The Falklands War was a short war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), occurring between March and June of 1982. The Falklands consist of two large—and many small— islands in the South Atlantic Ocean east of Argentina, rich in subaquatic offshore oil reserves. Disputes over the sovereignty of the islands have occurred since the 18th century, as the islands are actually located within the Argentinean continental platform. However, in spite of many Argentinean claims, in 1833 British troops and inhabitants took possession of the islands.
At the beginning of the 1980s Argentina’s military government had become less powerful. Argentina faced a devastating economic crisis and large-scale civil unrest, with many people clamoring for the return of democracy. As a way of recovering some power and maintaining the military dictatorship, the Argentine government—headed in 1982 by General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri—decided to play off long-standing feelings of nationalism by launching what it thought would be a quick and easy war to reclaim the Falkland Islands. Most of Argentina’s military experts likely misjudged the political climate in Britain and did not anticipate that the British would move their fleet halfway across the globe to reclaim their rights over the islands.
After days of tension, the war finally began on April 2, 1982, when General Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands, triggering the Falklands War. During the first weeks Argentina’s troops moved quickly, invading the islands, defeating the improvised British troops, and gaining domain of the islands. Britain quickly organized a naval task force, consisting of the HMS Conqueror submarine, helicopters, Royal Air Force bombers and fighters, destroyers, and a large number of naval fighting boats. In comparison to Argentina’s task force technologically, in quantity, and in the areas of military professionalism and experience, British troops by far were better prepared than the Argentinean troops.
Although there was a huge difference in military power between the two forces, the war lasted four months and resulted in 255 killed and 746 wounded on the British side and 655 killed, 1,100 wounded, and 11,313 prisoners on the Argentinean side. One of the war crimes most sadly remembered by the Argentineans was the sinking of the General Belgrano light cruiser. The cruiser was located in the “total exclusion zone” of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) that had been established by the British before commencing operations in order to keep neutral shipping out of the way during the war. In spite of that, on May 2 the British HMS Conqueror submarine fired torpedoes, hit the boat, and sank it, taking the lives of 321 Argentinean soldiers. In response to that, the Argentine air force launched an air attack and sank the destroyer HMS Sheffield. As a result, 22 British sailors were killed and 24 were injured.
Given the difference in military force between the sides, the war quickly turned in Britain’s (United Kingdom’s, or U.K.’s) favor. In addition to their military advantage, the U.K. government received strong international support from the United States, France, and Chile, among other countries.
Legally the United States had military treaty obligations to both parties in the war, bound to the U.K. as a member of NATO and to Argentina by the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Pact). However, the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty only obliged the signatories to support if the attack occurred in Europe or North America above the tropic of Cancer. The Rio Pact obliged the United States to intervene if an adherent was attacked; the U.K. never attacked Argentina, only Argentine forces on British territory.
French President François Mitterrand gave full support to the U.K. in the Falklands War. France provided the U.K. with aircraft, identical to the ones it had supplied to Argentina, for British pilots to train against and also provided intelligence to help sabotage the Exocet missiles it had sold to the Argentine air force. In Latin America, Argentina’s neighbor country Chile also gave its support to the U.K. by providing important logistical support during the war and strategic help by threatening an invasion on the west border of Argentina.
Argentina’s only support was military assistance from Peru and Venezuela. This came in the form of critical aircraft supplies like long-range air fuel tanks. Cuba and Bolivia also offered ground troops, but their offers were seen as political propaganda and not accepted. Only after the war was over did the Brazilian air force send some reinforcements.
The British eventually prevailed, and the islands remained under British control. On June 14, 1982, after the final battle in Port Stanley, the commander of the Argentine garrison in Stanley, Mario Menendez, surrendered to Major General Moore of the Royal Marines. From the British point of view, the Falklands War was one of many small military conflicts in which the U.K. has been engaged. For Argentina, the war remains the country’s main military conflict and is very much present in the people’s memory. As of 2006, Argentina still showed no sign of relinquishing its claim to the Falkland Islands.