The Falklands War: An intelligence failure?
"HMS Antelope, May 23th 1988, after having endured an Argentinian attack. The following day HMS Antelope’s sunk, as the magazines exploded and the ship broke in half" (Wiki Commons)
In today’s international environment, accurate and timely intelligence gathering is a vital tool in a sufficient modern defence. National security policies of all states relies on sound analysis of opponent strategies, which is a key stone in developing right responses. From a Danish point of view, this is no different especially given Russian rhetoric, perception and actions in the Baltic, Middle Eastern, and Arctic theatres over the past few years. One recent example is what did Putin think of the Denmark's willingness to defend itself and its allies in the aftermath of the military exercise simulating an assault on Bornholm during the People’s Political Festival in 2014? Wrong analysis could lead to escalation and the essence is of course to know when to adopt a pragmatic approach and when to draw a red line? Too much emphasis on deterrence can escalate a conflict, while too much pragmatism and lacking the will to fight may signal hesitation in the eyes of one’s rivals.
This article sets out to grasp this essential role of intelligence in history by using the Falkland War in 1980s as a case study.
Historically, the British policy of appeasement during the 1930s is one of the most debated examples of the latter, insomuch as Hitler calculated that Britain and France would not risk a war.1 The Cuban Missile Crisis, on the other hand, exemplifies how too much deterrence may potentially lead to the outbreak war. When an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, President Kennedy, who wrote his dissertation on Britain’s appeasement policy, was advised that that:
“Soviet action ... seemed to mean that they had decided on a showdown."2
As the article will demonstrate, the South Sandwich Island Incident in 1976 convinced the Argentine Junta that Britain was feckless. In short, the South Sandwich Island Incident was an Argentine occupation of the deserted island Southern Thule. The British reaction was one of passivity. The occupation was not debated in Parliament and British protests to the occupation were inconsequential.3
On 2 April 1982, Argentina initiated a military invasion of the Falkland Islands founded on a long held territorial claim. The invasion was an outcome of numerous years of diplomatic disputes. Argentina’s decision to invade in April rather than September was taken only six days before the invasion date, which evidently made the invasion more difficult to predict.
This chain of events raises the key question of: Why the British Joint Intelligence Community failed to foresee the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. To attempt an answer, it is relevant to assess the challenges that confronted the UK intelligence community; to find out at what point in time the failure of the intelligence operation became inevitable; and to assess the underlying intelligence concepts.
The Argentine invasion of the British Falklands Islands in 1982 has often been described as an intelligence failure; i.e., the failure of the Joint British Intelligence Community (JIC) to adequately forewarn and prepare the British Government against the threat of invasion.4 Consequently, Britain was taken by surprise, and she had to fight a war far away from the British Isles, in the South Atlantic theatre, a war that could have gone both ways. This intelligence failure does not stand alone in contemporary history: one can mention Pearl Harbour, the Tet-offensive, the Yom Kippur War, and 9/11. Explaining these intelligence failures is difficult, and each has its own unique chain of events set in a specific historical context. That said, this article argues that the invasion of the Falkland Islands cannot be regarded as an intelligence failure because the JIC issued warnings of potential Argentine aggression. However, before elaborating on this, the article will shed light on some important aspects that need consideration when analysing historical events. We often tend to think certain events were destined to happen, or that a nation’s leader could have calculated and foreseen the chain of events after considering a vital political decision. In the words of Lars Bærentzen:
“An intelligence analyst should make a conscious effort, whenever studying history, never to lose sight of the fact that the events under study, at the time when they were happening, still possessed a fluid character and could have developed in several different ways. Indeed, they were just like any complicated situation for which the analyst has to produce an intelligence report after he has finished reading his history book.”5
Therefore, we tend to forget all the other factors in the historical context, which could have shaped history in a “different way”. However, this is not a question of ‘what if’ something else had happened. The point is rather to suggest taking a look at these factors, which pointed in another direction than the one history took at a given time, and reflect upon them while trying to draw lessons from them.
For instance, one might tend toward thinking that the preconditions of a Cold War were presaged at the Yalta conference in 1945, in which the respective spheres of interest were resolved. However, other factors were also at play. In 1945, Winston Churchill ordered the British army to prepare a plan for an attack on the Soviet Union in order to push Soviet forces out of Poland. The operation was known as “Operation Unthinkable”,6 which underlines that that the Great Powers were walking a thin line that could have resulted in hot war, rather than a cold one.
