Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


In the Falklands War, submarines were engaged in wartime action for the first time since World War II. Although submarines were involved in only a few incidents, we can draw some important lessons from this experience. The best way to reveal the influence of submarines in the overall actions would be a chronological examination of submarine participation in the Falklands War, which is the approach of this analysis.

The sequence of submarine events begins with the landing on 19 March 1982 of a so-called party of Argentinian scrap metal workers on South Georgia Island, 900 miles to the east of the Falklands.

On the 26th of March the Argentines, in response to British insistence that these illegal workers be removed from the island, seemingly evacuated these people but clandestinely left a shore party behind, it then became evident that the Argentine Government was very much behind the incident. By the 29th, when a diplomatic solution to this occupation seemed stalled, the COIIIDS.nder in Chief Fleet of the British Navy, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, ordered the nuclear submarine H.M.S. Spartan to leave the exercise in which she was engaged, embark stores and weapons at Gibraltar and deploy to the South Atlantic. On 30 March the nuclear submarine Splendid was ordered to deploy from Faslane in the U.K. and Conqueror was sailed a few days later. Instructions to covertly prepare a Task Force for South Atlantic operations were then received on 31 March. When the Argentines invaded the Falklands on 2 April, further preparations were openly conducted.

What is particularly significant about this sequence of prewar events is the recognition that nuclear submarines were deployed rapidly and covertly toward a distant area of tension, with no effect on ongoing diplomatic negotiations. With their impressive, sustained high speed, and freedom from the impact of weather and sea conditions nuclear submarines were in place well ahead of any surface forces, which were deployed at about the same time. And, if the political problem had been resolved satisfactorily prior to an outbreak of the conflict there was likely to be no evidence of pressure attributable to the on-station threat of several nuclear submarines.

On 12 April, the British imposed a maritime exclusion zone of 200 miles around the Falklands against Argentine naval ships, and on 23 April the British further warned that any threatening approach by Argentine forces which might interfere with the British mission in the South Atlantic would be dealt with appropriately. Well before this time, the British had revealed the presence of three nuclear subs in the war area. This threat thus posed by these British subs had effectively stopped Argentinian reinforcement of the Islands by sea since 12 April.

However it was revealed that one Argentinian resuppply ship had arrived during this period without being detected by any of the nuclear submarines — despite the total blockade being maintained. This set the stage for the Argentine use of the conventional submarine Santa Fe to haul relief supplies to the shore party on South Georgia. The British nuclear submarine Conqueror had been ordered to patrol off the island to prevent any sea lifted Argentinian reinforcements, while a group of Commando Royal Marines was covertly landed by helicopter on the 23rd. Thus, on 25 April with the weather having cleared, a British helicopter spotted the Santa Fe approaching the main port of Grytviken on the surface. It would appear that the Santa Fe, which did not know about British operationa in the vicinity, had pierced the Conqueror’s blockade and was about to deliver its supplies when she was attacked by British helos using AS12 missiles and depth charges. An AS12 wire-guided, 6km range missile with a 63# warhead, fired by a Lynx helicopter, hit the Santa Fe’s conning tower, inflicting serious damage, while helo launched depth charges which exploded nearby apparently destroyed the submarine’s watertight integrity. The badly damaged Santa Fe then limped to Grytviken and was beached nearby.

The role of the subma.rine for emergency resupply of beleaguered forces and its capability to penetrate a blockade of a port area was much the same as in World War II. Similarly, the great toughness of the conventional submarine in remaining afloat long enough to be beached despite damage from very close depth charges exploding at proper depth, was demonstrated. The efficiency of the nuclear submarine in the context of a total blockade role appears questionable, particularly in the environment of high sea noise, produced by heavy weather.

On 2 May the most interesting and significant submarine incident of the Falklands War took place. The Argentinian cruiser, the General Belgrano, escorted by two destroyers, was located by the British nuclear sub Conqueror south of the Falklands and beyond the 200-mile exclusion zone. The British felt that this small force which was armed with Exocet missiles, posed a clear threat to the British task force. At the same time other Argentine ships north of the zone were apparently conducting the same sort of probing action. Since the threat could not be ignored, Conqueror was ordered to attack the General Belgrano with torpedoes.

