The Belgrano precedent: war in the service of politics?

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers
Twenty years ago, on 2 May 1982, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was sunk in a torpedo attack by the British submarine HMS Conqueror with the loss of three hundred and sixty-eight lives. It was an action that was controversial then and remains so to this day. In this attack, and the war that followed, over one thousand Argentine and British lives were lost. Now, the Falkland Islands has ended up as a veritable fortress that has cost billions of pounds to establish and maintain. To this day, Britain maintains a considerable garrison to protect less than two thousand islanders, and a long-term diplomatic settlement seems years away.

One month before the Belgrano sinking, the Argentine armed forces had invaded and occupied the Falklands (known to Argentinians as the Malvinas), and Britain had responded by sending a substantial task force to re-take the islands. During that month, a hectic round of shuttle diplomacy was undertaken by the US Secretary of State, Al Haig, but this ended in failure. On 30 April, the United States gave its support for Britain, just as the task force was approaching the islands. Haig’s mantle was taken up by the UN Secretariat and the Peruvian government, and a further bout of peace-making was attempted.

At that juncture, the Thatcher Government had the support of the United States and the EEC as well as a number of other states. It was in a position to organise harsh sanctions on Argentina, already in a weakened economic state and run by a military junta that had used the invasion to counter its own domestic unpopularity.

Negotiations could then have followed, leading in all probability to a leaseback arrangement providing an environment for the economic development of the Falklands/Malvinas and surrounding marine resources. Perhaps most important of all, a potentially costly war could have been avoided.

Instead, the Thatcher government was to embark almost immediately on a war that cost some four hundred Argentine lives within two days, with the first British deaths from Argentine action following shortly afterwards with the attack on HMS Sheffield.

The sinking: military or political decision?

There were two separate controversies surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano. One was whether it had been done after the UK government had been informed of a crucial new peace attempt being brokered by Peru, and the other was whether the Belgrano itself was really a direct threat to the task force.

On the first issue, a long-time critic of British conduct in the South Atlantic, the Labour MP Tam Dalyell, has persistently said that he was told by a senior Conservative that the Prime Minister was aware of the new Peruvian peace initiative and had given the order to sink the Belgrano in spite of this knowledge.

This was in the context of a government that had become deeply unpopular at home and was faced with an international crisis that could easily have caused intense criticism had it focused on the failure to anticipate Argentine military action. Moreover, opinion polls showed strong support for a diplomatic solution and considerable concern over the risk of a war. Opinion only swung behind the government after Sheffield was sunk two days after the Belgrano attack.

The government response to Tam Dalyell was to insist that details of the Peruvian plan had only come several hours after the order to sink the Belgrano had been given. Furthermore, the cruiser was sailing towards the task force, was a formidable fighting ship equipped with Exocet anti-ship missiles, was a direct threat that had to be countered and that orders to attack it were given almost immediately after it had been detected by Conqueror.

As a result of persistent questioning by Tam Dalyell and others, a very different picture eventually emerged. The Belgrano was actually a forty-two year old ship that had survived Pearl Habour in its original designation as the American heavy cruiser the USS Phoenix. It did not carry Exocet missiles and was due to be taken out of service and turned into a floating museum. It was sailing away from the Task Force, not towards it and, most significant of all, had been tracked by the submarine Conqueror for some thirty hours before the order to sink it was given.

Almost the only modern equipment on board the Belgrano was a long-range search radar built in Holland, and the ship was patrolling south-west of the Falklands to give early warning of a possible involvement in the war by Chile, or the movement of British ships towards mainland Argentine bases.

In spite of all of the complications, the Thatcher government continued to insist that war was inevitable and that the cruiser had to be sunk. In the years that followed, the controversy simmered on, flaring up during the 1983 general election when Mrs Thatcher was unexpectedly unnerved by televised questioning of her by a guest on the Nationwide programme, Diana Gould from Cirencester.

A year later, a senior Ministry of Defence civil servant, Clive Ponting, was arrested and charged with communicating classified information to Tam Dalyell. This concerned an attempt to mislead a Select Committee over the circumstances of the Belgrano attack. Ponting was tried the next year at the Old Bailey and acquitted in a landmark case.

Dalyell himself faced persistent difficulties in trying to get the issues raised in parliament, including filibustering by Conservative MPs to constrain his planned contributions. All of these aspects suggested to sceptics that there was something to hide.

Before and after the sinking

In attempting to throw light on the circumstances of the sinking, two issues concerning British military actions, and the orders behind them, are relevant. Neither received much attention at the time, and one has scarcely entered the public domain until now.

The first concerns British military action that actually preceded the attack on the Belgrano. Thirty-six hours earlier, and almost immediately after the Haig mission ended, an RAF Vulcan bomber, operating from Wideawake Airfield on Ascencion Island, bombed the Stanley airfield on the Falklands, with the stated aim of destroying the runway, using the minimum of force necessary.

A few hours later, the Stanley base was attacked by Sea Harriers and by gunfire from two frigates and a destroyer. Whatever the stated purpose, this went far wider than attacking the runway. Among the ordnance used by the Sea Harriers were BL755 cluster bombs, each dispersing around three hundred thousand high-velocity shrapnel fragments over an area of more than an acre and having a devastating effect on people.

In their artillery bombardment, the three warships used their 4.5 inch radar-controlled guns to deliver a pattern of shells at a collective firing rate of one per second. The shells were fused for air-burst, not ground-burst, being intended to destroy soft targets rather than damage the runway. The Argentines admitted to fifty-six casualties, including nineteen dead.

The second factor concerns the movements of the British submarine Conqueror after it had sunk the Belgrano. Immediately after the attack, it was not known whether the cruiser had been sunk or just damaged. Indeed the famous “Gotcha” headline (in the British tabloid the Sun) referred to the cruiser being crippled, not sunk.

Some twenty-four hours after the Belgrano had been attacked, Conqueror returned to the scene ready to take further action, possibly against the two destroyers that had been accompanying the cruiser. Only after the submarine had determined that the only ships in the area were a hospital ship and one of the destroyers searching for survivors, was the attack order withdrawn.

This information came into the public domain through the inadvertent circulation of parts of a diary written by one of the officers on the Conqueror. While the diary was subsequently classified by the Ministry of Defence, copies of it apparently remain in circulation.

The significance of the Conqueror’s actions is that it establishes that the British government was intent on further substantial military action after, on its own admittance, it knew of the Peruvian peace initiative.

In short, the nature of the military action before and after the Belgrano sinking indicates strongly that the Thatcher government was single-minded in its commitment to a military solution to the crisis. It succeeded, albeit at great cost, both then and since, not least because of the commitment of the service-people involved. The victory went on to serve the domestic purpose of greatly increasing the government’s popularity, leading to a landslide victory at the general election a year later.

No alternative?

Twenty years later there is a striking relevance to current events. Although there appear to be few if any connections between the Iraqi regime and the attacks of 11 September, it is clear that the Bush administration is gearing up for a full-scale war with Iraq in order to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime. An invasion that might involve as many as two hundred and fifty thousand troops is thought possible next winter and there is abundant evidence that the US is, frankly, not interested in a non-military solution.

Its concern is with the Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction and there appears to be no willingness to consider anything other than engaging in a potentially dangerous conflict. War with Iraq could see the deaths of many thousands of people but, as with the Falklands, it would seem that “there is no alternative”.