Photo: Defence Images via flickr
In 1982 foolish cuts to the Royal Navy by a Conservative government were seen as a green light by the Argentines to invade the Falklands. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of a short but bloody war that had a big impact on British history. Fundamentally it was a triumph for the Royal Navy and the lessons from the conflict profoundly influenced the shape of the RN for the following 20 years.
In the last 10 years many defence pundits and journalists have written endless articles asking “Is the UK capable of re-fighting another Falklands War?” This is a rather tired debate but in light of recent Argentine belligerence and the 2010 defence cuts it is an issue worthy of re-consideration and which raises 2 fundamental questions. (1) Are the Falklands properly defended and (2) could they be recovered if invaded?
Defence is possible,
Recovery is not
The RN has maintained at least 1 warship and 1 RFA in the South Atlantic (in addition to a permanent Falklands patrol ship HMS Clyde and Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector) ever since 1982 and they usually rotate every 6 months. This single warship is supposed to cover this vast area that includes not just the Falklands, but South Georgia and West Africa. The main permanent defence for the islands supposedly rests with just 4 Typhoon fighters based at RAF Mount Pleasant. Their main strength would be intercepting invading aircraft but 4 aircraft is a tiny number to defend an area the size of Wales. Essentially there is a bare minimum of defensive assets around the islands but defending Mount Pleasant and the rapid arrival of reinforcements would be the key to defence of the Islands, in the unlikely event of attempted invasion.
Should Argentina manage to invade and take Mount Pleasant, there is no hope the UK could mount a recovery operation. In reality the UK gave up any hope of being able to mount an independent Falklands ’82-type operation when Tony Blair’s government decommissioned the Sea Harrier FRS2. The Sea Harrier was a fighter aircraft, critical to the air defence of the fleet and it was the handful of Sea Harriers made the 1982 victory just possible. The axing of HMS Ark Royal and her GR9 Harriers in 2010 was just the final nail in the coffin. The GR9s were essentially ground attack aircraft with only limited air defence capability. The shrunken Royal Navy, lack of RFAs and merchant ships and an Army and Royal Marines committed in Afghanistan mean the cupboard is bare. The long-term decline in the RN can be illustrated in simple numbers – in 1982 the RN possessed about 90 major warships, currently there are around 35 and crucially no fixed wing aircraft carrier (until 2020 at least!).
Are we ‘militarising’ the Falklands?
Even if it were true that the UK is ‘militarising’ the Falklands as Argentina recently claimed in the UN, there would be every justification given President Kirchner’s recent threats. The Argentines have also made much of HRH Prince William’s arrival in the Falklands saying it’s “provocative” even labelling him a “Conquistador”! He could hardly be less belligerent, flying a bright yellow helicopter and rescuing people. On closer inspection it’s clear the defences of the islands have changed little in the last decade. In fact Britain is busy ‘de-militarising’ itself and although the defensive forces around the Falklands remain much the same, the naval forces required to reinforce them in the event of a conflict are much-diminished.
The deployment of HMS Dauntless to the South Atlantic in April was leaked to the press prematurely on January 31st (Although long-planned and the ship’s company knew before Christmas, the RN had not planned to make the announcement until much closer to sailing) The Argentines seem to think HMS Dauntless’ deployment is some kind of deliberate escalation. In fact her programme is quite routine and she is simply replacing HMS Montrose on the Atlantic Patrol Task South (APTS). HMS Dauntless is a more powerful ship than the ship she replaces on station but the new Type 45s were always destined to become part of the regular cycle of RN warships deployed (HMS Daring left for the Gulf in January relieving a Type 23 frigate). The media coverage of this diplomatic row is set to make HMS Dauntless Britain’s most famous warship, before she has even sailed from the UK on her maiden deployment. The arrival of Dauntless will strengthen the radar surveillance, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences around the islands but it could also be argued that the departure of HMS Montrose weakens anti-submarine defences. Argentine claims that naval power around the islands has been “quadrupled” are as ridiculous as the over-blown claims that Dauntless could “shoot down the entire Argentine airforce” and putting too much reliance on a single new and untested warship is very unwise as history has shown.
In an a break from the usual policy of not commenting on RN submarine operations, it has been confirmed that a submarine has been despatched to the South Atlantic. (Either HMS Tireless or HMS Turbulent). Again this is fairly routine as there have been RN submarines in the South Atlantic since 1982 although the shocking decline in RN submarine numbers in the last 5 years mean that a continuous presence has not been possible. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, the permanent presence of a submarine could only be maintained in future by abandoning the commitment to have one on station in the Indian Ocean. Back in 1977, the RN’s first nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought was dispatched to the Falklands (operation Journeyman) in response to Argentine threats and her presence prevented any further aggression at the time. Argentine suggestions that an RN Trident submarine is in the South Atlantic with nuclear weapons targeted at South America is utter hysteria. The whereabouts of the ballistic missile subs are a closely guarded secret but even if there was one in the South Atlantic, the UK will NEVER use a nuclear weapons first. They are a deterrent aginst other nations with nuclear weapons and are of absolutely no relevance or concern to Argentina, whatever happens in the Falklands.
A second Falklands war?
The reality is that Argentina is not (yet) equipped to attack the Falklands even if it has the political will. However with a planned increase in defence spending of 50%, development of cruise missiles and even wildly optimistic talk of developing its own nuclear submarines, its military may start to present a very credible threat in the next 5-10 years. While the 1982 Falklands conflict was described as “2 bald men fighting over a comb” the situation has changed with the discovery of oil and the “bald men” could be fighting not just over a moral principle, but enough money to make a dent in their respective large national debts. History has shown that the most effective response to the diplomatic crisis is to maintain the peace through strong deterrence.
