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)
4/5 Engage! Firing at targets in Libya
Today HMS Liverpool returns to her home port of Portsmouth after 207 days away serving off the coast of Libya. Since leaving the UK on March 29, she has had one of the most intense few months experienced by any RN vessel since the Gulf Wars and has made a significant contribution to the liberation of Libya. In statistical terms her achievements include: 207 days away from home, 77% of that time at sea, action stations on 29 occasions (for a total of 81 hours) 12 engagements firing, 211 high explosive and starshell rounds, fired-upon by Gadaffi”s forces 10 times, 360 hours providing fighter control for allied aircraft, 10 boardings of suspicious merchant vessels, 241 hours flown by her Lynx helicopter and performed 36 Replenishments at Sea.
A job well done
Congratulations must go to her ships company who have had to deal not only with the usual pressures of being away from home for a long time, but with the stress of being under fire and frequently at action stations or at high states of alert for long periods. HMS Liverpool was hurriedly commissioned in 1982 (just too late to see action in the Falklands War) and such an old ship requires considerable effort by her engineers to keep her going and in top fighting trim.
Working 6 hours on, 6 hours off -
concentration needed in the operations room.
Liverpool arrived off Benghazi just as it was being taken over by the anti-Gaddafi rebels. In August, she patrolled off Tripoli as the rebels took power and was present off Sirte for the final stages of the campaign where pro-Gaddafi forces made a last stand. Her primary role was to maintain a maritime blockade of Libya to ensure Gadaffi could not be supplied by sea and but as an air-defence destroyer, her radar and training made her an ideal fighter-direction vessel helping control and direct NATO aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone and bombing enemy positions. Enforcement of a blockade at sea is one of the oldest arts of war practised by the Royal Navy and with the rebels besieging the cities, this further added to the pressure of Gadaffi. She also assisted two humanitarian ships bringing in aid to Misrata and provided water for 250 refugees escaping on an overcrowded boat.
Lynx helicopter launches from the flight deck
Flexible and cost-effective
HMS Liverpool’s exploits have clearly demonstrated the versatility and power of naval forces. Apart from brief port visits for re-supply and rest, a warship is self-contained and with RFA support, can sustain operations for weeks and months. Unlike airborne assets which can only be on the scene for a few hours or in even minutes, warships provided a round the clock deterrent to Gadaffi. It’s hard to calculate the exact costs to the taxpayer of the Libya operation but it is safe to say additional costs for the Royal Navy’s participation are a fraction of that for the RAF. (The main additional expense for the RN is replacement of expensive Tomahawk missiles fired from HMS Turbulent & Triumph). The naval participation in the Libya operation has involved 16 vessels at various times and stretched the RN to its limits. (When Admiral Stanhope warned David Cameron of this fact he was quickly told to shut up) 3 of the vessels involved (HMS Cumberland, HMS Liverpool and HMS Turbulent) will have been decommissioned by next year. It is fortunate the campaign concluded when it did, otherwise other RN commitments (such as Fleet Ready Escort) would have been abandoned.
HMS Liverpool was able to move along the Libyan coast as events unfolded as the major centres of population in Libya are coastal. (Maritime forces can usually have a very direct effect on events in land as 80% of the world’s population live in coastal areas). It’s ironic in the missile age that it is the pretty basic 4.5″ guns of RN surface ships that have been in action most frequently in recent times and naval gunfire support remains a simple and effective tool. Whether it’s gunnery, enforcing a blockade, boarding operations, air traffic control, maritime surveillance, working with other NATO ships and aircraft , providing humanitarian support or just being a visible deterrent it was all in a day’s work for this fine old ship.
Future museum ship?
HMS Liverpool will decommission next year after 30 years service, (effectively she will be replaced by half a ship as the 12 Type 42 destroyers are being replaced by 6 Type 45 destroyers) There is a proposal to preserve HMS Liverpool as a museum ship on the waterfront in Liverpool. This would be a great idea but sadly, given the failure of HMS Plymouth and Onyx as museum ships in nearby Birkenhead, it is questionable whether there is enough public interest in the RN nowadays to make such a project viable. Maybe her part in the successful Libya campaign will help add some momentum to the campaign to preserve her.
- Onboard HMS Liverpool as she comes under fire (Daily Mail -29th May)
- 2011 Jun 30 HMS liverpool drives gaddafi’s gunboats back to port (Royal Navy History – 7th July)
- HMS Liverpool conducts historic escort mission in Libya (Navy News – 31st August)
- Campaign to preserve HMS Liverpool as a museum ship
- UK fixed-wing naval aviation in the 2020s – F35B in focus (PART 1)
- 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