On April 2, 1982, Argentine soldiers landed on the Falkland Islands and quickly wrested control of the territory from Britain. Almost immediately, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that Britain was going to take them back. Within days an English armada set course for the tiny outpost in the South Atlantic. Six weeks later the Falklands were back in British hands.
Insofar as Americans know anything about the Falklands War, they tend to see it as a kind of sideshow from the Reagan era, an ill-advised move by a tinhorn South American dictatorship quickly and effortlessly squashed by the unlimited military resources of a First World superpower.
But the British victory was no foregone conclusion. Mistakes in strategy, supply and communication repeatedly put the counter-attack dubbed "Operation Corporate" in jeopardy. In some ways, the outcome was a matter of luck.
"With inadequate training, little intelligence, no contingency plan, a politically driven rush and at 8,000 miles, it is not surprising that logistics during Operation Corporate were confusing and challenging," writes former Royal Marine Commodore Michael Clapp. "It has taken a U.S. Army general to tell us why."
Clapp is referring to Maj. Gen. Kenneth I. Privratsky (retired) of Anchorage, author of "Logistics in the Falklands War." The book was released in America last year. Since then Privratsky has been in demand as a speaker on the topic of expeditionary warfare, using the Falklands as recent case in point. He recently spoke at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and, at this writing, is scheduled to make a presentation at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California. Marine Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller has put the book on the reading list for his subordinates. Pen & Sword Books Ltd., the world's largest publisher of military books, has ordered a second printing.
Privratsky said he always felt that the audience for the book would be mainly military, but its success suggests a broader readership interested in something beyond history or logistics, something that speaks to the present day.
A life in logistics
Originally from Spokane, Washington, Privratsky enlisted in the Army in 1969. He was serving in Panama when the Falklands War broke out and became fascinated by it, particularly by the logistics involved in supplying a battlefront so far from major support bases. "I couldn't find much written about it, so I contacted the Brits," he said, "and lo and behold they answered."
Privratsky was able to speak with most of the key British commanders. He published two monographs on the war that were included in the curriculum for training U.S. officers. He began working on a book about it while a military fellow at the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, 1991-92, and "finished about half of it" at that time.
In 1990 he was assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base. He drove up the Alaska Highway with his wife, Kathy, tent camping along the way. "The further north we went, the more we fell in love with the place," he said. "We bought a house. I told Kathy, 'I think we're going to stay here.' "
The Army had other ideas. In 1994 they transferred him to the Pentagon. Kathy didn't come with him. A speech therapist, she had become committed to her own mission, helping special needs children in rural communities. She was determined to stay in Alaska.
"I told her I'd be back in a couple of years," Privratsky said.
It turned into eight years. As a brigadier general he was commander of the Defense Distribution center of the Defense Logistics Agency. He received a second star and became commander of the Military Traffic Management Command.
"Basically, I controlled all the inventory in all warehouses for the military," he said. "Anything that moved over the surface anywhere in the world."
He retired from the military in 2002 and came back to Anchorage. He was an executive for the Horizon Lines/Matson ocean transportation company. He retired from that job in 2010, at which point Kathy suggested it was time for him to finish his book.
Eighteen years after its genesis, the completed work, with a foreword by Maj. Gen. Julian Thompson, who led the British ground forces in the Falklands, came out in England in 2014.
"I wasn't sure how it would be accepted in Britain," Privratsky said. But the reception was positive.
The popular English military magazine Britain at War praised how the author "skillfully looks at each problem" in the supply and battle strategies and addresses them. Roderick Macdonald, a commander of Royal Engineers during the conflict, called it "simply the best book I have read on the Falklands War. It reads like a thriller."
A thriller where one already knows the ending, that is.
The fog of war
At the time of the Argentine invasion, the windswept, treeless Falkland Islands were home to about 1,500 people. It had little infrastructure, no deep draft ports and few roads across the chilly landscape of rocky outcropping and bogs. One Argentine writer likened the conflict to "two bald men fighting over a comb."
