Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Air War

The Eurofighter Typhoon is capable of supercru...

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Now, in the past I have been among the RAF’s fiercest critics. I am most definitely not anti-air, as I think history has shown that handled properly it can win you wars. But what I am not a fan of is the RAF’s culture when it comes to inter-service rivalries, being something of a self-preservation society. The RAF’s top brass will think nothing of destroying land or sea defence capabilities, if it can salvage something for itself. A ‘junior service’ complex, you might say. And as we have seen with Libya, the RAF’s PR Department is the most active participant in any war. Great if you have wings, but not if you are interested in ‘UK Defence’ overall.

But the RAF provides the most potent element of the Falklands Garrison’s tripwire. Like Malta during the Second World War, the fate of the Falkland Islands in any future conflict is likely to depend on a handful of aircraft – the four Eurofighter Typhoons based at RAF Mount Pleasant. Of course, I am not privy to defence planning, but I would expect that with such a small flight and obviously a limited number of airframes, we would be doing well to have two of them in the air at any one time.

The redeeming factor, however, is the manner in which Argentine air assets have  stood still since 1982. Their Air Force and Navy are flying virtually exactly the same aircraft, even to the point of not having replaced their significant losses during the 1982 war. If the Mirages et al struggled against the Sea Harrier, I really wouldn’t fancy their chances againt the Typhoons. The Typhoons, flown by pilots who in all likelihood have recent battle experience (albeit of ground attack), would probably account for a fair few Argentine aircraft. Their job would be to prevent the Argentines landing on the Islands, or at the very least to severely delay them in doing so. The Argentines would probably be looking to land by air, given their lack of amphibious vessels. In order to do so they would need to overwhelm the air defences at Mount Pleasant, and capture the runways intact in order to fly in troops. One would hope – and expect – that RAF Mount Pleasant would have under the runway demolition charges in the event of a capitulation.

The only offensive aircraft that the Task Force could expect to face are:

  • 21 Mirages of various, eldery types (including Israeli copies)
  • 24 Pucaras (ancient, turbo-prop aircraft)
  • 11 Super Etendards (operational status dubious)
  • 36 or 16 Fightinghawks (update of the old Skyhawk, number uncertain)

Compare those numbers to the 70+ aircraft that the Argentines lost in 1982 (total of all types). Then consider how many of them are actually serviceable, how many pilots they actually have, how experienced they are, and what weapons the Argentines actually have available for use. Suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a bad picture after all.

With the air bridge from the UK to Mount Pleasant via Ascension, reinforcements could be flown in relatively quickly – one guesses that that is the idea with building an air base on the Islands. It saves on basing large forces there permanently, but enables you to fly in reinforcements quickly. These could include extra Typhoons and Tornados for Air Defence – nominally the RAF has 83 Typhoons and 136 Tornados. There would be a requirement for Globemasters, Tristars and Hercules to set up an air bridge, along with tankers for air-to-air refuelling. A ‘wishlist’ for reinforcing the Falklands at short notice by air would probably look something like this – infantry (battalion size initially), air defence (Fighters and Rapier), transport helicopters and Apaches. Whether we have enough long range transport aircraft to effect such an airbridge, I cannot know.

If the islands were lost, then Ascension Island would into play as a vital air hub. Unlike in 1982, the RAF posseses Sentry E3-D. They have a range of around 4,000 nautical miles, so whilst they might not reach the Falklands, they could cover a large part of the South Atlantic. With the demise of Nimrod maritime reconnaisance is a bit of a gap, although the Raytheon Sentinel has a range of some 5,800 miles. Hence early warning and control might be greatly enhanced upon 1982. This should have a knock-on effect for air defence, target acquisition and command and control, in the absence of carrier-borne air cover.

With the demise of not only the Sea Harrier but also the Harrier GR’s, any task force would be fighting without its own fixed wing, carrier based aviation. The Sea Harriers were credited with playing a large part in winning the war in 1982. It is frequently assumed that we could not even contemplate another war without carrier-based air cover. Some suggest that the Type 45 Destroyers with their advanced radar and missile systems could effectively provide this cover, but the proof of this pudding is only really in the eating. Who knows how naval exercises have been playing out?

