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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Aircraft Carriers and air cover

The Royal Navy Invincible-class aircraft carri...

Image via Wikipedia

In 1982, Britain was able to send two Aircraft Carriers to the South Atlantic – Invincible and Hermes. The Royal Navy was also safe in the knowledge that it had one more aircaft carrier close to completion – Illustrious – and another that could in theory be regenerated in the long term, Bulwark. But even then, it was felt that two flat tops was nowhere near enough.

Fast forward thirty years, and Britain is in a very perilous situation when it comes to the provision of naval air cover. The on-duty strike carrier role was retired in the SDSR, leading to the decomissioning of HMS Ark Royal, and the re-roling of Illustrious to LPH. This effectively means that Britain is unable to project air power by sea.

Retaking the Falklands without air cover would be problematic to say the least. Even if Mount Pleasant and Port Stanley runways were disabled – either by under runway munitions or Tomahawk strikes – the Islands are still well within range of Argentine jets flying from the mainland. And even though the Argentines did not replace their considerable losses in 1982, and for the most part are flying outdated airframes, their air presence would still present a considerable threat to any task force in the South Atlantic without air superiority.

The interesting thing is, that in 1982 the task force did not gain what you might term complete air superiority prior to the land campaign. The Harriers gave a very good account of themselves against anything that the Argentines could launch, but they were not able to completely prevent attacks on the landings at San Carlos, nor Exocet strikes such as that on the Atlantic Conveyor. In that respect, the 1982 campaign did show that you can win a land war without air superiority. Not that such an approach is advisable, of course.

So what alternatives are there to carrier-based air support? The Type 45 Destroyers have been much vaunted for their anti-air capability, and whilst I am not completely au faix with their technology, most commentators describe them as being very capable. The Sea Viper system could probably provide very effective defence against Argentine aircraft. Although designed as an aircraft carrier escort, without a carrier to play goalkeeper to, they could be freed up for picket duty such as the Type 42 Destroyers were in 1982. Not to digress, of course – we’ll look at Destroyers in more detail later.

We are told that Ark Royal is technically at ‘extended readiness’, but believe me, it would be a miracle if she sailed again – practically all of her fittings have been ripped out. And the Dockyard really doesn’t have the workforce the make her ready with any kind of urgency.  Added to which, the expertise and experience to operate a carrier at sea would be lacking, not to mention the fact that only a handful of Sea Harriers are in storage.

By the turn of the next decade, however, things could change dramatically. IF they come in on time and on budget, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers could be a real game changer – I wouldn’t fancy being an Argentine pilot with a naval air wing of F35’s floating in the South Atlantic, technologically far in advance of anything that the Argentines can offer up. But until then, any planning has to take place on the basis of not having carriers. In that respect what options are available? Much has been made of defence co-operation with France, but I find it hard to believe that the French would lend us Charles de Gaulle to provide air cover for a Task Force. I just can’t see French Rafale pilots risking their hides for a war that really isn’t theirs. In the same respect I cannot see the Americans getting involved to the extent of lending us a carrier.

One option that has been mooted – and it really is an outside bet – is the possibilty of somehow getting together a carrier air group from Sea Harriers in storage at Culdrose, and other Harriers that haven’t yet been sold or stripped down. In all honesty, I don’t know enough about how many there are, and how feasible this is. But I know it is something that has been discussed elsewhere, as has the possibility of Britain somehow acquiring second hand Harriers from elsewhere – perhaps India – as an interim measure if the need arose. Interesting thought, but I’m not sure its something that we could rely on. It would require a protracted conflict to give the time to get a carrier up to speed, whether that be Illustrious from the LPH role, or re-comissioning Ark Royal.

New intensity has been shed on the aircraft carrier situation by recent events since the SDSR, particularly in Libya. Although Britain managed to contribute to the NATO operation quite effectively – with air assets flying from Britain and Italy, and ships in the Med – you can bet that there will have been more than a few curses in Whitehall that we couldn’t send Ark Royal loaded with Harriers. According to unconfirmed reports, the RAF even requested the use of an Aircraft Carrier to cut down on flying time and operating costs. Whilst land-based aircraft are nice to have, they are subject to basing costs and air space and overflight issues. An aircraft carrier can go wherever it is wanted or needed. And whilst we managed ok without one, France and Italy – both much closer to Libya – still deployed theirs. In other situations,

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Busy times in Portsmouth Naval Base

HMS Gloucester (D96) photographed leaving Port...

HMS Gloucester (Image via Wikipedia)

It’s a busy time coming up for naval movements in Portsmouth.

All sources suggest that the American Aircraft Carrier USS George HW Bush WILL be visiting Portsmouth next weekend. She will be accompanied by the Arleigh Burke class Destroyer USS Truxtun and the Spanish Alvaro de Bazan class Frigate Almirante Juan de Borbon. the Spanish Frigate has been in the US with the Bush Strike Group for the past few months taking part in work-up exercises. I’m enquiring with tour boat companies to see if any offer trips out into the Solent to look round the Bush, although I might not be able to make it due to a moving girlfriend that weekend!…. If not I’m sure I’ll get some pics from the shore at Stokes Bay. The shops and bars in Portsmouth will be rubbing their hands waiting for 6,000+ thirsty and hungry yanks!

