As an island nation Britain has since time immaterial depended on its fleet of merchant vessels for trade. Perhaps the most stark example of this was the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War, when German U-boats threatened to cut Britain’s lifeline.
It was but a small step to push trading networks out around the world, and the Royal Navy expanded to protect maritime trade and empire. Hence the British Empire was built on seapower, and the Royal and Merchant Navies have had a closely interwoven history. The Falklands War proved no different.
The picture in 1982
Merchant Navy involvement in the Falklands fell into three categories: chartered, requisitioned or taken up from trade. The Government is empowered to requisition British flagged ships for Defence use, and maintains a list of vessels suitable for use in various roles. Most of these ships had to undergo some modifications, such as naval communications and navigation equipment, equipment to allow them to be replenished at sea, and in some cases helipads and anti-aircraft weapons. This substantial work was undertaken at commercial shipyards and the naval dockyards. Most also sailed with a party of Naval officers and ratings onboard.
The task force that retook the Falklands in 1982 made use of a sizeable portion of the British Merchant Navy, consisting of no less than 40 merchantmen. These came from a wide range of roles, from Ocean Liners, ferries, container vessels, Oil tankers, Ocean tugs, mooring vessels, repair ships, water tankers, hospital ships, even trawler-minesweepers. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary simply lacked the ships to maintain such a vast task force 8,000 miles from home.
Troop transports such as Canberra, QE2 and Norland were required to transport the military forces to the Falklands, as there was not nearly enough space in the Amphibious ships to take them all south. Stores ships were also required to transport the wide range of equipment and supplies needed. A large fleet of Oil Tankers was used to transport fuel to the South Atlantic, where it was transferred to the RFA tankers who could then replenish the warships at sea. Given the lack of Sea Harriers and Helicopters in the South Atlantic, the container ship Atlantic Conveyor sailed carrying extra Harriers and Chinooks. All but one of the Chinooks were lost when she was sunk by an exocet missile strike.
The picture in 2009
Given the already highlighted shortcomings in the RFA flotilla, any task force to the South Atlantic would be even more reliant on support from Merchant vessels than it was in 1982. This is unfortunate, as the British Merchant Navy has dwindled considerable since 1982. Many commercial vessels now carry the flags of countries such as Panama or Liberia.
In 2008, the British Merchant Navy consisted of the following vessels:
- 55 General Cargo ships
- 134 Container ships
- 12 Passenger ships
- 40 Oil tankers
- 19 Refrigerated Cargo ships
- 25 roll-on/roll-off ferries
In addition UK interests own 446 ships registered in other countries. This gives a much smaller range of choice than in 1982. Of these, only a fraction would really by suitable for use in a military campaign in the South Atlantic. For example, of the 25 ro-ro ferries, the majority of them are designed for crossing the English Channel or the Irish Sea and would be wholly unsuited to service in the South Atlantic. And how many of them would be suitable for modification for helipads, for instance?
It would be a tough job indeed putting together a fleet of support vessels from the Merchant Navy. What is not immediately clear, either, is how many of them would be immediately available in any case. Of the ships listed above not all of them will be in UK waters, apart from any in refit. The time taken in modifying and storing them also needs to be accounted for.
The process of requisitioning, making ready and manning the number of commercial vessels necessary would be a mammoth task. Not only would there be problems in terms of numbers. Requisitioning or chartering a sizeable proportion of the Merchant Navy would have significant economic and political consequences, not to mention the widespread disruption. And with the rundown of the Naval Dockyards, it would be much more difficult and take much longer to carry out the modification work as in 1982. Almost as difficult would be finding enough naval manpower to make up naval parties: if the navy has trouble crewing its own ships, how could it put together parties to serve on requisitioned Merchant vessels?
Clearly, the Navy and the RFA could not expect support from the Merchant Navy on the level that it received in 1982. Using Merchant vessels is far from an ideal solution in any case: they are largely built to different safety standards than Naval ships, with less substantial firefighting and damage control systems. As shown by the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor, Merchant vessels cannot afford to sustain damage, and if they do critical cargoes might be lost. The loss of a couple of Chinooks on a container ship, or a Battalion on a cruise liner does not bear thinking about.
Along with the perilous state of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the state of the Merchant Navy makes talk of aircraft carriers, missiles and escort vessels largely redundant: without the logistical support to get them there and keep them there, any kind of task force operation would be impossible.