The highlighted intelligence failures regarding Pearl Harbour, the Tet-offensive, Yom Kippur, and 9/11 were serious business. In the case of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the loss of lives numbered in the millions. A declassified all-source intelligence report, published by the National Security Archive in 2015, provides new evidence to the tense and unstable situation in the early 1980s.7 Under these circumstances, correct intelligence was vital due to the Soviet leadership’s war scare, the possibility of having misjudged NATO’s intentions, and having acted upon these miscalculated intentions.
Contrary to corrupt authoritarian states, democracies benefit from evaluations and scrutiny of intelligence failures: lessons are learned and based on those lessons; we can improve, prepare against and prevent threats. Recent examples of this are the Lord Butler Report of the British engagement in Iraq and the American 9/11 Commission. In the case of 9/11, a key lesson learned was the need for more cooperation between the security and intelligence agencies – also determined as an improvement in security infrastructure.
For instance, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) failed to disseminate threat assessments on terrorist operatives, which could have improved domestic airport and airline security procedures.8 A better platform for the political establishment and the agencies gathering intelligence in relation to the political strategy was likewise considered a necessary initiative. Finally, the commission pointed out the threat from failures in strategic thinking: in other words, the threat of being blind towards new threats.9
Likewise, a commission report, the Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors, (better known as the Franks Committee Report) was created in the aftermath of the Falklands War, and has by many scholars been used as reference to explain what really happened in the process leading up to the war. However, this article argues that the Franks Committee Report was politicised and shows a wrong picture of the Intelligence Community’s management of the Argentine threat. In fact, this article will illustrate that the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) influenced the Franks Committee Report. The baseline of the argument are the first-hand sources: Hugh Bicheno, who was the only British intelligence officer located in Bueno Aires from 1976-80, and Major-General Julian Thompson, who commanded 3 Commando Brigade during the war. This said, the article will proceed to elaborate on the argumentation of why the Franks Committee Report was politicized.
Why did the intelligence operation fail?
Richard Aldrich's review of the Franks Committee report states that:
"the war was very sudden and no one had predicted the Argentine invasion more than a few hours in advance."10
Aldrich's view constitutes the general assumption that the invasion of the Falklands was due to an intelligence failure. Gerald W. Hopple follows the same assumption, concluding that the conflict was not foreseeable, partly because of a lack of intelligence.11
Aldrich claims that the JIC influenced the ministers and officials to assume that Buenos Aires would use peaceful means to achieve its goals.12
Based on the Franks Committee, Aldrich stresses that the JIC identified two intelligence failures: perseveration and overreliance on secret intelligence. Psychologically, perseveration refers to brain damage forcing the individual to repeat certain acts or words. This assumption seems out of proportion, since it demotes intelligence officers to being unable to respond to stimuli from their surroundings, thus exacerbating the intelligence failure.
On the other hand, Hugh Bicheno, who worked as an intelligence officer in Buenos Aires claims that the Franks Committee, which was set up, after the war, in 19883 by the British Government, knew that an invasion was imminent due to Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) from the National Security Agency (NSA) and the listening post on
HMS Endurance, which provided a couple of days advanced warning, but the Franks Committee was restrained from making this public.13
It is noteworthy that the FCO controlled the JIC and decided which persons were to be read in on secret intelligence reports. That said, it is likely that the reports that came out of the FCO illustrated the FCO's agenda. Bicheno claims that his reporting on the Dirty War14 was suppressed by the FCO after the reports had convinced Prime Minister Callaghan that it would be morally wrong to hand over the inhabitants to a military dictatorship.15
“I’m not handing over two thousand Britons to a gang of fucking fascists”16
In short, the Dirty War is a reference to the period of 1974 to 1983, in which the Argentine Junta carried out organised state terror to suppress supporters of socialism.