In other news, on Monday HMS Gloucester makes her final entry into Portsmouth before decomissioning later this year. The Type 42 Batch 3 Destroyer has served with the Royal Navy for over 20 years. My Grandad actually worked on her when she was built, when he was a painter at Vosper Thorneycroft‘s yard in Woolston. We looked round her at Navy Days a few years ago, and I can confirm that he didn’t miss any bits ;)

HMS Quorn left Portsmouth last Sunday for a 2+ years stint in the Gulf. Royal Navy minesweepers spend a few years at a time in the Gulf, saving on time travelling there and back. The crews rotate for 6 months at a time. Quorn is a Hunt Class minesweeper, with a GRP – glass reinforced plastic – hull.

In amongst all of the Royal Navy ships decommisioning, the RFA’s going out of service have been all but forgotten. But the Landing Ship Largs Bay left Portsmouth weeks prior to a refit before making her way to the Australian Navy. RFA Bayleaf has been dumped into 3 Basin pending scrapping, and RAF Fort Austin – a Falklands veteran – looks to be on her way to the scrapyard. A smaller Navy means a smaller RFA.

In other scrapping matters, Exeter, Nottingham and Southampton are in the trot of Fareham Creek awaiting the scrapyard, and Manchester and Gloucester are soon to replace them. The four Type 22 Frigates recently decomissioned will probably make their way to Portsmouth soon too.

And we’re expecting PolarBjorn – the new HMS Protector – to arrive in Portsmouth sometime in the early summer too.

All in all a busy period. I’ll try and get out with my camera as much as I can. And one of the bonuses of having a girlfriend from the West Country is that a few trips to Plymouth might be in order ;)

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Warships: Interational Fleet Review

HMS Liverpool, a Royal Navy Type 42 Batch 2 ai...

HMS Liverpool, en-route to Libya

I’ve just picked up the latest copy of this fascinating magazine. As usual it makes for a measured, insightful but pointed read.

Iran has recently sent warships through the Suez Canal, after signing a defence pact with Syria. Transit through the canal is governed by the Egyptian Government, and the post-Mubarak leadership broke a tacit agreement with Israel and the US to not allow Iranian vessels through. The pact with Syria and the prospect of Iranian vessels in the Mediterranean – especially off the Israeli coast -changes the strategic picture in the Middle East somewhat.

The Magazine also highlights the folly of the Government’s Defence Cuts, in that the Royal Navy Frigate leading the British contribution to the sea blockade of Libya, HMS Cumberland, is due to come home to decomission soon. The ship we are sending to relieve her, HMS Liverpool, is an elderly Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer, which is also due to be scrapped within a couple of years. France, meanwhile, has sent its Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle, and Italy has been using its significant amphibious capability. Britain appears increasingly impotent, especially when consider that even China has sent a Warship. However old and labour intensive they are, the Type 22’s are extremely capable ships, and they are not being replaced. An editorial takes Cameron’s SDSR to pieces, arguing that its credibility has been torn to shreds by events in Libya. Britain is now a second rate player on the European-international stage.

Elsewhere, the new Australian Aircraft Carrier HMAS Canberra has been launched at the Navantia yard in Ferrol, Spain. Based on the Spanish ship Juan Carlos, she and her sister HMAS Adelaide are officially termed Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD).  They have enough space to operate two dozen helicopters, a ski-ramp and the potential for operating VSTOL jets (Australia is purchasing Joint Strike Fighter), and an amphibious dock to the rear. At well over 20,000 tons she is much larger than anything the mother country has built for years, and represents a quantum leap for Australia, both in terms of size and capability. Something Britain could really do with.

Finally – and some might say amusingly – we get a round-up of the UK independence party‘s Defence manifesto. And interesting reading it makes too. They propose to retain British Forces completely under national control, and to maintain a fleet of – wait for it:

  • 3 Aicraft Carriers
  • 4 Ballistic Missile Submarines
  • 12 Nuclear Attack Submarines
  • 11 Destroyers
  • 20 Frigates
  • 6 Amphibious vessels
  • 21 Minewarfare vessels
  • 7 Offshore Patrol Vessels
  • 55 Strike Fighters
  • Retain 3 Commando Brigade

This sounds impressive. But remember, this is essentially what we had only 10 years ago anyway. This extensive building programme would cost a lot, but would generate jobs and boost the shipbuilding industry, and would guarantee the future of jobs at bases such as Portsmouth, Devonport and Rosyth. How to fund it? Well, UKIP suggest stopping our annual international aid bill of £10bn to countries that have space programmes, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Sounds loopy, but there are grains of truth therein.

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HMS Invincible to leave Portsmouth for the last time

HMS Invincible, one of the Royal Navy's flagsh...

