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1982 The Falklands War

An Intelligence Failure or Surprise Attack?

1982 The Falklands War

HMS Endurance

The invasion of the Falklands Islands on 2 April 1982 came as somewhat of a surprise to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. It was only on the evening of 31 March 1982, that the Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott, received a briefing from Defence Intelligence. This provided a series of intercepted signals and other intelligence that left ‘little doubt’ of an invasion on the morning of Friday 2 April. Margaret Thatcher, on receiving this news, later recalls that it ‘was the worst… moment of my life’.

Whilst some preparations had taken place prior to this decisive assessment, the UK was largely unprepared for an invasion that spring. As early as 1977 the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had concluded that the Falklands were a likely focal point for the Argentinian junta. At that point it was reckoned that a warning of an attack on the islands would be hard to anticipate so a show of strength was needed. Then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, agreed and several frigates and a nuclear submarine were sent to the area. This included the HMS Endurance. This ship had a curious role, which at the time was ostensibly scientific survey. However, it later became known that the vessel was to all intents and purposes a listening station, gathering and transmitting intelligence to GCHQ. Despite the role Endurance played in providing intelligence, prior to and during the conflict, it was insufficient to forewarn of the 1982 invasion.

Thus, the overarching question became whether there had been a failure in intelligence on the part of the JIC, and whether the invasion should have been foreseen. Douglas Nicoll, a Bletchley Park veteran who stayed on at GCHQ, was recalled to look at this. He had not long completed a report for the Cabinet Intelligence Coordinator on the poor ability of the Intelligence Services to forewarn of surprise attacks, so was well placed to provide insight. Whilst being critical of the intelligence services in his earlier report, he was rather kinder on the Falklands. Concluding that it was very difficult to see in advance, primarily because the Argentinians themselves had intended to invade in the autumn. Argentinian planners had expected six-months of build-up to the event but were given only six days. There were simply no preparations to see.

The Franks Committee, who were commissioned by Margaret Thatcher in July 1982, concurred with this conclusion. Whilst their report received criticism, notably over the influence of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the MOD, its overall conclusion is generally accepted. Although there were failings in the policies and approaches of the government in relation to the Falklands Islands, there simply was not intelligence any earlier that indicated an invasion on 2 April 1982.

In hindsight it is often easy to see the signs that were missed, perhaps 911 and the discoveries from the 911 Commission are a good example of this. However, in the case of the Falklands invasion the snap decision of the junta restricted the possibility considerably. The scholar, Richard Aldrich, presents two reasons for the failure to see the warning signs. Firstly, that UK intelligence analysts tended to presume that aggressors would act in a way that the British would, and an act of aggression would never be politically acceptable. Secondly, the suffering by intelligence analysts from ‘perserveration’ such that once a view of a problem was taken it was rarely changed. [1] These both certainly contributed to the problem, with distance and a perception of low priority compounding the problems.

Nonetheless, the Falklands War was incredibly important for British Intelligence, and highlighted both strengths and weaknesses. The vast amount of sigint (Signals Intelligence) that was collected and analysed by GCHQ and several foreign partners gave increased focus on the value of this for future strategic and tactical intelligence work. It also showed weaknesses in the UK’s air assets for intelligence collection at that distance, creating a renewed interest in satellites. As a result, many aspects of the work conducted by the various intelligence agencies was developed and improved to avoid some of the pitfalls found during this short, but significant, conflict.

[1] Richard J. Aldrich, GCHQ (Harper Press, 2010)

By Emma Breeze

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