The (Potential) Power of One Single Ship

From the National Interest

The brief but bloody naval war that occurred in 1982 over the Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas in Argentina, is typically viewed as a triumph of British naval power. A Royal Navy task force managed to beat off heavy air attacks to take back the South Atlantic archipelago from Argentine troops.

For most of the war, a lone Argentine diesel submarine, the San Luis, opposed the Royal Navy at sea. Not only did the San Luis return home unscratched by the more than two hundred antisubmarine munitions fired by British warships and helicopter, but it twice ambushed antisubmarine frigates. Had the weapons functioned as intended, the British victory might have been bought at a much higher cost.

Survival is one thing — and it’s a very important thing, when you are on the front line.

But there is no substitute for victory.

Not that I blame the crew: if you don’t have the right tools in a heavily technological conflict — and it doesn’t get more techie than naval fights — then you are hosed.

It would be a cliché common to many tales of unlikely military accomplishments to emphasize the skill of the San Luis’s crew—but in fact, Argentina’s best submarine officers were in Germany at the time of the Falkland War. In their place, the San Luis made do with junior petty officers in charge of many keys departments of the ship. Its commander, Frigate Captain Fernando Azcueta, was a submarine veteran—but did not have much experience with the Type 209 model.

Moreover, the San Luis was in terrible condition and had to undergo rapid, incomplete repairs. Its snorkel was leaky, its bilge pumps were malfunctioning and one of the four diesel engines was not operational. Divers spent almost an entire week trying to clean crustaceans from the San Luis’s hull and propeller, which were impeding the vessel’s speed and stealth.

Someone better versed in Traveller space technology than I will have to make the translation to a sci-fi spaceship/starship. I wonder what will be the analog for those crustaceans…

The Argentine sub finally went to sea on April 11, and moved into a holding position while the political situation continued to deteriorate. Things did not come to a promising start. The San Luis’s fire control system allowed it to automatically guide three torpedoes simultaneously after launch. So, of course, it broke down after only eight days at sea, and none of its inexperienced petty officers knew how to fix it.


<Insert: howling rant about the difference between first-world and second-world navies.>

They crew would only be able to launch one torpedo at a time under manual wire guidance. Still, it was decided the San Luis should proceed with its mission.

Something is better than nothing.

However, the Royal Navy had intercepted the San Luis’s communications and deployed its helicopters and frigates to hunt it down. By one count, the Royal Navy had ten frigates or destroyers and a helicopter carrier assigned at least in part to antisubmarine duties, as well as six submarines on patrol.

Military information Failures and Poor Training: smashing entire armies since the Shang Dynasty. (Cheerfully stolen from the List of Military Disasters.)

Side tidbit for Imperial Nobles: don’t marry sadists if you want to keep the Mandate of Heaven.

On May 1, the San Luis’s passive sonar detected the HMS Brilliant and Yarmouth, both specialized antisubmarine frigates. Azcueta launched an SST-4 torpedo at a range of nine kilometers—but shortly after launch, the guidance wires on the torpedo cut out. Azcueta quickly dove his sub into hiding on the seabed. The Brilliant detected the attack, and the two frigates and their helicopters went into a frenzied pursuit of potential sonar contacts. Launching thirty depth charges and numerous torpedoes, the British vessels successfully blew up several whales for their efforts.

Not exactly the Save the Whales kind of operation…

The following day, the British submarine Conqueror torpedoed the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, which sank along with 323 members of its crew. The entire Argentine surface fleet subsequently withdrew to coastal waters, leaving the San Luis the only Argentine vessel opposing the British invasion force.

And so, a submarine from a first-class navy shows how it is done. It’s not so much bravery (although that is needed) or upholding your duties diligently (ditto), as much as well-trained men, equipment that works, and men who know how to fix it if it breaks.

It’s the simple things in life that matter.

What went wrong with the San Luis’s torpedoes? There are a half-dozen explanations, variously holding crew error and technical flaws culpable. Manufacturer AEG first claimed the torpedoes had been launched from too far away, and without active sonar contact. Another claim is that the Argentine crews mistakenly reversed the magnetic polarity of the gyros in the torpedoes, causing them to run astray. However, there is also evidence that the torpedoes failed to arm their warheads and could not maintain depth. Suggestively, AEG implemented numerous upgrades to the torpedo after the Falklands conflict.

The San Luis was no super-submarine, nor did it have a super-crew. Yet, benefiting from a competent commander using ordinary tactics, it still managed to run circles around a dozen antisubmarine frigates from one of the most capable navies in the world, and might easily have sunk several warships had its torpedoes functioned as intended.

The Royal Navy, for its part, expended hundreds of expensive antisubmarine munitions and dispatched 2,253 helicopter sorties chasing false contacts—without detecting the San Luis on either occasion it closed within firing range.

I have a suspicion that the Imperial Navy close-up isn’t quite as awesome as her legendary battle roll suggests. As usual, her victories will probably be due to something along the lines of good training, good equipment (and plenty of it!), and a lower level of incompetence, than the other guys… coupled, admittedly, with the occasional flash of genius.

(Or, more correctly, the ability to recognize excellence, build it up, and promote it to a place where it means something!)

About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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