In regard to the overreliance on secret sources, an FCO correspondence on the 28th of December 2012 shows that open sources, such as British Ambassador Anthony Williams, whom Aldrich refers to, was irrelevant since the information that he contributed was already known.17 Mr Williams suggested that the advice he had been sending to the FCO about Argentine intentions had been ignored. The FCO responded:
“In this he is not correct or fair. Officials and Ministers dealing with the Falklands were only too aware of the emotions the Falklands issue raised in Argentina. Furthermore, they knew that Argentine patience was running out and that once the Argentine Government concluded that the negotiation process held no promise of success, they would turn to other means, not excluding military action”
Clearly, there is a contradiction between the Franks Committee report, supported by the general academic assumption, and people involved in the operation, such as Bicheno, Major-General Julian Thompson and Williams. Regarding Bicheno, et al., it is possible that they exaggerated the actions of the FCO due to personal involvement in the operation. However, the bottom line is of significance.
On balance, the operation was not a holistic intelligence failure because it accurately estimated the imminent threat of invasion, and thereby proved a success in solving the puzzle of indicators. For instance, the JIC knew that the FCO’s indecisive handling of the situation was interpreted as a sign of weakens in Bueno Aries; thus, a surmised conclusion of British unwillingness to defend the Falklands. However, the JIC underestimated that the Argentine would conclude that an invasion would be tolerated. It was a failure in solving the secrets of a surprise attack and its exact time. This can be explained by the British mind-set, as the British JIC expected an escalation sequence starting with a naval blockade of the Falklands. Moreover, the Argentine domestic context meant that the Junta needed a quick national success and in relation to this, an occupation of the islands was not considered. The following analytically structure, applied to answer the challenges that confronted the UK Intelligence Community, sets off from a psychological level to a domestic and international level.
The challenges that confronted the UK Intelligence Community
Mirror imaging18 helps explain why the intelligence committee failed to foresee the invasion. In the words of David Omand:
“(the JIC) found it difficult to believe that the potential aggressor would indeed find the use of force politically acceptable.”19 In addition, a “tendency to assume that factors which would weigh heavily in the United Kingdom would be equally serious constraints on countries ruled by one party governments and heavily under the influence of a single leader.”20
As a democratic country with a history of respecting International law, the intelligence committee expected the Argentinian government to follow the logical path of escalation.
“The logical sequence was for Argentina to cut off air communications and to impose a naval blockade, raising the economic and diplomatic cost to Britain so that it would be forced to negotiate from weakness.” 21
It is possible that the perception was transferred to the new elite who would be "crying wolf" and thereby using threats or even an outright occupation as part of negotiations. Nevertheless, from the British perspective the invasion was too irrational to consider possible. In the words of Bicheno:
“The last thing anyone, myself included, suspected was that they would do the one thing that would unequivocally put them in the wrong and justify a military response with full domestic and international support. They were far, far more stupid than we were prepared to believe”.22
The Argentine political situation in 1976 was unstable as leftish guerrillas, the Montaneros, created unrest in the population and the military Junta responded fiercely. Human rights were ignored and the numbers of people who had gone missing in the Junta’s Dirty War was high. Many perceived leftish revolutionaries were locked up in military bases and in the cellars of the police stations.23
The Galtieri-Junta overthrew General Viola in 1981 and was determined to resolve the unstable situation. However, the economic reforms were painful and results were needed, as the Junta feared new turmoil. From September 1981 to March 1982, inflation exceeded 140 percent, which meant that the lives of 28 million Argentines were – by and large – in a desperate state. Thus, some kind of national accomplishment was needed. Besides Galtieri, the new elite included Admiral Jorge Anaya, who showed great contempt for the UK. Anaya was involved in planning the operation of the South Sandwich Islands in 1977. In 1981, before the coup d’état, Galtieri promised Anaya that the Argentine navy could conquer the Falkland Islands. The British government's wish not to make the incident public encouraged him to convince Galtieri to invade the Falklands.24 In relation to this, inter-service rivalry was a driving force because Galtieri had a personal interest in strengthening his position within the military, and by conducting an invasion Galitieri would gain stronger naval support from Anaya.25
The JIC should have considered the domestic situation in Argentina as a potential spark for carrying out a surprise attack. The socio-economic situation was increasingly unstable. In relation to this, the military's actions during the Dirty War might have led Galtieri to believe that an invasion would change the Argentine population’s perception of the military in a more positive direction; thus, an attempt to reverse the political elite’s declining legitimacy and credibility by boosting nationalism. The massive enthusiasm of the Argentine people in the aftermath of the invasion left Galtieri little space to manoeuvre and the possibility of "occupar para negocier" was obsolete.26
“JIC reports were notoriously narrowly focused and lacked international context and lateral thinking.”27
In 1981-82, a great part of international attention was focused on the hostage crisis in Iran, which can best be described as a diplomatic standoff between the USA and Iran. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage by a group of Iranian students in the US Embassy in Iran from 1979 to 1981. The situation contributed to creating a window of opportunity, which could be exploited by the Argentine political elite. First, the Argentine efforts of fighting communism lead the political elite to think that the US would allow the military to invade the Falklands. Second, the US approach to the Suez crisis in 1956 likely generated a rational expectation that the US would not support the UK due to the US policy on colonialism.28
In relation to the perception of a British acceptance of an invasion, UK Allies’ arms sales to Argentina during the 1970s included West Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Belgium.29 The underlying signal was an approval for an increase in Argentine military capability, thus strengthening the Argentine perception of a legitimate occupation of British territory.