With her high submerged mobility, the Conqueror in a periscope attack, gained an ideal attack position and with a short torpedo run put two HK VIII torpedoes into the cruiser — which sank in a couple of hours. The HK VIlis were pre-World War II, straight running, 45-knot, 5000-yard steam torpedoes. They were used, either in preference to or because of a distrust of the very modern, wire-guided, terminal homing Tigerfish torpedoes which were also reported to be aboard the Conqueror. Apparently in the load-out of Conqueror at the beginning of the War there weren’t enough Tigerfish torpedoes readily available, so some of the obsolete HK VIlis were loaded on board. Although the two destroyers dropped numerous depth charges after Conqueror’s attack there was no evidence of their actually having contact on Conqueror.

The decision of Conqueror’s skipper to use these old torpedoes attests to his appreciation of how a nuclear submarine’s covert mobility relates to the weapons carried. The skipper recognized the proven reliability of the HK VIII based on almost 4000 of these torpedoes having been used in World War II. Its shortcomings were well ironed out by the end of that war. In addition, the MK VIlis had 750-pound torpex warheads approximating the destructive effects of the lighter Tigerfish torpedo warheads with its more efficient explosive. Although the MK VIII produces a good wake as opposed to the wakelessness of the electric driven Tigerfish torpedo, the skipper also evidently knew that he could approach undetected to close range and hit with the MK VII Is. And, the torpedo run would be so short that the cruiser would be unable to satisfactorily evade the torpedoes even if the wakes were promptly sighted.

The lesson illustrated with this selection of torpedoes seems to be that the high mobility of the nuclear submarine allows the use of simple, very low cost torpedoes in the anti-ship role –and even against warships under many oiroumstanoes. A seoond lesson would be that the nuclear submarine’s mobility allows it to make covert approaches on targets which would be considered well escorted in the traditional sense but which can’t begin to handle this new type of submarine threat.

After the sinking of the General Belgrano, Argentine naval surface forces stayed within 12 miles of the Argentine coast for the remainder of the War. The sinking of the cruiser was such a clear demonstration of nuclear submarine capability that no further attempt was made to risk any major Argentine warship outside of coastal waters. But at the same time British nuclear submarines patrolled the coast of mainland Argentine to provide intelligence on aircraft sorties from Argentina which might generate massed air attacks on British forces.

An examination of the waters in which the British nuclear subs operated shows depths of 20 fathoms in spots and usually less than 50 fathoms where they could effectively use their periscopes for detecting aircraft.

The British Fleet’s lack of an air-early-warning (AEW) capability was thus being remedied in part by stationing her nuclear submarines close to the Argentine coastal airfields to provide early warning of large aircraft raids directed at the British forces in the Falklands’ area. But this was apparently a far from efficient operation, since a large-scale air raid at San Carlos caught the British with little warning, resulting in the loss of their two landing ships which were in the process of being offloaded.

Another lesson from these forward operations is the need to ensure that today’ s submarines are efficient in shallow water  operations and particularly at periscope depth. With waters under 100 fathoms all the way out to the Falklands from the Argentine coast, even the blockade against Argentine shipping had to be carried out in “shallow” waters.

Throughout the Falklands  War,  questions were being continuously asked  about  Argentine conventional submarines. What were they doing? Argentina started the war with four diesel-electric boats. Two were u.s. Fleet submarines transferred to the Argentine Navy, the Santa Fe (es-USS Catfish) and the Santiago del Estero (ex-USS Chivo), and two were German-built 209 type submarines. The Santa Fe was rapidly put out of action and virtually destroyed. The Santiago del Estero was laid up at a naval base and never saw action. But the two 209s which were in some sort of refit status at the start of the War were buttoned up and quickly departed for sea operations. Little was reported about their operations except that they claimed to have shot at the British carrier Invincible and other targets but suffered torpedo trouble and failed in their attacks.

