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This is a case study of submarine diplomacy during the. 1982 Falklands Conflict This effort cannot ensure that all facts are known, as those derived were from open sources only. However, enough is known to suggest that British submarines did enjoy some success in the naval diplomatic arena. The case study method is a less rigorous methodology than others; however, it is not intended to prove, by this piece, that subma-rines are a useful naval diplomacy platform. Case studies allow presentation of pertinent information to support arguments and positions. This implies, of course, that it is possible to construct a case study to support any argument or position. An example of misconstruction is found in what is perhaps the earliest incident of submarine diplomacy. James Cable cited this first case of submarine diplomacy as follows:

“On 20 October (1927) the British Submarine L-4 sank a Chinese pirate ship in Chinese territorial waters. In the subsequent protest the Chinese Government complained, inter alia, that excessive force had been used and that some of the victims of the Pirates had perish~ together with the latter. This illustrates the relative clumsiness of the subma-rine as an instrument of naval diplomacy.” [Ref. 1]

It is unfortunate that this passage misrepresents the truth. Cable’s research source for this information, The China Yearbook 1929-30. reveals that the L-4 was operating on the surface and sank the S.S. IRENE by firing “five or six solid shots and explosive shells into her (with the deck gun) at approximately 300 yards range.” [Ref. 2] Cable’s indictment of submarines is illogical as the Commanding Officer’s clumsy decision to fire would have been performed no differently bad the I.A been a destroyer.

The Falklands Conflict is a classic example of submarine diplomacy because the SSNs were the first to arrive on the scene [Ref. 3] and the experience has apparently bad effects on Royal Navy planning. A 1986 security breach allowed a Royal Navy planning document, discussing political utility of the submarine, to become public. The Labour Party’s defense spokesman  in  Parliament,   David  Owen,   (himself  a  former Foreign Minister) paraphrased:

“We may never again face limited war at sea with setpiece surface ship battles. Rather, in a period ofpolitical tension, an undeclared war of stealth could be played out under the sea.” (emphasis added) [Ref. 4]

Accepting Owen’s view, it appears that the naval diplomatic role for the submarine is now fully acknowledged by the Royal Navy.

Case studies involving the use of submarines in apparent naval-diplomatic circumstances must address the following questions of interest:

  • Why were submarines used?
  • How was the submarine presence conveyed, if applicable?
  • How was submarine force used?
  • What were the ramifications and outcome of submarine use?

If these questions can be answered, perhaps a greater under-standing of past submarine diplomacy can be applied to its future use.


On 2 April, 1982, Argentina invaded the FalkJand Islands. The British military response was unexpected by the Argentines and the world public. After the Islands had been retaken, the question was asked in Great Britain whether the Government had acted appropriately prior to the invasion. A Committee of Privy Counsellors was commissioned to investigate and report to Parliament. The product was the Falkland Islands Review, chaired by the Rt. Hon. The Lord Franks, hereafter referred to as the Franks Report [Ref. 5].

The British SSN, HMS SPARTAN, received orders on 29 March to deploy to the South Atlantic to “support” the Royal Navy ice patrol ship HMS ENDURANCE, at South Georgia. SPARTAN departed on 31 March. Another SSN, HMS SPLENDID, received orders for South Atlantic deployment on 30 March, and departed on 1 April. A third SSN, HMS CONQUEROR, was earmarked for deployment, but had final orders withheld pending developments, on 30 March. British intelligence first received positive intelligence on Argentine invasion preparations on 31 March. Three SSNs were given some type of tasking in direct response to a diplomatic situation prior to it becoming a military situation. This sequence amounts to a clear indication that the Royal Navy and the British Government foresaw a naval diplomatic role for the submarine. HMS CONQUEROR departed for patrol on 4 April [Ref 5: pp. 61-4]

The Ministry of Defence”s first suggestion to Prime Minister Thatcber”s office of the diplomatic use of submarines occurred on 26 March in a note that included:

“…a passage discussing the possibility, at the outset of a period of rising tension with the prospect of Argentine military action against the Falklands, of deploying a nuclear-powered submarine to the region, either covertly or overtly as a deterrent pending the arrival of further naval reinforce-ments.” [Ref 5: p. 59)

This was not a novel event. Nearly five years earlier, in late 1977, indications of possible Argentine hostile intent prompted the British to,

