The Falklands War was “a close-run thing”, noted Admiral Sir John ‘Sandy’ Woodward, the British commander for Operation Corporate (the British name for the operation to re-take the Falklands Islands).[i] This was true in general but was made more so by the loss of the key supply vessel Atlantic Conveyor, which had a major impact on the British conduct of the campaign. Four decades after the conflict, the circumstances of the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor still holds valuable lessons for Australia for conducting expeditionary warfare in the Indo-Pacific.
Requisitioning civilian ships was a key element of the massive logistic effort to move troops, equipment, and supplies to the South Atlantic. The most notable of these was the SS Atlantic Conveyor, a container ship converted to transport aircraft and other vital supplies.
On May 25, the British Task Force, which was stationed to the east of the islands, was attacked by Argentine Super Etendard aircraft which launched two Exocet anti-ship missiles intended for the aircraft carriers. Skimming the ocean surface, the attack was undetected until the last minute. Active countermeasures diverted both missiles from the carriers and instead they struck the unprotected Atlantic Conveyor, igniting major fires. The fires quickly became uncontrollable and destroyed everything aboard.[ii]
At the time, Atlantic Conveyor carried several transport helicopters – notably four Chinooks – alongside significant quantities of ammunition and fuel. She also carried aluminium plating and dedicated equipment to construct a forward airstrip on the Islands.[iii]
The loss of Atlantic Conveyor didn’t change the outcome of the war. It did, however, have two major ramifications for Britain’s campaign to retake the Falklands.
The first was the loss of three Chinooks. This loss of heavy airlift capacity meant the British were forced to conduct a foot march to Port Stanley, rather than move by helicopter as originally planned.[v] The remaining fleet of medium and light helicopters were almost exclusively used to carry supplies to sustain the offensive.[vi] This represented a significant loss of air mobile capacity and operational flexibility.
The second ramification was the loss of supplies to construct a forward airstrip on the Islands. Originally intended to be quickly constructed and sustain 12 Harrier jump jets the airstrip was instead highly improvised.[vii] It took ten days of arduous effort to construct by hand and could only support four Harriers.[viii] It was essentially a pit-stop– far from the original vision.
This restricted the Harriers’ operational flexibility as they had to continue to fly from the carriers. This meant that the jets only had ten minutes over the Islands to project air power in support of land and maritime forces.[ix] The improvised airstrip extended this time but couldn’t provide the full degree of support that would’ve allowed the Harriers to provide comprehensive and continuous air cover.
Lessons for Australia
The loss of Atlantic Conveyor and the subsequent impact on British operations contain enduring lessons for Australia, particularly when it comes to expeditionary warfare.
1. Battlefield Air Mobility
Battlefield air mobility provides distinct advantages to operational speed and flexibility on the modern battlefield.
Without the heavy lift capacity of the Chinooks, the British lost these advantages during Operation Corporate.[x] From the rice fields of Vietnam to the streets of Iraq, battlefield air mobility has continued to play a critical role in conflicts because it enables freedom of action to the supported force.
In the future, this will be particularly beneficial within the littoral, urban and archipelagic environments that may become the main operating environments for conflict and war.[xi] This capability, however, will need to be integrated in a joint environment and deployed in sufficient numbers to provide the appropriate effects, particularly within urban environments – as Marawi and Mogadishu demonstrated.[xii] Key to achieving this is ensuring redundancy in available platforms to survive combat losses and the impact of chance in warfare. Again, this lesson is underscored by the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor.
2. Expeditionary Airpower
Operation Corporate also demonstrated the need to project airpower to defend and support expeditionary forces. The distances involved in undertaking Operation Corporate significantly reduced Royal Air Force combat support.[xiii]
The Royal Australian Air Force needs to be capable of projecting airpower to shape, deter and respond over the breadth of the Indo-Pacific. In particular, achieving expeditionary airpower may require long-range strike platforms that are not dependent on forward basing and vulnerable air refuelling platforms. Options range from aircraft carriers to long-endurance unmanned aircraft, but irrespective of the path taken, the ability to project airpower will be increasingly essential to the joint battlespace.
Expeditionary airpower may also extend to use of attack aviation, such as the Apache attack helicopter. While these systems may depend on forward basing, their ability to provide close air support to land and sea forces is significant.