In regards to the perceived signals of approval, the UK's international approach also influenced the Argentine political elite's perception of a weak UK that would not engage in a war. This is mainly because of two factors: first, the British self-perception of a nation in decline, due to economic stagnation and the loss of empire was projected unto the international arena and absorbed by Argentina's political elite.30 Second, policy action such as the Memorandum of Understanding in 1968 signed by Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart and Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez. The essence of the memorandum was a promise of management of the Falklands:
“When it could be shown to be in the best interest of the inhabitants the Government of the United Kingdom as a part of a final settlement will recognize Argentina's sovereignty over the Islands from a date to be agreed".31
However, the British Government was caught in a dilemma, since the islanders did not wish to join Argentina. The outcome of the dilemma was an appeasement policy, which was interpreted as weakness and could be exploited to bully the UK into giving up the Falklands.32
At what point was the failure of the operation inevitable?
Hindsight, bias and the complexity of history sometimes makes small decisions significant in retrospect, making it difficult to establish a point of inevitability. Nevertheless, FCO Secretary Lord Carrington later admitted that he had been warned about Argentine intensions. He knew that if the New York talks in 1982 did not provide the Argentine government with a desirable result, they would resort to force.33 Since the UK Government could not offer anything new and the Islanders could not be persuaded, Carrington knew that an invasion was inevitable. 34
Conclusion: Inevitable Failure of the Underlying Intelligence Concepts
The FCO and the Ministry of Defence were warned by the JIC, but both were reluctant to make contingency plans, making the reports pointless.35 The FCO's reluctance could be due to a desire to bring the dispute to a UN level and be rid of the islands because of their economic cost. This helped lead Argentina to believe that an invasion would be tolerated.36 In relation to the "Intelligence Cycle"37 the dissemination failed to circulate to the right people, such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, due to the FCO repression of INT assessments. As a result, policy action was taken despite intelligence recommendations. The JIC had been, to a great extent, politicised.
In respect to forecasting the invasion date, the concept of "Strategic Surprise" includes two failures: if policy makers interpret intelligence in a certain way or ignore it; and if analysts cannot define which intelligence is significant and which is not.38 If policy makers had not ignored the intelligence and enforced a deterrence policy, combined with enough highly altered forces in the Falklands theatre, the surprise attack could have been reacted on either by the Junta to continue negations or by responding on SIGINT from Endurance and NSA. However, one must also recognize the scale of British international deployment in the early 1980s. For instance, most of the British armed NATO forces were deployed in West Germany while British troops were engaged in the conflict in Northern Ireland. Moreover, blocking the Guik gap was the main focus of the Royal Navy during the early 1980s.39
In addition to analytic failure, the JIC did to some extent fail to define the significant intelligence, which by the use of the intelligence cycle (figure 1) can be due to inability to gather the right or sufficient intelligence, i.e. a mole within the power elite could have warned London in advance. In relation to the analysis, cognitive weakness and institutional bias contribute to explaining the failure to foresee the invasion. As Richards Heur explains:
"The longer they are exposed to this blurred image, the greater confidence they develop in this initial and perhaps erroneous impression, so the greater the impact this initial impression has on subsequent perceptions"40
The blurred image or "impression" of a "logical escalation path was cognitive weakness that not only existed within the JIC but also in the FCO, thereby creating a loop between the institutions and reinforcing this assumption. It relates to the term "layering" which also seems to be the case of the intelligence that led to the assumptions that Saddam Hussein had WMD, thus layering intelligence to a fundamentally wrong assumption.41
Figure 1 The Intelligence Cycle. The cycle, in orthodox analysis, initiates in the top left of the figure with the “requirement”. In reality, requirement intelligence will not flow neatly and considerately through each stage. Often, switchbacks and deviations, whereby transactions between players in the cycle, will vary, repeat or be changed.42
The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands can partly be explained by the FCO’s unintended invitation to the Argentine Junta to resolve the matter by force, as the FCO and MoD presented the Junta with the impression that the UK neither wanted nor were able to regain the Falklands Islands if occupied. The Franks Committee report may well be regarded as a smokescreen to conceal this.