HMS Invincible in happier days (Image via Wikipedia)

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible is due to leave Portsmouth for the last time later this week.

At 0800 on Thursday (24 March) she will be towed out of Portsmouth Harbour on her way to the breakers yard in Turkey. She has been laid up in No 3 Basin in the Dockyard for almost 6 years, after being decommisioned in 2005. She was sold to a Turkish shipbreaker earlier this year after an ebay-style auction. It seems she is being sold off in order to clear space for her sister ship HMS Ark Royal, who decommisioned last week.

It really is the end of an era with the departure of Invincible. She first arrived in Portsmouth in 1981 brand-new from the shipbuilders. My Dad was working in the Dockyard at the time and worked on her when she was dry-docked for the first time, apparently one of the underwater sonar transducers took an accidental dink that needed fixing.

I really hope that people turn out to mark Invincible’s departure. Amongst all of the political sprawling for brownie points with the departure of Ark Royal, we should never forget the role that she played in the Falklands War in 1982. Men died flying Sea Harriers from that ship. What a pity that the Harrier’s have been scrapped, so she cannot even get a flypast to see her off. But then again I doubt the Government or the MOD will want to make a big deal out it.

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A carrier-less Royal Navy

HMS Ark Royal was today formally decommissioned in a ceremony in Portsmouth dockyard.

Here’s a poser – when was the last time that the Royal Navy was completely without a conventional strike carrier flying fixed-wing aircraft? I’ve got an idea when, but interesting to see what you guys come up with!

Have a good air-cover-less weekend everyone!

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More ridiculous calls over Ark Royal name

There have been more ludicrous calls by elected representatives to name one of the new Aircraft Carriers HMS Ark Royal. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt has written to the Defence Secretary Liam Fox to suggest that one of the new Aircraft Carriers is called ‘Queen Elizabeth, the Ark Royal’.

Ms Mordaunt, who is a naval reservist and sits on the parliamentary defence committee, wrote: ‘It is almost unthinkable that there should be a Royal Navy without an Ark Royal, whatever the historic precedents.’

This quote shows a breathtaking lack of grasp of history. Ships names come and go but the Royal Navy sails on regardless – that IS the historical precedent. The irony is, she talks about Ark Royal being such an indispensable name on the one hand, presumably thanks preceisely to its history – but then says something like ‘whatever the historical precedents’.

A recent poll conducted by the Portsmouth Evening News showed that over 90% of local people – many of them either serving, ex sailors or naval families – thought that the name Ark Royal should be allowed to rest for a while. I quite agree. As I have written before, the Royal Navy has a vast history covering hundreds of proud names – why the fixation on just one? Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are fine, historic names in their own right. It is NOT ‘unthinkable’ to not have an Ark Royal – the Royal Navy went without one for hundreds of years from the days of the Spanish Armada to the mid Twentieth Century. Why does no one mind about their not being an Illustrious, or an Invincible?

The Royal Navy would get on just fine without an Ark Royal. This myth that Ark Royal is such a historic name only came about thanks to the late 1970’s TV programme Sailor in any case. Soon we’re not going to have enough ships to keep every name that we have become attached to.

I’m not sure why politicians keep banging on about the name issue. I could understand if they thought it might win them some popularity and some votes. But its been proven that the vast majority of people do not mind. Either that or people have enough intelligence to realise when politicians are trying to buy their votes with cheap publicity stunts.

All this effort is being expended by politicians on a side-issue, at the same time as the armed forces are being decimated by Government cuts. The lack of priorities is quite distasteful. Lets forget about names and focus on equipment; on manning; on structures and on funding.

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – progress report

I’m off most of this week to work on my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’, and I thought you might all like a progress report.

I’ve almost finished the research needed for the Royal Navy-based chapters, which make up almost a third of the book. This week I have been mainly looking at the three Portsmouth Battleships – Royal Oak, Hood and Barham; Pompey-based submariners, Boy Seamen, and Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey.

In Portsmouth we’re blessed with a fantastic Naval History Collection in the Central Library. This includes a huge range of published books, including many you would be hard pressed to find in any other public library. There are also extensive runs of Navy Lists, the Mariners Mirror, the Naval Chronicle, and all manner of other specialist journals. The Naval Collection is based in the brand new Portsmouth History Centre on the second floor of the library. There you can also find the Local Studies collection, which contains things such as street directories, electoral registers and local books. And something I’ve found particularly useful is the Portsmouth Evening News on microfilm.

I’ve found some stuff I didn’t already know – a good account of the loss of Able Seaman James Miller GC on HMS Unity, accounts of what happened to many Pompey men sunk on the Royal Oak in particular, including some stories from the Evening News from those who were bereaved. There is a poignant photograph in the Evening News a couple of days after the Royal Oak was sunk showing navy womenfolk queuing up outside the Naval Barracks for news of their loved ones. And finally, I’ve discovered a first-hand account of how Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey DSO DSC and Bar died.

Research done, now to write it up… Next – the Army!

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