CDG 38 – Submarine Attack: HMS Conqueror vs. AGA Belgrano, 1982
Two weeks ago, Commander Christopher Wreford-Brown, you and your submarine, HMS Conqueror, were at your home port in Scotland. Now, on this late-April day, 1982, you may be about to make history in the South Atlantic: Conqueror may become the first nuclear sub ever to attack an enemy warship!
On April 2, Argentina’s military occupied what they call the Islas Malvinas 300 miles east of Argentina’s coastline. England calls these small bits of land the Falkland Islands—and they’ve been a British possession since 1833. Their location gives them a strategic importance out of all proportion to their size, should Britain need a naval base 8,000 miles from England near the important Cape Horn passage below South America.
Britain’s Prime Minister "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher immediately dispatched military forces to reoccupy the Falklands and declared a 200-mile exclusion zone around them into which ships of no nation will be permitted until this Anglo-Argentine conflict is settled.
You and your crew are in position just south of that exclusion zone, and you’ve spotted three Argentine ships headed straight for the zone. It is Task Force 79.3, comprised of the battleship General Belgrano and two destroyer escorts.
Belgrano was built as USS Phoenix in 1938. It still mounts the eight 5-inch and fifteen 6-inch guns it used in World War II. The 6-inchers can fire salvos from 12.5 miles away that would wreak havoc on the lightly armored British ships and transports within the exclusion zone. The old battlewagon still steams along at just 18.5 knots, but its radar is modern.
The accompanying destroyers, Piedra Buena and Hipolito Bouchard, are also former US ships that date from World War II, but in addition to six 5-inch guns they each boast four missile launchers armed with modern, very effective, French-made MM38 Exocet surface-to-surface missiles with a 23-mile range. Defensively, their SGS 39/42 sonar suites aren’t much use in passive mode, but when active they can "hear" torpedoes 3,000 yards away, giving the task force time for evasive action.Their top speed is 22 knots.
As you silently track them, authorization from the highest levels of the British government arrives for you to engage and sink the Belgrano. You immediately call a council of your most trusted officers, present them with three options and ask for their feedback.
Course of Action One: Delayed Attack. Hold off on offensive action until the task force is well inside the exclusion zone. This would limit political ramifications that might occur if a British sub were to sink an Argentine ship while the ship was still outside that zone. As your navigation officer points out, the danger in this plan is the vile, unpredictable South Atlantic weather. If conditions change suddenly, the target may be lost. Even Conqueror‘s 10-knot speed advantage over Belgrano won’t help if you don’t know what course to plot after losing contact.
Course of Action Two: Immediate Attack. Let the politicians wrangle over diplomatic issues. Your job is to keep enemy ships away from the British invasion force, and if Argentina’s biggest ship goes to Davy Jones, the rest of the Argentine navy may decide it’s healthier to stay in port. You propose to close immediately and surprise the enemy with a spread of good old tried-and-true Mark 8 torpedoes. Those fish have been sinking Britain’s enemies since they first blew holes in German hulls back in World War II. They can travel three miles at up to 45 knots, and their 800-pound explosive punch give you a good chance to punch through Belgrano‘s thick six inches of armor plate below its waterline.
The drawback, as is immediately pointed out to you, is that Mark 8s can’t change course to track an enemy that is taking evasive action. They are also noisy and leave a telltale trail of bubbles that would invite counterattack by the destroyers.
Course of Action Three: Standoff Attack. In addition to Mark 8s, you’re carrying Mark 24 Tigerfish torpedoes that will let you attack from up to 10 miles away. They’re quieter, and if Belgrano takes evasive action, the Tigerfish can zig and zag right along with it. Unfortunately, your lieutenant commander observes, they lack a Mark 8′s explosive power—and they’ve never been tested in actual combat. They are known to often go haywire and never touch their target. Relying on them will make Conqueror much less vulnerable to counterattack. But will they do the job?
"Gentlemen," you say, "Thank you for your candor; I will keep your comments in mind as I weigh our options. Now go to your battle stations."
Will you choose Option One, Two, or Three? Or has another possibility occurred to you?
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