The British Empire Library

Fighters Over The Falklands: Defending The Islanders' Way of Life

by David Gledhill

In many ways, this is quite an unusual book to review for this British Empire website. Most books reviewed here are concerned with the dim and distant past with very many of the actors and events firmly disappearing into the realms of history. In this case, David Gledhill's book covers the recent past and covers issues which still have a relevance and resonance for today.

The book is primarily concerned with how Britain responded to the air defence priorities of the Falkland Islands in the immediate aftermath of the 1982 Falklands War and how it has maintained that air defence capability subsequently. The author has a keen understanding of these issues thanks largely to two separate tours of duty to the islands where he served as a Navigator on both a Phantom deployment and then on a later Tornado deployment. In fact, in this latter tour he was the Commander of the Tornado Flight and so is also able to give a fuller perspective on the operational challenges and issues facing a deployment of modern planes in a politically contentious part of the world and operating so far from home.

The starting point, perhaps inevitably, is with a brief overview of the Falklands War. It was important for the author to establish the operational challenges and difficulties in conducting this remarkable campaign operating so far from friendly bases. Obviously, he concentrates primarily on the implications for the aerial campaign, but as this was a Task Force requiring an invasion of the islands, it necessarily involved cooperation between all three of Britain's Armed services. In fact, the importance and relevance of inter-service military capability is a theme which runs throughout this book but its importance is definitely established in the examination of that original campaign. His holistic view of the conflict also extends to examining the challenges faced by the strategic planners at the time, both back in London and running the campaign in the South Atlantic. Historians often have the luxury of looking back at events and seeing an almost inevitability to the outcome as one event seems to presage and create the groundwork for the next event. David Gledhill is able to portray the conflict from the perspective of the planners who had to anticipate and consider a whole host of possible futures lying before them. He understands that good military planning requires being prepared for a multiplicity of situations, whilst still being flexible enough to respond to opportunities and threats as they occur. The Falklands War undoubtedly had its setbacks, but the driving professionalism of the forces involved meant that victory was no happy accident. It was planned and executed to an extraordinary degree. Again, this level of anticipation of possible difficulties and issues is repeated throughout the book as the author makes it clear that very little in the Forces is left to chance. As far as planning is concerned, the transition from conducting a war to that of maintaining the peace is marginal except in the degree and extent of forces and equipment deployed.

The authenticity behind this book is further amplified by the personal connections that the author had with many of the protagonists who participated in the war and of those subsequently stationed in and around the islands and of course meetings with Islanders who endured the occupation and for whom the war was very close to home indeed. It was particularly moving to read his perspective on the sinking of HMS Sheffield a ship with which he and his squadron had previously trained alongside and in a sad twist of fate had done so in an anti-shipping role. On a happier note, the author gives a very full explanation of Operation Black Buck which saw the Vulcan bomber undertake one of the more remarkable bombing runs in aviation history. His understanding of aeronautical issues and RAF procedures helps provide much needed context for a story that has often been misunderstood by those seeing it primarily through the prism of the media.

I did find one error in his description of the land campaign on page 25 in that he says that 3 Para and 42 Royal Marine Commandoes pushed along a northerly route towards Mount Kent and then says that 42 Commando also headed along the central ground. This second part is correct although along with 40 Commando and in fact it was 45 Commando who took the northerly route. I have a feeling that this was just a transcription error that was not picked up in the proof reading and it certainly does not detract from the value of the author's analysis. There was one more significant proof reading error in the Foreward from Air Commodore Ian Stewart. In the second sentence it reads 'Despised' instead of 'Despite' - this somewhat changes the tone of the sentence although it seems a close enough homonym that it probably passes most people by without realising the mistake. Hopefully, the kindle edition can be corrected and if there are any more print runs, and I sincerely hope that there will be, it can be altered.