- Argentine foreign minister complains of ’4-fold increase’ in UK military presence in South Atlantic (bbc.co.uk)
- Royal Navy to send HMS Dauntless to Falkland Islands (Telegraph)
- HMS Dauntless to deploy to the South Atlantic (Daly History Blog)
- Argentinians label Prince William ‘The Conqueror’ over his posting to the … – Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk)
- Argentina has no more claim to the Falklands than Canada does to Alaska (Merco Press)
Naval conflict in the Gulf?
In a recent speech in Washington, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond stated that any attempt to block a key trade route in the Gulf will be met with military force from the Royal Navy. “Our joint naval presence in the Arabian Gulf, something our regional partners appreciate, is key to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open for international trade.” Of course protection of trade is the fundamental role of the Royal Navy, but have successive governments so hollowed out the navy it is now unable to fulfil that role?
Like in most conflicts, war with Iran will mean everyone loses in some way. Iran’s fragile economy would be destroyed and because it would have no allies, would ultimately suffer military defeat. Make no mistake, the Iranians have the ability to sink ships and kill sailors. However it would be madness for them to block the Strait of Hormuz through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. The US and UK would respond and have support across the region and even from China which is now the biggest customer of oil passing through the Strait. Oil prices would rocket, further damaging the fragile world economy and the UK could suffer gas shortages as we are heavily reliant on supplies of Liquid Natural Gas from the Middle East. And of course the UK can ill-afford another conflict, even the ‘relatively simple’ Libya campaign may have cost the UK around £1.75 Billion. War with Iran could be much more dangerous and costly.
Unfortunately logic may not be enough to prevent the unstable and sometimes crazed Iranian regime lurching to war. Further provoked by Israeli assassinations of key nuclear scientists, the mad mullahs and extreme elements may be gaining the upper hand, even Iranian students are marching to “Give war a chance”.
So where are the Royal Navy’s big-hitters?
As the Mr Hammond contemplates the appalling prospect of war with Iran, it’s clear the Royal Navy would be very much in the front-line with the US Navy. Having hastily axed the UK strike carrier capability (until at least 2020), we would again be reliant on expensively deployed land-based aircraft and US naval airpower. Due to the short-sighted decision not to fit the Type 45s with Tomahawk, we will have only 1 or 2 submarines as launch platforms to attack Iranian land targets such as naval installations, airfields or missile sites.
Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring will arrive in the Gulf in February and will replace HMS Argyll. (part of the routine cycle of RN warships present in the Gulf since 1980). If the Type 45s work as advertised they should have few problems dealing with missile and air attack and should be able to provide area defence for a large group of ships. The Type 23 frigates with upgraded SeaWolf missiles should also be effective against missile attack but they can really only defend themselves or another ship in very close company. RN presence in the Gulf is significant but inadequate to make much difference without international support. Simple lack of numbers is the problem – just with 1 Destroyer or Frigate, 1 Submarine, 4 Mine hunters & 3 RFAs. Of course the RN could send more ships but there are precious few available.
The biggest threat to RN surface ships and merchant vessels is probably from Iran’s midget submarines which would be incredibly hard to detect in the warm shallow waters of the Gulf that cause problems for both passive and active sonars. Swarm attacks by multiple small craft or suicide boats may also be hard to counter and there is no navy in the world that has significant experience of dealing with this. At least 13 oil or gas tankers per day would require escort through the Straits, and even in convoys they it will require a lot of capable surface escorts.
Modern mines are also a serious threat but the RN’s small mine-hunting force is probably the best in the world and has extensive experience operating the in Gulf, dealing with many mines in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. The RN has been gathering very accurate seabed surveys over that last decade which are very helpful in mine warfare.
2010 Defence cuts, unwise then, frightening now
While this government justifies its defence cuts with the dogma “our most important strategic aim in to maintain our triple-A credit rating by cutting the deficit” they may like to consider the state of our strategic interests around the world. As discussed above, a naval conflict with Iran in the Gulf is quite possible this year. Despite the vague intention to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban seems far from defeated (43 UK troops killed in 2011). At a time when the UK has wisely begun to distance itself from the basket-case that is the European Union, the US has announced it will be more focused on the Pacific and rightly expects European nations to do more to defend themselves. Argentina is becoming more belligerent over the Falklands which David Cameron has promised to vigorously defend. It is possible that international intervention in Syria may become necessary in order to protect the population from it’s increasingly violent government. The RN is committed to providing a significant contribution to security for the Olympics in London this summer. It is time for the government to take bold, possibly unpopular decisions and get to grips with defence funding & procurement and re-build the Royal Navy for the safety and security of the nation.
- MoD confirm the Type 45 destroyer will join British presence in the region (Daily Mail)
- Britain threatens military action with Iran (Telegraph)
- Captain says ‘we’re ready for anything’ as HMS Daring heads for Gulf (Portsmouth News)
- Warning over the size of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth News)
- Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers
- A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense
- Examining the options for increasing funding for the Royal Navy
- Royal Navy 2012 News Round-up
- Making the case for the Trident replacement
- The Type 26 Frigate – Key to the RN’s future surface fleet
- Say no the closure of England’s last complex warship builder