Falklands then and now: Frigates and Destroyers

So far we’ve looked at the Aircraft Carriers and the Amphibious Assault ships. Prestigious and important as they are, the Frigates and Destroyers of the fleet represent the workhorses of any naval operation. If we were to look for a military metaphor, they are the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ of the sea, the boots on the ground.

Yet, as we will see, the contrast between the escort fleet in 1982 and in 2009 is remarkable, and represents perhaps the starkest reason why any operation similar to the Falklands War may be impossible given the Navy’s current state.

The picture in 1982

HMS Sheffield, one of the Type 42 Destroyers sunk in 1982

HMS Sheffield, one of the Type 42 Destroyers sunk in 1982

In 1982 The Royal Navy deployed a total of 23 Destroyers and Frigates to the South Atlantic. These were not all serving concurrently, as several were sunk or so severely damaged that they had to return to the UK for repairs, ans some arrived late as reinforcements. It should be noted, however, that this number represented around a third of the Navy’s total strength of escort vessels, and that many other ships were either under refit in the UK or on patrol around the world. The 23 ships mentioned above came from 7 classes, all designed to perform various roles and offering a range of capabilities.

The sole Type 82 Destroyer, HMS Bristol, was designed as an escort to a cancelled class of aircraft carriers. She fielded the Sea Dart missile system, designed for combating highflying aircraft. She carried no helicopter, but also had a 4.5-inch gun and an Ikara anti-submarine missile system. The Type 42 Destroyers also carried the Sea Dart system, and a 4.5inch gun. They were used in the Falklands to provide forward air defence, and to act as radar pickets. The County Class Destoyers carried the obsolete Sea Slug missile system, but the useful Seacat SAM system for self-defence and two 4.5-inch guns. As such they were useful for providing shore bombardments. Their Exocet missiles also provided anti-ship capability.

The brand-new Type 22 Class Frigates had the then-new Sea Wolf missile system, designed for providing close in, medium level air defence. They were frequently used as ‘Goalkeepers’ for the aircraft carriers. Although they also carried Exocet missiles, there was practically no chance of them using these in their role as escorts. The Type 21 Frigates were designed as a class of cheap general escort ships. They had a 4.5 inch gun, Seacat SAM missiles and Exocet missiles, and were very much all-round vessels. The Leander Class Frigates was a large class, comprising a number of batches. 3 Leander ships that sailed to the Falklands carried Exocet and Seacat Missiles. One ship of the class carried the Sea Wolf missile system in place of Seacat. There were also two obsolete Rothesay Class Frigates.

In summary the escorts that sailed to the Falklands comprised a balanced and flexible fleet. 14 ships had 4.5inch guns, and experience in the Falklands, where Naval gunfire support was crucial, showed that this was perhaps too few. Six had Sea Dart, and three had Sea Wolf. Given that the Type 22 Frigates were usually used as goalkeepers for the carriers, perhaps one or two more would have been invaluable. The fleet was also short or ships carrying Sea Dart, once losses took effect. 13 ships carried Exocet, which would not be used in the Falklands campaign.

The picture in 2009

HMS Somerset, a Type 23 Frigate

HMS Somerset, a Type 23 Frigate

The Royal Navy has a total of 24 Destroyers and Frigates, numbers having been succesively cut since the end of the Cold War (many have been sold to Brazil, Chile or Romania at a knock down price). Five of these are ageing Type 42 Destroyers, and two are Type 45 Destoyers that have still not had their Sea Viper SAM missiles tested. In addition, usually there are a large number of escort vessels on patrol duty around the globe, in the South Atlantic, the Carribean, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and off the coast of East Africa. At the time of writing seven escort vessels were at sea on operations. This means that a nominal 17 Frigates and Destoyers would be available for any task force. However, a large proportion of these at any time might be in refit, working up or sailing to relieve other ships.

The Type 42 Destoyers carry the largely obsolete Sea Dart anti-aircraft and anti-missile system. They also have a 4.5 inch gun for providing gunfire support. They are designed for providing advanced air defence and radar pickets in advance of the main fleet. The new Type 45 Destroyers carry the new and as yet untested Sea Viper anti-air system. They are designed as replacements for the Type 42 Destroyers, and perform a very similar role.

