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)
Nuclear submarines: the key UK defence asset
The submarine force is the arguably most important of the RN’s assets. Not only do the 4 Vanguard class subs (SSBNs) carry the UK nuclear deterrent but the attack submarine force (SSNs) are the only vessels able to launch the Tomahawk land attack missile. Of all the problems facing the RN at present, the recent rapid decline in SSN numbers is the area for greatest concern. The SSNs are really the modern-day capital ships – equivalent of the battleships of old. Only the most powerful nations are able to build and operate them and they are the key to denial of the sea to the enemy. With long endurance, stealth and a variety of weapons they are a threat to all surface ships and are also the most effective way to hunt other submarines. They are able to provide covert surveillance and intelligence gathering while remaining invisible and undetected for weeks on end. During the Falklands War, SSN HMS Conqueror was able to easily sink an Argentine cruiser and the submarine threat kept the remaining Argentine fleet in port. Throughout the Cold War the RN SSN fleet was mainly involved in successful operations to track the Soviet SSBN fleet and provided vital intelligence about the Soviet Navy. Much of what they did remains secret but their achievements were significant. In recent times Royal Navy submarines have fired Tomahawk missiles during the Balkan conflict (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). A Royal Navy submarine is always on patrol East of Suez and maintaining this ‘Duty tomahawk firer‘ ready for action in support of UK interests in this volatile part of the world. Precisely what this submarine does in the Red Sea, Gulf or Indian Ocean areas can often only be guessed at, but providing useful intelligence about a variety of foreign navies is an obvious task.
An elite service
Royal Navy submariners are an elite ‘service within a service’. Operating a highly complex vessel in a very hostile environment, they must endure cramped conditions and have a all-round technical knowledge beyond just their own specialisation. The attractions of extra pay and an exciting career, often seeing more action than their ‘skimmer’ counterparts in the surface fleet suit many. However the increasingly lengthy periods away from home is hard to take even for the most dedicated. When HMS Triumph returns home on 2012 she will have been away for 13 out of the last 17 months. HMS Tireless completed a 10 month deployment earlier this year while HMS Turbulent will return home in December after 9 months away. The problems for crews and their families is obvious. Even in times of recession, recruiting, training and then retaining experienced and competent submariners is a serious challenge exacerbated by the constant pressure to go to sea.
The thin black line
A quick survey of the boats at present reveals there are a maximum of 4 boats fully operational. Of these one is stationed East of Suez while one is being prepared or on the way to relive her. Allowing for time alongside for maintenance, leave etc there is probably only 1, or occasionally 2 boats available for other tasks (such a protecting the Vanguard submarines).
A turbulent procurement history
Building effective nuclear submarines is one of the most challenging engineering tasks imaginable – more complex than the space shuttle, it requires specialist expertise and infrastructure. The reasons for the shortage of boats is complicated. It is not just a matter of lack of funds but also a failure in industrial strategy. The successful Trafalgar class submarines were developed from their predecessor, the Swiftsure class (the last of which HMS Sceptre decommissioned in 2008). Due to the construction of the Vanguard SSBNs and lack of money, the proposed replacements for the Swiftsures were never ordered and a new design – the Astute class has become the replacement for the Trafalgars. The failure to replace the Swiftsures ensured the RN’s SSN fleet would almost halve. The RN did have 4 new conventional submarines (SSKs) – the Upholder class built in the late 1980s but they only served for 3 years before being hastily axed in 1994 as part of the illusionary “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. The RN has always said in needed at least 8 Astutes but by 2005 it was clear that the government would only fund 7 boats. By the mid 1990s the last of the 4 SSBNs were being completed at Vickers / BAe Systems at Barrow (who are now the only UK submarine builder) and there was a gap in work for many of the staff and vital expertise in submarine design was lost. In addition, problems with computer-aided design meant that in 2004 BAe Systems had to go cap in hand to Electric Boat in the US to request technical assistance. This was an effective cure that helped the programme get back on track but by November 2009 the project was still 57 months late and 53% or £1.35 billion over-budget (more than the cost of an entire boat). The early design issues still affect the programme, for example no one noticed they had forgotten to allow space for the galley in the original design so the senior rates mess had to be cut in half to fit it in. The first 3 boats will be much the same but design changes have been made from boat 4 (HMS Audacious) onwards. Although HMS Astute was ordered in 1997, she was not launched until 2007 and commissioned in 2010, a full 13 years later. Astute’s arrival has been further marred by an unfortunate grounding incident off the Isle of Skye in October 2010 and a fatal shooting incident on board while berthed in Southampton in April 2011. The delays and budget problems of the Astutes are in stark contrast to the 7 Trafalgars which commissioned from the mid 1980s through to the early 1990s, delivered on time with little fuss or controversy, and more or less on budget.
The Astutes – world-beaters?
Despite the problems, by all accounts the Astute class submarines will be the best SSNs in the world (only the US Virginia Class may be able to match them). HMS Astute has recently conducted deep-water trials off the US coast including successfully firing a Tomahawk missile. She does not have traditional periscopes but has sophisticated optics, TV and digital cameras that can pop up, very quickly sweep round and then the command can review the images at leisure. With the Type 2076 sonar array and even quieter running than the Trafalgars, Astute’s ability to detect others while remaining undetected herself is exceptional. She also has more space to carry weapons, up to 38 Tomahawk missile and/or torpedos compared to the 30 of the Trafalgars. She will not require costly mid-life nuclear refuelling and although larger than the Trafalgars, has more automation so needs a smaller crew, reducing running costs. Much like the surface fleet, the future of the RN submarine force will be a very few top-quality eggs in a few very expensive baskets. Nevertheless, if you are a terrorist in a training camp or a hostile warship or submarine commander, the Astute submarine-equipped Royal Navy will be causing you sleepless nights.
- Navy ‘will not have enough submarines to protect UK (Telegraph)
- Navy’s HMS Astute test fires cruise missiles (ITN)
- HMS Astute is exceptional says her CO (BAe Systems)
- Astute class – detailed history and background (Navy Matters)
- HMS Ambush completes its first dive (Daily Mail)
- 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