“…buttress the Government’s negotiating position by deploying a force of sufficient strength, available if neces-sary, to convince the Argentines that military action by them would meet resistance. Such a force would not be able to deal with a determined Argentine attack, but it would be able to respond flexibly to limited acts of aggression. The Committee agreed that secrecy should be maintained about the purpose of the force. One nuclear-powered submarine and two frigates were deployed to the area, the submarine to the immediate vicinity of the Islands with the frigates standing off about a thousand miles away. Rules of engage-ment were drawn up.” [Ref 5: p. 18]

On 5 March 1982, Lord Carrington, then Great Britain’s Foreign Minister, was informed of this action by the previous Labour Government. He inquired whether the Argentines bad been aware of the 1977 deployment, and when told they had not, did not pursue the matter. No recommendation to investigate a similar response resulted from this discussion. When later interviewed about this discussion, Lord Carrington took the view that the covert nature of the 1977 deployment made any usefulness from a similar deterrent deployment doubtful at that point in the crisis. Also, be revealed that, with hindsight, and while he personally felt he did not )lave enough justification to deploy a submarine on 5 March, he wished SSN deployment had occurred earlier than it actually did. [Ref 5: pp. 43, 87-8)

This was a missed opportunity. Arthur Gavshon and Desmond Rice in their book, The SinkinK of the Bel&rano [Ref. 6], make this point explicitly. They report that in 1977, then Foreign Minister David Owen made arrangements for the covert naval presence. However, James Callaghan, then Prime Minister, contends that the Argentine Government had been informed. Press reports in 1982 indicate that the United States informed the Argentines in 1977 on behalf of British. The Franks Report found no evidence of Argentine knowledge of the 1977 deployment [Ref. 5: p. 91]. Rice and Gavshon’s point being that: “Whether or not the Argentines had been warned in 1977, in 1982 Lord Carrington knew of no useful precedent for using a naval presence for purposes of deterrence.” [Ref. 6: pp. 9-10]

H the Argentine knowledge of the 1977 deployment could have been verified, based on the positive outcome of the December 1977 negotiations, the deterrent value of the overt SSN deployment might have been utilized much earlier — possibly deterring the 2 April Argentine invasion. Despite the initial covert nature of the 1977 deployment, the failure to signal presence prevented early implementation of a plausible strategy in 1982. After the success of the 1977 negotiations an appropriate signal could have been sent by an SSN visit at Port Stanley.

Another alternative was the early covert, non-provocative deployment of the SSN to be utilized in an overt inter-positioning strategy once positive indication of the Argentine invasion was received, essentially a repeat of the 1977 strategy. This latter diplomatic strategy was attempted when SPARTAN was ordered South on 29 March, but Lord Carrington’s three week delay nullified these efforts.

Positive indication of Argentine invasion was received on 31 March. With SSNs already ordered South, but not yet under-way, a front page Times headline story reported the nuclear-powered submarine, HMS SUPERB, as having been re-routed South from exercises near Gibraltar “several days ago.” The next day, 1 April, the Times, again on the front page, commented:

“The report involving …[HMS SUPERB) is beginning to look more and more like a controlled leak which need not even be true to have the desired effect. The Royal Navy has refused to confirm that SUPERB was on its way to South Georgia.”

Conjecture in the press as to the whereabouts and purpose of SUPERB continued throughout the first three weeks of April, until SUPERB was confirmed in its home port of Faslane on 21 April [Ref. 7]. This could be viewed as an attempt at pre-invasion deterrence and post invasion perception management on the part of the British. Carrington, however, took a negative view, and noted that the Argentines might receive “the impression that the British were seeking a naval rather than diplomatic solution.” [Ref. 5: p. 66] Lord Carrington’s concerns over the press reports were probably genuine, however, the possibility that a deliberate government attempt at disinforma-tion may have been involved in fact cannot be ruled out. This is especially so in light of the coinciding intelligence discovery of an early morning 2 April invasion time. On 9 April, the New York Times printed a press report that head-lined, “Four Nuclear Subs Will Spearhead British Flotilla,” and stated that the 8 April dateline had been “confirmed” by “military sources.” There were few reasons to doubt these reports in the British press, considering the build-up of the naval Task Force follow-ing the invasion. These leaks and statements were all attempts to manage a perception of presence for the British SSNs.