I do have one confession to make and that is that I am a real sucker for aeronautical and technical books. I love the level of detail given about the various planes involved in the conflict and the subsequent air defence of the islands. I love knowing the different technical capabilities between the RAF GR3 and the Royal Navy's Sea Harrier. I love the analysis given about the differences between an AIM9L and an AIM9B Sidewinder missile. I love understanding the different challenges facing the Argentinian Mirage pilots to those faced by their Seahawk pilots or to their Etendard Pilots. I was fascinated to read about how the Rapier Air Defence crews had to learn the hard way about the limitations of their equipment once deployed around San Carlos Bay. If you love the ins and outs of military hardware and the technical differences that give the warriors using them their relative advantages or disadvantages then this is a book for you. I am aware, however, that not every potential reader will be so enamoured with the level of technical detail given. In its defence, I would say that it is very clearly written and laid out with care and precision. You do not need to be a pilot or be military personnel to be able to access the information given, it is just that some people may find it dwells a little too much on technical and procedural aspects about the equipment employed. I for one see it as an advantage of the book and I certainly came away from the book with an enhanced understanding of the military conflict and the subsequent challenges faced by those tasked to defend the islands since that war - and I am somebody who has read more than most about the Falklands War and Islands. I certainly learned a lot from this book, which is always a bonus.

The author did not directly participate in the war itself, although it was certainly a possibility that he might and preparations were made accordingly. However, the main thrust of the book is about how the islands were defended subsequently to the war. It is often forgotten that the main purpose of a military force is to preserve peace and prevent wars from occurring in the first place. However, as this book makes clear, this does not mean that the military can let down its guard in times of peace, the old maxim of 'prepare for the worst and hope for the best' certainly holds true and prepare they did! The author first arrived on the islands in 1985 to join a squadron of Phantoms tasked to defend the islands from any possible resurgent Argentine Air Force or rogue elements from Argentina feeling bitter about defeat. The Phantoms had arrived in October, 1982 and the author does a good job at explaining how the RAF established its Air Defence regime from the very outset. He also gives a fine analysis of the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Argentine Air capabilities. It is clear that the author had an admiration for the pilots of the Argentine Air Force and appreciated their resolve and professional abilities. I certainly agree with him on this point. I always found it something of an irony that of the three Argentine Armed Services, the Air Force was the most reluctant to get involved in the invasion and yet once it was under way were the most committed of the three in trying to achieve a victory. The Argentine Navy pretty much disappeared from the seas after the sinking of the Belgrano, and the army began to replace its more professional formations with conscripts as it prepared for possible defeat and felt the need to bring back their best soldiers to help defend themselves and the regime from any possible coup or from the Argentine public in the face of defeat. Only the Air Force showed true commitment to a war and this despite the technical and geographical challenges that it faced operating at such long ranges from its bases, which the author explains very clearly. Again, the author's own aviation experience gives his analysis of their capabilities and their limitations added weight. It is clear that the RAF in no way under-estimated the potential threat that they faced and planned for it accordingly.

The author's first tour contrasts from his second tour quite markedly. In the first tour, the Phantoms were initially based at Stanley Airport which was never constructed to host such a high performance jet. The author explains how the runway was modified and how Hydraulic Arresting Systems had to be installed to allow the Phantoms to land on a runway that was at least 2,000 feet shorter than it really needed to be to operate them normally. In this period, the effects and consequences of the war were very plain to see as the detritus of the battlefields were still to be fully cleared and the danger of unexploded ordinance and the prevalence of minefields was still very much a concern. You do get a feel for the pace and extent of change between this period on the islands and his return in 1994. RAF Mount Pleasant had begun operating from 1986 allowing Stanley Airfield to return to its civilian role although, as the author explains, it also now provided an invaluable alternative second runway in the case of weather problems or a blocked runway at Mount Pleasant. Previously, the only alternative had been Ascension Island or Chile - neither of which were ideal. The RAF also reduced the flight size to just 4 jets on the island with the Phantoms being replaced by Tornadoes from 1992 (and then Typhoons in 2009). This reduction was partly to try and reduce tensions in the South Atlantic whilst still providing a credible defensive ability by what is referred to as a QRA (Quick Reaction Alert).

The crux of this book is actually about how the RAF maintains and operates its QRA force on the islands. The idea is that 2 aeroplanes are always ready within 10 minutes to scramble to meet any threat or unidentified plane entering Falkland Island Air Space. This is not as simple as it sounds when there are only 4 aircraft available and when the supply chain for repair potentially stretches over 8,000 miles back to Britain. The technical and engineering challenges to ensure that two aircraft are 'always' ready to defend the air space are quite formidable and the author goes into great detail to explain just how this is achieved, bearing in mind that training requirements, unpredictable weather conditions, wear and tear in the often harsh Southern Atlantic conditions and additional demands are constantly being placed before the RAF team responsible for ensuring QRA is always available. There are also additional air assets that need to be deployed to allow mid-air refuelling, movement of personnel and Air Sea rescue capabilities which all enhance the RAF's abilities. The author's 1994 tour as the Commander of the Tornado Flight certainly allows him to explain the intricacies and details to allow this commitment to be maintained from this higher command perspective. You gain an appreciation for the entire logistical, organisational and engineering commitments required to make these planes available at all times for potential conflict. The author explains that the Argentinians have indeed attempted to probe Falkland Island Air Space, test RAF reaction times and gather electronic and radio data. Thereby reinforcing the importance and need for QRA.