But the comb — the people of the Falklands — considered themselves British. They did not want to be subject to Argentina's dictatorship.
England was well past its empire days. The navy that had once ruled the waves was undergoing major downsizing. War exercises over the previous decades had focused on a potential fight with the Soviet Union on European turf. There was no strategy for how the nation would respond to a hostile power that snatched British property and British subjects in a tiny place one third of the way around the globe from London. In fact it seemed that such an idea had never crossed the mind of anyone in the government.
Few troops had trained for the kind of operation required to get boots from a ship at sea onto solid ground. The War Office had no good maps of the islands, no cargo planes that would make the trip without needing to refuel, no communication with the ships en route to the battle and no protocol for moving the supplies needed for such a massive operation in an orderly manner.
Civilian ships, including the luxury ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II, were pressed into service and refitted for military use almost overnight. Supplies were crammed into ships without any clear thought given to how they might be offloaded without docks, how critical materiel would be prioritized.
The only two remaining aircraft carriers in the fleet would supply air cover for English forces landing on East Falkland Island, the most populated part of the colony. The soldiers would need to bring everything they needed for the fight with them, weapons, ammunition, transportation, fuel, medicine, food and sleeping bags. Thousands of men would be deployed, soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilian support staff. "And every one of them needed breakfast every day," Privratsky observed.
Despite the difficulties in getting there, British troops quickly established a beachhead. Bigger troubles began as they started bringing supplies on shore.
There was little space for storing supplies on land. Pallets loaded with dockside cranes and forklifts in England had to be barged to shore and offloaded by hand. A dearth of helicopters, particularly heavy-lift choppers, made it difficult to move gun batteries to forward positions. "It took dozens of sorties to get one battery on line," Privratsky said.
The helicopters, land vehicles, generators and cook stoves consumed massive amounts of gasoline, which had to be moved five gallons at a time in hand-filled cans, then the cans had to be returned to the fuel depot. Footwear was not suited to the perpetual rain and snow of the islands and trench foot disabled a number of soldiers as days in the field turned into weeks.
The situation was further jeopardized by strategy decisions made far from the fight. Politicians worried that if the war went on too long, they would need to negotiate. It was a valid concern, Privratsky said, but it was not communicated to the men in the field, who began to feel that they were being jerked around.
Few in London understood how an amphibious landing, arguably the most difficult and risky of all military maneuvers, has to work. But Thompson and Clapp did. As they struggled to build up forces and supplies at their base in preparation for moving on the capital, Stanley, the higher-ups demanded quick action and a quick end.
Although they were not ready, the field commanders obeyed and, though ultimately successful, the victories came at a high cost. Here's how Privratsky describes a move to take the Fitzroy settlement south of Stanley. (Pardon the British spellings, acronyms and jargon; the book includes a helpful glossary that the civilian reader may want to bookmark before starting Chapter 1.)
"(The) only Chinook helicopter operating in the Falklands was then in the process of relocating the Gurkhas and their supplies to Goose Green. (Infantry Brigadier Tony) Wilson hijacked without permission that Chinook to help springboard paratroopers forward to Fitzroy … At one point 2 Para pressured Chinook pilots to take as many as eighty paratroopers forward in a single lift, nearly doubling the published troop-carrying capacity of the large transport helicopter. A British Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre observation post on a nearby mountain watched the insertions, thinking at first that Argentines were moving in to Fitzroy, and notified 3 Commando Brigade Headquarters, which proceeded to prepare two batteries of artillery to fire on the suspected enemy troops. Fortunately, it checked with LFFI Headquarters, learned of 2 Para's move and cancelled the fire mission. …
"Seizing Fitzroy was a bold undertaking (but) they were over 50 km from their sustainment base on the beachhead … huddling into Fitzroy as night closed in, with only the supplies they had carried on their backs. The paratroopers lacked protection from supporting artillery and air defence. They had advanced far beyond the ability of 5 Brigade or the FMA to sustain them. Making matters even worse, they had outrun their radio communication capability and could talk to neither Wilson's headquarters nor to any units on the beachhead. The unit had pushed itself to the very end of a weak tether and without any way of receiving supplies or reinforcement quickly. … Transportation over land was not possible."
