Falklands then and now: Amphibious Warfare

Britain, and particularly the Royal Navy, were among the pioneers of amphibious warfare – that is, moving your troops from the sea to land, and keeping them there. After Galipoli, and a ‘reverse invasion’ at Dunkirk, lessons were put to effect in Sicily, and later on in Normandy.

So how was it that Amphibious Warfare was in such a perilous state in 1982? Although the capability had been proven time and time again in action and in exercise, and the Royal Marines Commando Brigade had a role as reinforcements for NATO’s northern flank, amphibious warfare was seen as a low priority. The Royal Navy’s emphasis was still mainly on anti-submarine warfare against the Soviet Union in the North Sea and North Atlantic.

The picture in 1982

HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid

HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid

The Royal Navy had post-war trialled the concept of the Commando Carrier: an Aircraft Carrier operating Helicopters to land a Royal Marines force. These were used effectively in Suez in 1956. However, given the shortage of Carriers in 1982, and that the task force needed both available flat tops for providing air defence, the Commando Brigade – the spearhead of the land forces – would have to rely on the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Assault ships.

The two ships of the Fearless Class of Landing Platform Dock were available. HMS Fearless was available to sail straight away; HMS Intrepid was destored and run-down, and only after a mammoth effort by Portsmouth Dockyard was she able to sail south. In fact, the whole operation hinged on when she was available. The two Fearless class Landing Platform Docks, almost 20 years old, could carry a maximum of 700 troops each, with 8 Landing Craft. They carried no helicopters themselves, but had space to operate 4 or 5 medium helicopters, usually ‘Jungly’ Sea Kings of the Fleet Air Arm’s Commando Support Group. Both ships were also equipped to act as Flagships to an amphibious group.

The six Round table class of Landing Ships were normally tasked by the Army, supporting the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. They could carry up to 500 troops each, but were primarily designed for transporting vehicles and stores. They were not designed for long-range amphibious operations, and were not even considered part of the Royal Navy’s active fleet. They carried no landing craft or aircraft, with the Fearless Class Landing Craft being used instead to ferry troops ashore.

The Royal Navy’s amphibious group in 1982 could deploy a Commando Brigade and Headquarters, albeit in cramped and far from ideal conditions. It also relied predominantly on landing craft rather than helicopters. It required the use of Merchant ships to carry stores, ammunition and extra troops. Losses, particularly either of the Fearless Class or of any Landing Craft, might have proved critical.

The picture in 2009

HMS Bulwark (foreground) and HMS Ocean

HMS Bulwark (foreground) and HMS Ocean

The Royal Navy now has an expanded and capable amphibious fleet, having learnt the lessons of the Falklands War and committed itself to ‘out of area’ expeditionary warfare. This cultural aspect is important – in 1982 the Amphibious Commanders and the Battle Group Commander were by their own admission not singing from the same hymn sheet.

The Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean can use her 18 Helicopters and 4 Landing Craft to deploy almost 800 troops, the equivalent of more than an army Battalion or RM Commando. She can also operate British Army Apache Helicopters, and might also be a useful platform for launching an air assault by airborne units in conjunction with any seaborne operation. She was however designed to commerical rather than military standards, and will require replacement in the non too distant future.

The Assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are an improvement on the Fearless Class and can deploy up to 700 troops each, with eight Landing Craft each. One of these ships is usually at high readiness, and the other in refit or training. However, often these are deployed on tasks that would normally be performed by destroyers or frigates. As with the Carriers, much would depend on the ability to get the second ship ready for action. As in 1982, one of these ships would likely provide the Flagship for the Amphibious group.

The four Bay Class Landing ships, a significant improvement on the Round table class, can deploy 350 troops each, by 2 Landing Craft and Mexefloat rafts. Of the four, two are normally available for immediate use, and the other two either on operations or in refit or training. As with the Albion Class, these are often deployed on escort duties in place of Frigates or Destroyers. I will examine the potential for calling up Merchant vessels in a future instalment, but the RFA does also contain the Point Class vessels for performing sealift duties, which would be invaluable for performing a task that required the use of requisitioned Commercial vessels in 1982.

In Conclusion

In total, an amphibious group consisting of HMS Ocean, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and perhaps three of the Bay Class ships would be able to carry and deploy a reinforced Commando Brigade along with its Headquarters and supporting troops, but would also be well placed to launch further units and equipment arriving in theatre as well, without such a reliance on Merchant vessels. It also possesses more strength, capability and flexibility in terms of landing craft and helicopter assets than it did in 1982. This was shown by the succesful assault on the Al Faw peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade in 2003, and the operations in Sierra Leone several years before.

The Royal Navy may be able to deploy a much stronger Amphbious Task Group than it did in 1982, and is much more focussed on amphibious warfare than it was in 1982. In all likelihood the real difficulties would be in providing air cover for such an operation and finding enough escort ships to provide close defence. To launch an amphibious assault requires air superiority and command of the seas: is it worth having such a capability if you cannot create the conditions to deploy it, nor defend it?

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20 Comments

Filed under Falklands War, Navy, Royal Marines, Uncategorized

20 responses to “Falklands then and now: Amphibious Warfare

  1. Mike Burleson

    That last sentence was very well put. The Royal Marines learned the right lessons from Suez and from the Falklands.

    Also it is curious, since the UK has consistently used the large high speed ferries for commercial traffic across the Channel for decades, that these haven’t been considered for military transport, as the US is doing with the Austal HSVs. Perhaps not for long-haul amphibious operations, but around the European and Gulf environs.