The Type 23 Frigates have the capable Sea Wolf vertical missle system, as well as Harpoon anti-ship missiles. They also carry a 4.5 inch gun. They can provide close anti-air defence, and also anti-ship and gunfire support capabilities. The Type 22 Frigates carry the Sea Wolf anti-air and anti-missile system, as well as a 4.5 inch gun. In 1982 Type 22 Frigates were used as ‘Goalkeepers’ for the aircraft carriers, and during the landings for the amphibious group. This later batch of Type 22’s had their Exocet missiles replaced with 4.5 inch guns, in order to give more gunfire support.

All Destroyers and Frigates carry an anti-submarine and anti-ship equipped Lynx or Merlin Helicopter. The helicopters can use a range of missiles and depth charges, and also have dipping sonar. Not all ships, however, carry anti-submarine towed array sonar.

Until the Type 45’s can use their Sea Viper system in action, the Royal Navy could perhaps expect to put together a force of escorts consisting of two or three Type 42 Destroyers, perhaps seven Type 23 Frigates and one or two Type 22 Frigates. This would represent a small force indeed, with a limited range of capabilities, in particular poor anti-aircraft and missile defence against high-flying targets. There is also a lack of anti-surface capability, and of a cheap general purpose Frigate.

In Conclusion

The Argentine Navy can field 13 vessels carrying Exocet missiles, much more than in 1982, and these would be a threat. Only the Type 23 Frigates carry anti-surface missiles. The Argentine Air Force and Fleet Air Arm have exactly the same aircraft as in 1982, and less of them, whereas the majority of British escorts now carry Sea Wolf. There are only three Exocet carrying Super Etendards left in service. The Argentine Navy only has 3 Submarines, therefore anti-submarine warfare would not be of prime importance.

The Royal Navy would do very well indeed to put together a fleet of 10 ships for escort duties. Several of these would be required to escort the Aircraft carriers, and several more for escorting the amphibious group. With several providing advanced air defence or acting as radar pickets, this would leave few for providing Naval gunfire support. There would be very few replacements available, and losses would be felt very seriously indeed.

Reportedly the Royal Navy agreed to losing a number of Destroyers and Frigates in order to ensure the delivery of its two planned supercarriers. The Royal Navy might be planning for super-carriers and already has impressive assault ships, but has neglected to build a fleet of escorts to support them or to perform the less glamorous ‘workhorse’ tasks. After learning the importance of being able to act independently in 1982, British Defence policy has once again made it virtually impossible for the armed forces to operate without the assistance of allies.

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36 Comments

Filed under debate, Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized

36 responses to “Falklands then and now: Frigates and Destroyers

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  3. Jed

    There is no doubt that the RN has lost “critical mass” in the surface fleet, Nelson’s famous quote about having more Frigates still applies !

    In your scenario a heavily denuded escort group would have to provide the bulk of air defence as we no longer have Sea Harriers. It would also have to undertake the ASW role, as 3 submarines still constitute a threat, it would only take 1 or 2 torpedos to sink a major amphib, and “game over”. Similarly the Argentine surface fleet with its MEKO destroyers and Corvettes all mounting 8 x MM40 variant Exocets provide a serious surface threat, against which Harrier GR9 is useless, and so also requiring a Surface Action Group to counter it – another draw on the same small number of “escorts”.

    So, I agree, even more than the lack of carriers, the lack of general purpose, well armed surface combatants is actually what would stop us trying to retake the Malvinas at all :-(

  4. James Daly

    I strongly suspect as well that when it came to forming up a Surface Action Group – and bearing in mind that only the Type 23 Frigates have Harpoon – we would probably find that not all of them carry them routinely, or our stocks are low in any case. As usual, on paper it looks bad, but in real terms the picture is even bleaker.

  5. Grim

    It is important to keep in mind that whilst the ASW and shore bombardment aspects of the surface fleet have both weakened in recent years, the presence of one or two of our nuclear submarines would be enough to keep the vast majority of the Argentine fleet at bay (the memories of their last little jaunt to the Falklands and the fate of a certain cruiser should help here) and provide a valuable and long range bombardment asset in the form of the Tomahawk cruise missiles they now carry.

    Let’s hope the upcoming FSC’s address some of the imbalances (but I hold out little hope for returning numbers to a significant level although this will depend on whether the jobs argument can be successfully made towards the end of their build run as the dockyards run out of work in the 2020’s.)