HMS SPARTAN achieved visual landfall on the Falklands on 12 April. This coincided with the British declaration of the 200 nm. Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ). SPARTAN had arrived in her patrol area the day before. The submarine blockade of Argentine shipping around the Falklands was not perfect, as one confirmed instance of seaborne replenishment occurred undetected and the Argentine airborne supply effort to the islands continued. The dual political/military nature of the submarine blockade was substantiated by the Government’s refusing permission to attack a minor Argentine combatant, as described by Marlin Middlebrook [Ref. 8]:

“The Argentine naval-landing ship CABO SAN ANTONIO was spotted off Stanley on four consecutive days, apparently laying mines, but SPARTAN was refused permission to attack, partly to conceal the presence of the submarine for attacks on larger targets but mainly to avoid opening the shooting war too soon and compromising the diplomatic efforts still being pursued.” [Ref. 8: pp. 97-8)

On 23 April the British “warned that any approach by Argentine forces which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of British forces in the South Atlantic would be dealt with appropriately.” [Ref. 9) On 30 April the British established a 200 om. Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) around the Falkland Islands [Ref. 10]. This timing roughly coincided with the arrival of the main British Task Force. The Argentine Navy was at sea patrolling just outside the TEZ in four task group-ings. The Argentine aircraft carrier, ARA VIENTICINCO De MAYO (25th of May) led one group and the cruiser ARA GENERAL BELGRANO led anqther. The two other groups were comprised entirely of destroyers and frigates. [Ref. 11: pp. 17-8] The positioning of Argentine forces resembled a classic pincher movement with the BELGRANO group Southwest of the Falklands and the Argentine carrier Northeast on each flank.

A political decision had been made in the British War Cabinet to take action against the Argentine Navy in an effort to reduce the naval risk to the Royal Navy Task Force. This was deemed especially necessary after an aborted attack by the VIENTICINCO De MAYO in the early morning of 2 May. The Argentine carrier had penetrated the TEZ and had been detected by a Harrier patrol just after midnight local time on a course to attack the Task Force. It eventually closed the range to within 180 nm. of the Task Force before light winds pre-vented the launch of the heavily loaded Argentine attack aircraft. The VIENTICINCO De MAYO escaped undetected. The only available target on the afternoon of 2 May was GENERAL BELGRANO, which was outside the TEZ and was being shadowed by HMS CONQUEROR. The War Cabinet had been contacted about noon (London time) with a request for permission to attack BELGRANO. After a twenty minute discussion, permission was granted and messages were passed to all submarines, “authorizing them to attack any Argentine warships.” [Ref. 8: pp. 145-7]

CONQUEROR’s attack on BELGRANO was the first tJme any SSN had fired u warshot in anger. Commander Christo-pher Wreford-Brown, Commanding Ofliccr, revealed that his first post-attack thoughts were of evasion, rather than remaining to attack the two accompanying destroyers. (Ref. 8: pp. 148-9] The attack established credibility for the SSN and more than confirmed presence.

On 7 May the British announced a warning that “any Argentine warship or military aircraft over 12 miles from the Argentine coast would be treated as hostile.” [Ref. 9: p. 5) The Argentine Navy never again ventured beyond this line. The coercive naval diplomatic role of the SSN, after establishing presence and credibility, was now ingrained with a political announcement.

In summary, submarines were originally utilized as a quick reaction platform to provide naval presence in a distant ocean area, until a robust surface task force could arrive. This was to be a covert action to be disclosed at a latter time for diplomatic leverage; however, the Argentine invasion of 2 April circum-vented the original deterrent purpose of the submarine deploy-ment.

The presence of the British submarine was conveyed originally through an apparently false leak to the press. It is nearly impossible to determine if this leak was intentional on the part of the Government, but subsequent leaks on the movement of SSNs began to gain the appearance of press releases. With the early 8 April announcement and 12 April enforcement of the MEZ, prior to any visible surface forces being present, the Argentines must have assumed that it was being enforced by submarines. If submarines were not physical-ly present, the press releases and/or leaks provided a credibility that made the MEZ more than a paper blockade. Although there were Argentine violations of the MEZ, the volume of maritime reinforcement of the occupied Falkland Islands was reduced to below detectable levels, suggesting that a submarine-enforced MEZ produced the desired effect.

