting of economic sanctions and the setting up of a UN administration on the Falklands while the fine details of the negotiations were worked on.

The secretary-general temporarily fuelled optimism by saying he had received “positive reactions” from both

belligerent parties. But his efforts seemed destined for the shredder unless one of the parties could be persuaded to budge from its oft-drawn base line. The nonnegotiable British stance is that Argentina must withdraw its troops before serious bargaining begins. At week’s end, however, Argentina was still reluctant to do so without Britain’s guarantee that Las Malvinas (as the islands are known in Argentina) will remain under Argentine sovereignty—a

concession that Britain will not make.

As a result, even though Britain’s UN Ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons and Argentine Deputy Foreign Minister Enrique Ros were both talking to Pérez de Cuellar on Saturday, and then again on Sunday, observers took a cynical view of the proceedings. American military experts said both sides were holding their fire and appearing amenable to the UN peace initiatives because neither wanted to shoulder blame for scuttling

a peaceful solution.

Pérez de Cuellar tried anxiously to head off further obstruction by leaving the nettlesome subject of sovereignty completely out of his peace proposal. But the intransigence of the Argentines on that very issue was perhaps best illustrated last week during an intense diplomatic effort by the United States,

Peru and Britain to bring about a 72hour ceasefire, the first phase of a plan to defuse the crisis. That scenario was blown out of the water by the junta sharpshooters who refused to consider it unless iron-clad assurances were given that the pale-blue Argentine flag would continue to fly over the islands.

The bellicose resolve on both sides was firmly entrenched. In Argentina, Defence Minister Amadeo Frugoli scorned Britain’s extension of the “nogo” zone. Argentina would fight “wherever and whenever” required, he said. And the junta appeared to believe it had forced the Thatcher government into a tacit admission that it seriously underestimated Argentine firepower and spirit.

Officials in Buenos Aires seemed to think that despite the Conservatives’ strong showing in the British municipal elections (page 21) another military setback like the crippling of the Sheffield might topple her. Caricatures of Britain’s Iron Lady and ubiquitous posters showing a bullet-strewn and bloodied Union Jack reflected the galvanized public support for President Leopoldo Galtieri. Impressed by their successful long-range use of the Exocet missile, the Argentines were reportedly hunting for bigger game—one of Britain’s two aircraft carriers—in order to further erode what they believe is softening British support both domestically and abroad.

Indeed, the European reaction to the sinking of the Belgrano last week was one of dismay. Several nations called

for a cessation of hostilities and for UN involvement amid a general feeling that the British had lost a great deal of their goodwill around the world by attacking an obsolete vessel that wasn’t even in the war zone. That feeling didn’t diminish appreciably even in the wake of the attack on the Sheffield. In fact, Ireland, one of the European Community members that supported sanctions against Argentina, last week announced it would oppose any extension of the economic boycott past May 17, news that must have gladdened Buenos Aires’ heart. As Maclean's Allan Pusey reported from Buenos Aires: “In a real sense the Argentines have convinced themselves that they cannot lose even if they do lose.

They believe that any further action along the lines of the sinking of the Belgrano will make the British seem like cold-blooded killers. Argentine diplomats also maintain that they have nothing to fear from an honorable defeat.”

Such bold claims and swashbuckling bravura may have more to do with the country’s fantasy-ridden national psyche than with reality. Long isolated from world opinion,

Argentines pick and choose the mythsj they would like to live, turning theirz backs on unpalatable historical truths^that might increase their sense of! servility or insecurity. Third World au-jji thor V.S. Naipaul, who dissected Argen-1tine society in his collection of essays entitled The Return of Eva Perón, points to Argentina’s “innate capacity for denying the obvious,” citing Eva Perón’s destruction of her own birth records—a move that was imitated by thousands.

Says Naipaul: “The trouble is their language is so crammed with rhetoric that it drives them into absurd postures. But one must not be misled. When a military communiqué says we are fighting valiantly to defend national sovereignty, it means: ‘Things have gone wrong.’ Psychologically they are very dangerous people.” No amount of mythmaking, however, could disguise Argentina’s very real economic trouble. Last week, in a series of desperate stopgap measures, the peso was devalued by 17 per cent, gas prices were hiked 30 per cent and taxes were levied on luxury items and foreign-currency holdings.

Argentine Economics Minister Robert Alemann refused to blame the war for upsetting the economy. But British officials revealed their tallies to date. So far the task force has cost $210 million and it could go as high as $2.1 billion in the event of extended action.

But for Britons, cost was not at issue last week. Although the country’s brief encounter with defeat led to a small drop in support for Thatcher’s handling of the issue, opinion polls showed that more than 70 per cent of the country was still with her. Harrowing interviews with the tear-stained widows of British sailors only added energy to the public’s resolve to “see it through.” And while diplomats temperately trod the backroads of negotiation to build upon international political support, the politicians’ upper lips were stiffening for the alternative: a military solution.

At the same time, there were reports that Thatcher’s inner cabinet, which is running the war from 10 Downing Street, was prepared to bomb the Argentine mainland to enhance the task

force’s security. It was also said to be poised for a landing on the islands despite a 2-to-l reversal of the textbook maxim. Said Foreign Secretary Francis Pym: “If all endeavors to meet a fair settlement fail, then nobody is in any doubt what we are going to do.”

As the unholy fury of nature closed in on the blustery South Atlantic, manmade forces continued to converge on the disputed archipelago. Any doubts about the prospects were perhaps finally swept aside on Friday by Haig. In the guise of a “senior White House official,” Haig told selected reporters what he thought lies ahead. “The lull could give way to new and terrible fighting. And it’s probable, given their assets, that the British will prevail in the end,” he declared. For the Argentines, that was the most chilling message of all.

With Julia Langdon in London, William Lowther in Washington and Allan Pusey in Buenos Aires.