One significant improvement on 1982, is the ability to operate Army Air Corps Apaches from onboard ships. I identified how useful this might be in my 2009 series, and their usefulness was shown in the recent Libya conflict. A handful of Apaches on something like HMS Ocean would be incredibly useful, for providing firepower support to ground troops, shooting up bunkers, troop concentrations and the like. I’m not sure how much the concept has been explored, but they could also have an anti-surface role, as US helicopters did during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s.

Any task force could expect to face less aircraft than it did in 1982, and certainly nothing which would give it any headaches. With the ratio of force that the Argentine Air Force has to offer, one cannot help but think that just one aircraft carrier with a strike wing of Harriers would do the job nicely.

ADDENDUM

A Twitter follower has rightly pointed out that the Argentine Air Force also possesses a number of A-4AR Fightinghawks, a update of the A-4 Skyhawk using avionics from the F-16 Fighting Falcon. 36 were delivered, but various sources state that only 16 are currently active. Any more information on these numbers would be useful.

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20 Comments

Filed under defence, Falklands War, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

20 responses to “Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Air War

  1. x

    T45 carrying ASaC SeaKings, T23 with Sea Wolf, and liberal scattering of CIWS around the large surface units would probably be enough for air defence. A bit reactive than proactive maybe.

    CAS AAC Apache yes but they don’t have rotor breaks so there is potential for failure there in the windy South Atlantic. But as I said early T45 with a modern smart gun system would be a real boon.

    If they could get down there quick enough another 12 Typhoon would probably stop the Argentines in their tracks. Saying that Typhoon isn’t cleared for Storm Shadow yet (900 or so supposedly in stores or to be bought by the MoD) and isn’t cleared for any anti-ship weaponry (a bit fundamental in a maritime operation.) I think I am right in saying the batch 1 Typhoons are better off for dropping ordnance than the later ones. The big question is whether the South American mainland is a target or not…..

  2. James Daly

    As much as it pains me, from a purists point of view, I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that we could do a task force without carrier air cover – just. Of course, ‘could’ and ‘just’ aren’t ideal militarily.

    Hopefully Typhoon will be cleared for more weapons soon as it matures in service.

    I’ve been trying to find out more about the Radar stations on the Falklands, but obviously information is very patchy.

    If I was the Argentine Air commander, I would probably be looking at – how to takeccc Mount Pleasant intact, neutralising the Typhoons and taking out the radar stations – and not necessarily in that order. Their only option, I think, would be to try to overwhelm the defences, but with their paucity of aircraft and the distance, I just don’t think they could do it, nor would they want to. It might take them the islands, but it would emasculate their air forces in the event of a task force coming to retake them.

  3. x

    There a couple of wide ranging new threads over at Think Defence on the Falklands ranging from the very knowledgeable (somebody who has done staff work on FI defence no less) to the more bonkers end from the likes of yours truly posting for giggles.

    My concern is that MPA is very open. Though I am told the garrison (if 1000 plus technicians in light blue and green suits) regularly undertakes defence exercises to my untutored eye there is nothing to prevent movement of infantry. I argued for berms, razor wire, and pill boxes to give the maintainers and cooks a better chance. And to provide relief for the single company group. But if you had got a battalion a shore would you bother to go and find the enemy? I wouldn’t especially if MPA was brought into gun range; why troll 30miles into the interior? I tried to argue over at TD that the centre of gravity is Stanley not MPA. That holding the civilian population as a token is the key. My time studying IR suggests that the world’s politicians and diplomats only sea populations not militaries.

    If I were Argentine I would charter a couple of ferries. Fill them with ardent nationalists and drive them on to Stanley’s water front. Let them disperse through Stanley and push their way into the home of the Islanders. A 20kt ferry would be over the horizon before anybody would know what was happening. Let a few lightly armed SF in to trip up anybody coming from MPA; nothing major just one of those clouds of war incidents. And of course have a TV crew their to show the Nationalists liberating their islands. Now I can here you thinking that would get messy. And yes it would. But as I keep saying the Argentines don’t need to win a war just create an incident that results in the British being forced to the table and forced to compromise on the oil, sorry I mean fishing licences, sorry I mean islands. (And the UK’s claims to Antarctica.) Somebody of TD suggests an emergency landing by a 747 (or other big airliner) on to MPA. All you would need is a charge on the nose wheel to disable the plane to stop it being moved off the runway. Again fill it with nationalists. Bob or Roberto is your uncle.

  4. Pingback: Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Land Forces « Daly History Blog

  5. Pingback: Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Reckoning « Daly History Blog

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