Of course the RAF is not the only service helping to defend the islands, and the author certainly explains the role of the Army and the Royal Navy also. He goes into detail about how they help one another train - I particularly liked the example of how they attempted to simulate an Exocet launch by having a Hercules provide the radar signature of an incoming enemy plane with two jets effectively under its wings ready to fire off and present missile signatures as they put their afterburners on and flew close to the sea towards a Royal Navy ship to help its crew practice its anti-missile procedures. In fact, for all the costs that are incurred by the British government in maintaining its defence commitments in the South Atlantic, it is clear that the islands certainly give much in return. It is the perfect training venue for soldiers, sailors and airmen alike. The author makes it clear just how few complaints there are for the low flying jets who can operate at levels that are difficult to achieve in the densely populated island of Britain in the Northern Hemisphere. The sparcity of the population of the Falkland Islands combined with the population's appreciation for the presence of the defence forces means that the military has a training facility which is second to none and in many ways presents features and terrain that are surprisingly similar to those of the British Isles and so will give skills and an appreciation that will transfer directly back to the military when they return to the UK. In short, it appears very much to be a win win for the Falkland Islanders and the British military despite what some bean counters in Whitehall may think!

If I were to make two constructive suggestions, it would be for the author to add a glossary and an index to the book. The author certainly explains acronyms when they are first employed, but if you read the book on multiple sittings (which most people do) it can be difficult to re-find those definitions when you come across them again later in the book. It also must be said that the military really do love their acronyms - and they appear frequently in the book! The ability to find their meanings would really be a help. And an index would help transform this book from a pleasant one-off read into an invaluable reference book. There is a great deal of valuable information in this book. So much so, that I know it will sit proudly on my reference shelf and that I will be referring to it again and again in the future. It would be so much easier though, if I could find those facts, personnel and places quickly through an index. I appreciate that in this era of digital books search functions can achieve this efficiently enough. However, in my experience, those who have one form of the book tend not to have the other. Furthermore, I find that I personally use my library of real books far far more than scrabbling around on computers looking for information. If anything, with my digital books I get lost in the profusion of information. I tend to know that I will find the answer in a particular book and will take it off the shelf and find it far faster in a real book than wading through search facilities. I just think that a glossary and an index would transform this book from an interesting one into an invaluable reference book.

To conclude, this is a book which gives the reader a fascinating insight into the practicalities of defending the Falkland Islands from a primarily, but not exclusively, aeronautical perspective. It gives the reader an understanding of the challenges in maintaining a 24/7, 365 days of the year aerial defensive capability from an informed and knowledgeable author who of course had the benefit of being responsible for many of these capabilities at various points in his career. It is fortunate that the author is a clear writer who can communicate well. I have to say that it is not always the case that actors in events are the best communicators to tell the story of those events in question. In this case, I am more than happy to report that the author is a more than competent communicator. His writing style is clear and concise even when tackling some quite technical details. I am happy to report that I learned a great deal from this book, indeed far more than I was expecting to learn and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the Falklands War itself, the Falklands Islands themselves or in aviation affairs in general for although this book is set in the Falkland Islands, in many ways it is a book about the RAF and how it has had to deal with an unusual mission, but a mission nonetheless. It tells the story of a long line of experts required to make cutting edge military technology available in one of the most remote locations of the world. Furthermore this commitment is made in a place where the potential for conflict is more than just a hypothetical exercise. "Fighters over the Falklands" connects the 1982 war to the modern era and helps explain why the best way to prevent a war is to show strength and resolution. The QRA capability on the Falkland Islands, explained so diligently by David Gledhill, has gone a long way to ensuring that there has been no second Falklands War. It also explains why the subtitle for this book is "Defending The Islanders' Way of Life" as indeed that is what they are doing. So, if you want to find out why the Falkland Islands have been so peaceful since 1982, this book goes a long way in to explaining precisely why.

British Empire Book
David Gledhill