Air Power in the Falklands Conflict: An Operational Level Insight into Air Warfare in the South Atlantic

  • Published

Air Power in the Falklands Conflict: An Operational Level Insight into Air Warfare in the South Atlantic by John Shields. Air World, 2021, 370 pp. 

The Falklands War suffers from no shortage of literature. What the current body of work lacks, however, is an objective and data-based approach to analyzing the course of the conflict. It is here that John Shields’ Air Power in the Falklands Conflict makes its contribution. Far from being another narrative account or personal memoir, Shields combines the practical knowledge of a serving Royal Air Force aviator with the historian’s training. Air Power in the Falklands War is a deeply researched addition to understanding the role of airpower in the South-Atlantic conflict.

Shields’ work can be divided up into four major sections. The first two chapters outline his motivation for the work, a review of the existing literature, and a summary of the methodology used in the rest of the book. This methodology section describes Shields’ major contribution to the existing literature: a day-by-day, sortie-by-sortie breakdown of how each side employed (or, as we come to learn, did not employ) airpower in the pursuit of their objectives. To further refine his analysis, Shields also develops a framework for analyzing what each side’s targets should have been for a given phase of operation, that is, their opponent’s centers of gravity.

The next section, consisting of three chapters, describes Argentinean efforts to attack British centers of gravity over three distinct phases of the conflict: the preinvasion, invasion, and postinvasion ground campaign. In the first phase, the British required some semblance of local air and naval superiority to enable the amphibious assault’s success. Shields convincingly argues the British center of gravity during this phase were the two aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings. In the second phase—the invasion—the British center of gravity shifted to the British amphibious force necessary to transport and land ground forces. Finally, in the ground campaign, the British center of gravity was the ground force necessary to take back the islands. It is against these centers of gravity that Shields judges the effectiveness of Argentine airpower.

In the campaign’s first phase, no Argentine weapons struck the British center of gravity. Shields identifies several reasons for this failure, including a failure to find the target (44 percent of the weapons), soft kills by Sea Harriers (16 percent), and missions canceled (12 percent), among others. The second phase of the campaign, during which British forces landed in the Falklands, continues the trend of Argentina failing to employ airpower against its enemy’s center of gravity. The book shows the largest causal factors for this failure were canceled missions (23 percent), missing the target (23 percent), air aborts (13 percent), and not dropping ordnance (13 percent).

In the campaign’s final phase—the British ground force operation— Shields again highlights the failure of the Argentine Air Force to apportion its assets against the British center of gravity. From postinvasion until the end of the conflict, the Argentines allocated 38 percent of their aircraft against maritime targets—primarily British aircraft carriers—and only 62 percent against the more critical land targets. Again, the biggest causal factors for the Argentine inability to get weapons on target were all within Argentina’s control: missing the target, failing to drop weapons, and air aborts.

After covering Argentine airpower, the next two chapters cover British efforts to defend their centers of gravity and prosecute the Argentine center of gravity. Here, Shields appears somewhat iconoclast in his assessment of British defensive efforts. His analysis shows that British defenses—air, land, and sea—accounted for the destruction or deterrence of only 13 percent of Argentine weapons. In other words, it was not that British forces were particularly effective but that Argentine forces were particularly ineffective at their theoretical task.

On the offensive front, Shields defines the Argentine center of gravity as their land forces in the Falklands, without which the Argentines would be unable to hold the islands. Instead of striking this center of gravity, the British instead allocated some 67 percent of their air weapons to counterair-type missions, with 51 percent of weapons targeting Argentina’s airfield on the island. The British allocated only 28 percent of their weapons to ground force targets. Thus, like the Argentine air forces, the British air arms do not appear to effectively use their assets.

The final two chapters provide a summary and concluding thoughts. Shields identifies four major operational level lessons:

  1.   The importance of generating and distributing a coherent joint air campaign plan
  2.   The importance of understanding the theatre through reconnaissance and other activities
  3.   The need to integrate and understand capabilities across services
  4.   The peril of focusing on outputs (sorties, bombs dropped, etc.) instead of outcomes (Did those strikes meaningfully contribute to victory?)

Shields also explicitly outlines and debunks several myths from the conflict, such as the decisiveness of the Sea Harrier and the lethality of the new Sidewinder variant. These final chapters offer a useful summary of the work and much food for thought for current air planners.

While Shields’ work is an effective contribution to Falklands War literature and airpower literature writ large, it is not without its faults. Principally, Shields does not include any narrative overview of the air campaign and only provides a few tactical vignettes in the text. Thus, the book is largely inaccessible to those without an understanding of the course of the conflict. While the book’s intended audience is likely already familiar with the subject, the omission is still puzzling.

Additionally, readers are sometimes left wondering about alternative hypotheses or interpretations of the data. For example, Shields does not explicitly tackle the question of whether Argentine pilots may have missed their targets because of Sea Harrier patrols, thereby understating the impact of the Sea Harrier in the data. While these omissions do not change the overall conclusions, they may leave the reader with additional questions. Despite these faults, Shields’ work is a must-read for any student of operational-level airpower, particularly for those interested in the Falklands conflict.

Second Lieutenant David Alman, ANG

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."