  6. Grim

    Just to reply to what James Daly commented just before me. The Harpoons aren’t taken off the Type 23’s regularly to my knowledge, there should be enough for 8 on all the Type 23’s I think. Fortunately, unlike ships, Harpoon is still in production and could be purchased relatively quickly from either existing US stocks (massive surplus as always) in a hurry or from the production lines. These weapons can also be fitted relatively quickly to the Type 45’s at least (they are fitted for but not with – the bane of the modern fleet).

    Just to add to that, the Sea Viper system HAS been tested repeatedly, just not from the Type 45. So far it has only failed under the most strenuous circumstances, so with the testing accelerated if a threat emerged, it could provide at least some usefulness in a conflict. If Harpoon is added to T45 as well as their powerful radars they become quite useful assets even without full Sea Viper capability.

    I’m trying to look on the bright side here although I admit the RN is in a shameful state.

  7. James Daly

    Hi Grim thanks for that. I wont profess to being an expert on weapons systems or having any kind of insider knowledge, so input like that helps a landsman such as myself!

    I’m sure if an emergency did crop up they could accelarate the test programme, although its hardly an ideal situation. What concerns me is the possibility of the Type 42’s being retired early before Sea Viper is fully operational.

  8. Grim

    An understandable worry, but with the specified requirement for 5 on station at any time, they can’t really retire any more hulls earlier than planned. On top of that is the fact that the T42’s would be effectively useless now, being too old to deal with modern threats. They may just about be able to handle the Argentinians, but any other threat and they’d be useless anyway.

    With all but one Type 45 already in the water, at least a couple could be quickly bought to readiness if a threat were to emerge depending on how many acceptance tests could/would be cut out to get them into service.

    Also keep in mind that when they do become fully operational they’ll be able to handle 5 times as many threats as a Type 42 in one go and are less likely to miss threats as well. So even if only one or two can go with the task force that should be enough to provide significant air coverage. I believe they’re designed to do more with fewer hulls now. On top of that all vessels going into such a conflict zone would have CIWS fitted, so the Argentine fighters and Exocets would be even less effective.

  9. James Daly

    I guess the speed with which Illustrious was brought forward in 1982 is evidence of how quickly ships can be made ready in an emergency. Whether the shipyards and Dockyards still have the capacity to do this, as well as the other work they did in 1982, remains to be seen.

  10. Thanks for the intersting series of posts James. I agree that the question of whether the RN could re-fight a Falklands War has become so commonly asked that it is a bit tedious but if we examin the facts it does show what a poor state the RN is in now. Your last point about lack of dockyards and logistical facilites is crucial. Even though we have a lot fewer (if more capable) warships and could get a small tak force togther there would be a massive shortage of skilled labout in the dockyards to despatch and support the ships. Crucially there are also not enough suitable UK-registered merchant ships that could be requisitioned or RFAs to sustain the fleet at sea. See http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/articles/2008/01/stripped-to-bone-and-vulnerable-to.html

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  13. hope the following comments and threads are of interest to you:

    I did my best, as did others, to fight the cause for Sea Harrier on PPRuNe and other places and in other ways, letters to MPs, etc. Whilst we were unable to persuade the Government to retain a Shar squadron until CVF and JSF arrive, or at least the Type 45 arrived, or to keep a number of Sea Harriers in storage, I was relieved to discover back in February 2006 that some aircraft were being sent down to the School of Flight Deck Operations at Culdrose for training baby chockheads – better than the scrapyard, and at least they will be intact and regularly powered up and moved about, a good start if we needed to regenerate them, and hopefully still a deterrent to the Argies etc. I am unsure how many are there but quite a few remain either stored or at Culdrose. Last year the UK declined to sell stored Sea Harriers to India, which is interesting. For some reason the MOD wants to retain them, and the Indians must have thought they would be in a good condition.

    I can’t help feeling that

    a) Whilst still a disaster, the RN has managed to salvage something.
    b) The SFDO aircraft will be in use, therefore should be in a reasonable state. Also they should deal with the weather better than Jags the RAF use for similar purposes as they’re naval aircraft.
    c) If RNR pilots could go from flying an airliner to a Shar every year, then the GR9 to FA2 transition would be less difficult.
    d) Engine/airframe spares will be available as India intends to operate the Sea Harrier FRS 51 until 2012 and maybe until 2020. The Captor radar used by Typhoon is Blue Vixen therefore I’d imagine spares would be available that way, also “build to print” is what many parts of the defence industry like to hear.
    e) Exchange tours would maintain radar and other air defence skills.
    f) In a crisis, whilst the Shars are regenerated (including building/modifing parts as needed) a few RN/RNR pilots could get a short course in using radar etc from the RAF, it’s a good job Typhoon has Blue Vixen in a new package. Less likely things were don in 1982, ships and aircraft got out of mothballs, units given new roles, etc.