The loss of the Harrier forward airstrip degraded the effectiveness of the British airpower that was in-theatre. In pursuing long-range capability, it will also be necessary to consider how forward deployed airpower will complement this and be supported. This layering of forward deployed and long-range platforms will be critical to effective expeditionary airpower.
3. Layered Air Defence
The loss of the Atlantic Conveyor reflected both a failure and a success of the layered air defence system employed by the British. While it failed to prevent the loss of several ships, it succeeded in protecting the aircraft carriers that were vital to Operation Corporate.[xiv]
For Australia, this emphasises the vulnerability of warships without an effective layered air defence system. Australia’s acquisition of three Hobart Class destroyers for air defence is a positive step towards providing the layered system necessary for expeditionary operations. However, these limited assets need to be complemented. The Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) broader air defence capability must be enhanced among existing, and future, platforms so that all platforms can effectively contribute to the total air defence system through defence-in-depth.[xv]
4. Airborne Early Warning (AEW)
The lack of AEW led to the loss of several ships, including Atlantic Conveyor. AEW would’ve given the Harriers more time to respond to threats and better focused the defence response, improving fleet protection.[xvi]
With the increase of A2/AD and stand-off weapons, AEW will provide vital long-range warning in future conflicts. This is particularly pertinent as hypersonic weapons become a feature of maritime warfare.[xvii] The E7A Wedgetail offers a crucial, and world-leading, capability to Australia. However, this should be complimented by organic AEW capabilities, either manned or unmanned, that can be deployed with a maritime force. This combined AEW could be paired with space-based remote sensing to create an integrated early warning system.
Effective AEW systems would enable superior survivability and freedom of action for an expeditionary force.
5. Use of Civilian Assets in Wartime
Atlantic Conveyor was one of the many civilian vessels used during the Falklands War through a program known as ’Ships Taken Up From Trade’. This overcame the Royal Navy’s lack of sufficient organic logistical capacity to transport the entirety of the amphibious task force to the south Atlantic, by relying on civilian vessels to supplement it.[xviii]
Looking towards a future conflict, it may become necessary to leverage civilian assets, within maritime, cyber, and even space domains, to support the ADF. This will require a proactive approach to identify future requirements and establish appropriate legal frameworks and civilian-military relationships that can be quickly implemented in times of crisis. A contemporary example of this requirement is the current evacuation from Afghanistan, where the United States may use commercial air assets to complement military capacity given the urgency.
The loss of the Atlantic Conveyor has enduring lessons for maritime and expeditionary operations. It shows the critical impact of battlefield air mobility on operations, both now and in the future. It highlights the importance of robust counter-air and air-defence measures to defend a maritime task force operating at long range from home shores.
Further, it underscores the importance of AEW and long-range strike capabilities to minimising the vulnerability inherent in amphibious operations. It also suggests the role civilian assets might have in wartime. There is a plethora of lessons from the Falklands War which go beyond those shared here. By examining these, Australia can take steps to improve its potential performance in expeditionary operations.
[i] S. Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (London: Harper Press, 1992), xix-xx.
[iv] J. Ethell and A. Price, Air War South Atlantic (Sidgwick & Jackson: London, 1984), 157.
[vi] D. Shunk, “Area Denial & Falklands War Lessons Learned – Implications for Land Warfare 2030-2040: After the Army’s Theater Arrival – The Coming Complex Fight.” ([Blog] Small Wars Journal, 12 December 2014), [Accessed 01 August 2021].
[viii] Ethell and Price, Air War South Atlantic, 180.
[xi] D. Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, (Brunswick: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd, 2013).
[xii] J. Spencer, “The Eight Rules of Urban Warfare and Why We Must Work to Change Them.” ([Blog] Modern War Institute, 12 January 2021), [Accessed 22 August 2021].
[xiii] Office of Program Appraisal, “Lessons of the Falklands” (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, February 1983), 6. cited in J. Vandenengel, “Fighting Along a Knife Edge in the Falklands”, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 145/12 (2019), 1402, para. 27.
[xiv] S. Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, xix-xx.
About the Author: Chris Wooding is a Trainee Officer at the Royal Military College Duntroon. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and a Contributing Author for Grounded Curiosity. You can continue the discussion on Twitter @cr_wood1.
Cover Image Credit: LSIS Ernesto Sanchez, Defence Image Gallery