These two 10-year old subs have non-magnetic hulls (a special feature of Gerii8Jl submarines). Tiley are of 1285 submerged tons and have eight torpedo tubes with a reload of eight more torpedoes. They have a submerged speed of 22 knots and a small complement of only 32 men. They carry the German 21″ SST 4  antiship torpedo which has  a 260 kilogram  warhead,  is   battery driven with a speed of about 35 knots, and is wire-guided with both active and passive terminal homing.         Interestingly,        this      torpedo    has    a   3- dimension sonar for homing which is particularly useful for submarine targets but is a needless complication against surface ships.

What these two  conventional  submarines accomplished is summed up in Sir John Fieldhouse’s Dispatch to the Minister of Defence.

“Attacks on the Task Force by enemy submarines (the 209s) were a significant threat,  which was       recognized by the  inclusion of anti-submarine Sea King helicopters in the air order of battle. A number of torpedo attacks were carried out by these aircraft against underwater contacts classified as possible submarines. Results of the actions are not known, but the high intensity flying rates of this helicopter force throughout the operations were an essential part of Fleet antisubmarine warfare defences.”

Admiral Gorshkov, head of the Soviet Navy, in his articles on Navies in War and Peace observed that in World War II there were 25 Allied ships and 100 aircraft i&1Volved in ASW operations for each German submarine at sea. The same disparate use- of ASW forces to handle the threat of only two small conventional enemy submarines seems to have taken place off the Falklands Islands . The “appalling weather” which created much surface noise, plus the high density of biologics in the waters off the Falklands combined to make ASW operations extemely difficult with a high incidence of false contacts. The tiny shrimp-like krill which breed in the cold Antarctic waters are found in huge tightly packed schools which return convincing echos from active sonars and they  reportedly  make  a  lot  of  noise  with their massed tiny squeals. That the British warships expended large aaounts of ASW· ordnance on false contacts in this environment is highly likely. The magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear on British ASW aircraft was apparently of little use for classifying the non-magnetic hulled 209s. The detectable magnetic signatures of these susbmarines were probably too weak to make a determination of sub or non-sub in an environment where other masses of biologics could produce low magnetic signatures.

The experience of the Argentine submarines, their 209s, suggests that a highly complex antiship torpedo which requires a large number of electrical settings and a complex fire control system is difficult to use in war — particularly if there has been little or no opportunity to test out a torpedo’s fire control system before going into war operations. Such torpedoes are also almost impossible to use manually if there is a failure in the electrical input-firing sequence. The Conqueror’s skipper’s use of a torpedo, whether through preference or necessity, which lends itself well to manual firing, may also be an indication of this hazard in the employment of today’s sophisticated weapons.

That the 209 skippers were not certain whether the Invincible had been fired at would indicate the firing of their SST 4s on sound bearings only (i.e., no periscope looks were involved which would have made the nature of their target certain).

It is not clear why it would be advantageous to shoot on sound bearings from below periscope depth. The high seas experienced during the fall months in the Falklands area should have caused much water mixing with isothermal conditions down to considerable depths. Hence, the 209s would tend to be as susceptible to active echo ranging while operating deep as they would be up at periscope depth.

At  any rate,  conventional subaarines on both aides the British had one in action in addition to the five nuclears which eventually were on-scene – accomplished little except for their nuisance value.

On  the  other hand,   as  summarized in the Secretary of State for Defence white paper:

“Our nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) played a crucial role. After the sinking or the General Belgrano the Argentine surface fleet effectively took no further part  in the Campaign. The SSHs     were flexible and powerful instruments throughout the crisis, posing a ubiquitous threat which the Argentines could neither measure nor oppose. Their speed and independence or support aeant that they were the first assets to arrive in the South Atlantic, enabling us to declare the maritime exclusion zone early. They also provided valuable intelligence to our forces in the total exclusion zone.”

In summary : nuclear submarines had a totally dominating effect on the at-sea operations or enemy surface ships. Conventional submarines, although ineffective, tied up a considerable number or ASW units and caused a heavy expenditure or ASW Ordnance. In another war this might be an illportant way to dilute enemy ASW efforts against one’s nuclear submarines.


Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League