    Maybe, not quite all is lost……..

    The following links are from the Miltary Aircrew forum on the Professional Pilots’ Rumour Network (PPRuNe).

    These threads are rather long and may take hours to read properly, never read them in full so I can’t say…

    Firstly, the “Sea Jet” thread…..

    http://www.pprune.org/forums/showthread.php?t=98152

    Discuss the Sea Harrier’s service and retirement (inc the aircraft retained for training and other purposes), CVF and JCA, other things that increase the risk of disaster (FF/DD cuts, MCMV cuts, SSN cuts) – all at the same time as the high value amphibious shipping is increasing – as well as various other complaints. Did this thread help the RN save some? Who can say?

    Since the Sea Harrier has now gone, the most important PPRuNe thread is the Future Carrier one……

    http://www.pprune.org/forums/showthread.php?t=221116

    This discusses all sorts of things relating to CVF including design, build, aircraft, training issues etc. Both thse threads include posting from both sides of the debate.

    Modern Falklands scenarios were also discussed on ARRSE: http://www.pprune.org/forums/showthread.php?t=98152

  14. I hope the following comments and threads are of interest to you:

    I did my best, as did others, to fight the cause for Sea Harrier on PPRuNe and other places and in other ways, letters to MPs, etc. Whilst we were unable to persuade the Government to retain a Shar squadron until CVF and JSF arrive, or at least the Type 45 arrived, or to keep a number of Sea Harriers in storage, I was relieved to discover back in February 2006 that some aircraft were being sent down to the School of Flight Deck Operations at Culdrose for training baby chockheads – better than the scrapyard, and at least they will be intact and regularly powered up and moved about, a good start if we needed to regenerate them, and hopefully still a deterrent to the Argies etc. I am unsure how many are there but quite a few remain either stored or at Culdrose. Last year the UK declined to sell stored Sea Harriers to India, which is interesting. For some reason the MOD wants to retain them, and the Indians must have thought they wouldd be in a good condition.

    I can’t help feeling that

    a) Whilst still a disaster, the RN has managed to salvage something.
    b) The SFDO aircraft will be in use, therefore should be in a reasonable state. Also they should deal with the weather better than Jags the RAF use for similar purposes as they’re naval aircraft.
    c) If RNR pilots could go from flying an airliner to a Shar every year, then the GR9 to FA2 transition would be less difficult.
    d) Engine/airframe spares will be available as India intends to operate the Sea Harrier FRS 51 until 2012 and maybe until 2020. The Captor radar used by Typhoon is Blue Vixen therefore I’d imagine spares would be available that way, also “build to print” is what many parts of the defence industry like to hear.
    e) Exchange tours would maintain radar and other air defence skills.
    f) In a crisis, whilst the Shars are regenerated (including building/modifing parts as needed) a few RN/RNR pilots could get a short course in using radar etc from the RAF, it’s a good job Typhoon has Blue Vixen in a new package. Less likely things were don in 1982, ships and aircraft got out of mothballs, units given new roles, etc.

    Maybe, not quite all is lost……..

    The following links are from the Miltary Aircrew forum on the Professional Pilots’ Rumour Network (PPRuNe).

    These threads are rather long and may take hours to read properly, never read them in full so I can’t say…

    Firstly, the “Sea Jet” thread…..

    http://www.pprune.org/forums/showthread.php?t=98152

    Discuss the Sea Harrier’s service and retirement (inc the aircraft retained for training and other purposes), CVF and JCA, other things that increase the risk of disaster (FF/DD cuts, MCMV cuts, SSN cuts) – all at the same time as the high value amphibious shipping is increasing – as well as various other complaints. Did this thread help the RN save some? Who can say?

    Since the Sea Harrier has now gone, the most important PPRuNe thread is the Future Carrier one……

    http://www.pprune.org/forums/showthread.php?t=221116

    This discusses all sorts of things relating to CVF including design, build, aircraft, training issues etc. Both thse threads include posting from both sides of the debate.

  15. If only we had more ships.

  16. James Daly

    I can’t see the number of hulls improving any time in the forseable future, especially with current government

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