1 Lightbody, B. 2011. Invasion of Poland, BBC (online) available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/invasion_poland_01.shtml
2 Jervis, R. 1976. Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton University Press
3 Hughes-Wilson, J. 2002. Militære efterretningsfadæser, P. Haase & Søns Forlag: 313
4 Hopple, G. W. 1984. Intelligence and Warning: Implications and Lessons of the Falkland Islands War, World Politics, Vol. 36, No 3. Pp. 339-361, Cambridge University Press: 1; Aldrich. R. J. Cormac. R. and Goodman. M. S. (2014) Spying on the World: The declassified Documents of the Joint Intelligence Committee, 1936-2013, Oxford University Press
5 Bærentzen, L. 2016. Is History of Any Use for Intelligence Prediction? Presentation at the Iafie Conference in Breda 22-24 June, 2016
6 Walker, J. 2017. Churchill's Third World War: British Plans to Attack the Soviet Empire 1945, The History Press.: 3
7 Jones, N. Blanton, T. Harper, L. 2015. The Soviet War Scare, National Security Archive
Electronic Briefing Book No. 533 (online) available at:
8 .9/11 Commission, 2004. Final report of the National Commission on terrorist attacks upon the United States. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.: 344
9 Rovner, J. & Long, A. 2005. Intelligence failure and reform: Evaluating the 9/11. Commission report. Breakthroughs, 14(1), 10-21.:15
10 Aldrich 2014: 372.
11 Hopple 1984: 1
12 Aldrich 2014: 1
13 Thompson, J. 2015. Mail Correspondence, 20 May 2015; Bicheno. H (2015) Mail correspondence, 20 May 2015
14 Bicheno 2015.
15 Bicheno 2015.
16 Bicheno 2015.
17 Williams, A. 1982. A Valedictory to Bueno Aires, The National Security Archive released 2012 (Fearn)
18 Butler, L. 2004. Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors, London: The Stationery OYce: 15
19 Nicoll, D. 2010. Report for the Franks Committee quoted in Omand D. Securing the State: 229
20 Omand 2010.
21 Bicheno 2015.
22 Bicheno 2015.
23 Hugh-Wilson. J, 2002: 311
24 Thompson 2015; Bicheno, H. 2006. Razor’s Edge: the unofficial history of the Falklands War, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
25 The National Security Archive, 2012. Reagan on Falkland/Malvinas: "Give Maggie enough to carry on" National Security Archive.
26 The National Security Archive, 2012.
27 Bicheno 2015.
28 Bicheno 2006: 74.
29 Bicheno 2006: 69.
30 Bicheno 2006: 117
31 Bicheno 2006:44
32 Bicheno 2006: 44
33 Bicheno, 2015.
34 Bicheno, 2015.
35 Bicheno, 2015.
36 Bicheno, 2015.
37 Richards, J. 2010. The Art and Science of Intelligence Analysis, Oxford University Press, Oxford: 22
38 Richards, J. 2010: 30.
39 Nørby, S. 2017. Personal Email correspondence 20. April 2017
40 Heur, R. 1999. Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, CENTER for the STUDY of INTELLIGENCE,: 14
41 Richards, 2010: 28.
42 Richards, 2010: 15.