  2. James Daly

    Mike I’ve often wondered the same thing. I live in Portsmouth ad we have roll on roll off ferries zipping in and out 24/7. In their latter years the Round table class were used in this role, although they were hardly designed for it. I’ve been onboard RFA Largs Bay and inside she is very like a roll on roll off ferry, down to the routes for ‘passengers’ and the ‘car’ deck.

  3. Pingback: Falklands War Links « New Wars

  4. Marcase

    Civilian ferries are made primarily of aluminium and according to civil standards re fire-fighting, and just not suited for battle damage control under combat conditions. In short, they are way too vulnerable to deploy during a (semi-) contested assault. The new JHSV the Americans are playing with are still vulnerable, and this is the main reason why mainstream USN staff is so apprehensive in buying the little fast ferries, regardless their (proven) effectiveness.

    During the Falklands War, there were many-many civilian ships in the task force. Among the STUFT were Queen Elizabeth II, Canberra, Uganda, about 8 ferrys and numerous cargo and oil tankers.

    So, respectfully, the amphibious force was well supported by civil flags, and the total fleet consisting of both navy and STUFT ships should be considered as the amphibious force, not just the grey RN hulls.

    Cheers.

    • Marcase

      Edit: among the civilian flagged cargo ships were Atlantic Conveyor, the loss of which clearly crippled the operation, and Contender Bezant, which later became the RFA Argus.

  5. James Daly

    Hi Marcase, thank you for your comment. I agree about the aluminium issue. Am I right in thinking that RFA Sir Galahad and RFA Sir Tristram were built of aluminium, hence how severely they burnt when hit? I dont think I would envisage any ships so vulnerable being sent into a hostile situation unless we could possibly help it.

    The Ships taken up from trade issue is something I’m planning to look at soon. I’m not sure about the exact figures but from my cursory research I have the impression that there are a lot less British flagged ships available than there were in 1982.

    • Marcase

      I don’t know for sure, but the aluminium construction – to save weight and cost – was indeed an issue for the Round Table class, also because they were primarily army vessels and were constructed differently (again, due to cost considerations) and because of “unique” army requirements.
      I do know that it was one of the main reasons the (under-armed) Type 21 light frigates burned so badly (either Ardent or Antilope, can’t remember).

      • James Daly

        re the Type 21′s, possibly both I think – once Ardent was hit and the UXB in Antelope went up they were virtually written off. But they were the kind of cheap, expendable patrol frigate that we lack nowadays.

  6. Jed

    James – if ALL the amphibs were available, it would be a better force. As Marcase has noted, the STUFT ships made up the majority of the amphib group (in hull numbers and tonnage) and due to the parlous state of the British Merchant marine, I doubt the hulls would be available to supplement the ‘grey hulls’ anymore.

    A worse deficiency would be aircraft – does your scenario run concurrent with ops in Afghanistan ? If it does, forget it, we simply would not have enough helicopters available. If it does not run concurrent with Afghan (or some other) ops – then we may be able to scratch together enough Merlin HC3, Apache and even airworthy SK Mk4 “Junglies” which flew in the first campaign !

    So while RN amphibous prowess looks good on the suface, don’t scratch too deeply.

    Of course with no radar / AAM capable CAP aircraft, and no T45 / PAAMs in service yet (and not enough of them if they were) the enemy could possibly cripple enough of the amphibs to make the op a no-go !!

  7. James Daly

    Jed – I agree, we could never even contemplate doing something like this concurrently with Afghanistan. There arent enough Helicopters for there as it is, let alone elsewhere.

    I think thats the conclusion I come to, it all looks good on the surface, but when you look beyond first impressions… quite worrying.

  8. Marcase

    Well, it isn’t so bad if one consideres the T-LAM Tomahawk (presumably) in sufficient numbers available to the fleet, especially the submarines. They could take the place of the Black Buck raids at Stanley, and would be a viable alternative for aviation, if not a better strategic option.

    An Astute just off the coast of Argentina (and the Argies knowing about it) would be one heck of an incentive for a return to diplomacy.

    The current weak point imho is the lack of decent strategic intell, that is an aircraft with the range and endurance of something akin the RQ-4 Global Hawk, that is missing in the UK’s inventory. I doubt if the current Predator could stage from Ascencion with enough ‘dwell time’ to be of much use, nvm if it will be able to handle the rough South Atlantic weather. Naval aviation, both (Sea) Harriers and Nimrods could fill that gap, but only barely, if at all.

  9. Jed

    Marcase – good point and I was going to go back and comment on the carriers page about Tomahawk – it is possibly the biggest difference in “airpower” – stealthily delivered by sub it could reduce RAF Mount Pleasant (Port Stanley air field) and mainland Argentine air bases to rubble – BUT – as James sated above, scratch the surface and all is not as it seems.

    Our SSN levels are pitifully low. Our SSN’s unlike their USN sister classes do NOT have VL tubes between the pressure hull and outer hull, so a Tomahawk load out is balanced against torpedos and thus how do we want to use our limited SSN force – hunting enemy subs? Hunting enemy surface units, lurking close in to land intelligence gathering, deploying special forces, or in the land attack role – because we probably won’t have enough hulls available to do it all!

  10. James Daly

    Submarine assets are another element I’m planning to look at soon. I wont try and pre-empt a more detailed look, but in essence we have a lot less SSN’s than in 1982, and no diesel electrics. Considering the sinking of the Belgrano and the threat of our Submarines kept the Argentine Fleet bottled up in port, that is another worrying development.

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