The only option was to ship supplies around the island 157 nautical miles, 16 hours for a slow landing ship, exposing them to enemy attack during daylight, on a course that had not been cleared of mines, unable to see obstacles close to shore, in waters too shallow to allow a warship to supply protection. One ship offloaded reinforcements far offshore from the paratroopers holding the area. Another discharged half of a contingent of Welsh Guards then went back still carrying the other half.
The men fighting on land counted on British air superiority, but that did not materialize. They counted on artillery cover from ships offshore, only to have those ships sail away when they found themselves in danger. Privratsky's book has page after page of such fog-of-war stories.
What the U.S. can learn
So how did the British win? Simply put, they were better soldiers.
"Argentina invaded with crack troops," Privratsky said. "Then they pulled them out and put them on the border with Chile and replaced them with conscripts and leaders who didn't excel." Outside Stanley, Argentine soldiers went without food. When one was sent into town to request more, he was beaten.
"There are stories of men stripped and made to stand out in the freezing rain for some infraction," Privratsky said. "You don't find that in professional armies."
There is exceptional regimental pride among the British, he said. "Some of these units go back centuries. There are men whose fathers and great-grandfathers served in the same regiment."
Crucially, British officers led from the front, sharing field conditions with the men in their command and fighting in the front lines. Privratsky reports that in one battle half of the casualties were officers, warrant officers and noncommissioned officers. Argentine commanders, on the other hand, stayed in their offices. The Argentine commander, Mario Menendez, surrendered wearing a freshly cleaned, sharply pressed dress uniform and polished shoes. Jeremy Moore, the British general to whom he surrendered, met him in muddy boots and a "dirty battle uniform … looking more like the vanquished than the victor."
In addition to poorly trained and poorly supported soldiers, a failure of leadership and their own communications problems, the Argentines had their own bad luck. The sinking of their major battleship, the General Belgrano, led to the decision by Argentina's admirals to keep the rest of their fleet safe at home for the remainder of the war. Though Argentine warplanes scored many successful strikes on British land and sea forces, the bombs often did not detonate. While they still caused damage, some serious, it was nothing compared to what might have happened. "If those bombs had gone off, we'd have to revisit this whole affair," Privratsky said.
What does this not-so-tidy little war have to do with America? Plenty, Privratsky insists. The United States in many ways is in the same position that England was in prior to Argentina's invasion, notably ill-prepared to shift resources and thinking to confront a sudden challenge in a place where it's not expected.
The American military is supposed to be prepared to deploy to multiple battle zones simultaneously and on short notice, but some high-ranking officers think that current readiness could not meet that goal. Among other considerations, many functions once performed by soldiers are now supplied by contractors. The crews who operate tanks no longer know how to maintain them. A flat tire on JBER is not patched here, Privratsky said, but shipped to Seattle and replaced. In a Falklands-type situation that could be a big problem.
In fact America does face such situations, Privratsky said. "People think of expeditionary warfare as this island-hopping thing out in the ocean with Navy support. But we're really talking about getting a military force into a distant location without direct connections and keeping them supplied. Take away the water and you have Afghanistan."
The six-month build up for Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91 is a luxury of time that America may not be able to afford in the future, he said.
In his second edition, subtitled "A case study in expeditionary warfare," Privratsky has expanded his preface to expound on the relevance of the Falklands experience to today's situation.
"The Army is facing shortfalls and their leaders know it," he said. "The Marine Corps is probably on step. Their mission, after all, is expeditionary war. They have an entire school dedicated to logistics. The Marines have very much seen the significance of it."
And, he likes to think, the other branches will catch up. "The senior survivors of the Falklands are now coming over to talk to our people. The positive thing here is the lights have come on."