The submarine presence was a coercive force that allowed enforcement of the MEZ from 12 April until 30 April. The Argentine Navy came out to meet the Royal Navy that announced its presence with the establishment of the TEZ and the initiation of strike operations against the Port Stanley airfield and surrounding areas. On 2 May, the Argentine Navy demonstrated that it presented an unacceptable risk to the British Task Force. The SSN, the political weapon of choice, provided a violent deterrent demonstration. If CONQUERER’s attack had been carried out by Royal Navy Harriers or Exocet missiles, it would not have had the same deterrent effect. As it was, the Argentine Navy was coerced into believing it lacked the equipment, confidence, and perhaps the competence to meet the SSN threat. As a result the 7 May British warning to the Argentines not to exceed the 12-mile limit went unchal-lenged by the Argentine Navy.

Unquestionably, the sinking of the BELGRANO created political and moral repercussions for the British. The force of world public opinion that had recently aligned behind Britain was suddenly weakened. This loss was regained two days later, after the successful Argentine attack on the HMS SHEFFIELD with an Exocet missile. These repercussions might have been mitigated, if the subtle and abrupt changes to the rules of engagement had been stated more clearly. The 23 April subtle warning statement was evidently not widely known to both the Argentines and the public. If it was known, it was not clear how it would be interpreted. The 2 May abrupt change to the rules of engagement were justified post facto and while being accepted on their own account, were publicly judged not to be congruent with the 23 April warning. Granted, this was the first instance a submarine had been used in exactly this manner, and it is not the type of activity to be submitted to experimentation: but, perception management in international affairs is not a new science. Perception management of submarines in the coercive diplomacy role is a new area of that science that requires greater study and prudence in practice.


The perception of presence was established by the leaks and statements concerning SSN movement, prior to the invasion during heightened tensions. The attack on BELGRANO confirmed presence for the remainder of the conflict and even through today.

The perception of credibility was perhaps the most difficult to manage prior to the actual attack. The last widely acknowl-edged torpedo attack occurred during World War n and the SSN was yet to fire a shot in anger. But once established, few would doubt the credibility of the SSN today.

The perception of coercion was weakened considerably prior to the attack, the warnings given to the Argentines were not explicit and, as 5tated, the credibility perception was almo5t non-existent. But after the attack, a simple warning – drawing a line in the ocean — established the SSN as coercive naval diplomatic force.

Utility for any platform in naval diplomacy hinges on its ability to apply proportional violence at a level that will not provoke general warfare. For from this ability, credibility is derived. Credibility, together with presence, facilitates coercion. Coercion is a quality required at every point on the naval diplomacy continuum, from benign support for a friend to the violent fait accompli against an adver5ary. Submariners must learn to efficiently communicate both credibility and presence, if submarine diplomacy is to become a foundation of foJ:Ward presence, a pillar of U.S. national strategy.


  1. Cable, James, Gunboal Diplomacy, 1919-1979: Political Applicatiom of Limited Naval Foret, 2nd ed., 204, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
  2. The China Yearbook 1929-30, 795-8, Tientsin Press Ltd.
  3. Nott, John, “The Falklands Campaign,” S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 109, oo.S, p. 126, May 1983.
  4. Owen, David, “Towpath Papers Bode Ill for the Royal Navyt Jane’s Naval R~, 18-9, 1987.
  5. U.K. Parliament, Falkland Islands Rtv~w: Report of a Committee of Privy Counstllon, HMSO, January 1983.
  6. Gavshon, Arthur and Desmond Rice, The Sinking of the BELGRANO, Seeker & Warburg, 1984.
  7. Adams, Valerie, 17rt Media and the Falklands Campaign, Martin’s Press, 1986.
  8. Middlebrook, Martin, Operation  Corporate:  The  Falklands  War,  1982, Viking, 1985.
  9. K. Secretary of State for Defence, The Falklands Campaign: The Lessons, Cmnd. 8758, p. 5, December 1982.
  10. Telephone conversation between CDR Peace, USN, Department or the Navy, Navy Ocean Policy Branch (OP-616), Pentagon, Washington D.C., and the author, 9 November 1989.
  11. Department or the Navy, Lessons of the Falklands: Sumnuuy Rtpot1, February 1983.

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