Tag Archives: Task force

Falklands 30 – HMS Coventry

A starboard bow view of the British destroyer ...

After experiencing heavy air raids at San Carlos, and some very brave flying by Argentine pilots, the Task Force commanders devised a new tactic to try and give early warning of air raids, and also to shoot down offending aircraft before they got close to the vulnerable landing ships or the carriers out to sea.

HMS Coventry – a Type 42 Destroyer – and HMS Broadsword -a Type 22 Frigate – were paired up and stationed north of Pebble Island, ‘up threat’ as a radar picket and trap for Argentine aircraft heading for San Carlos. Coventry was armed with Sea Dart, a medium-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapon. Broadsword had the new Sea Wolf system, more ideal for close range work. The idea was that Broadsword could defend Coventry, whilst Coventry’s long range radar and Sea Dart could pick off incoming threats. This was specifically suggested by the Commanding Officers of both ships. Of the three Type 42 Destroyers that had originally sailed with the Task Force, one had been sunk (Sheffield) and another had been badly damaged (Glasgow), both by air attack. The ‘Type 64′ combo took up position north of Pebble Island on 21 May.

Coventry had had an eventful – and rather succesful war – thus far. One of the ships on Exercise Spring Train before being sent south to the Falklands, she entered the Total Exclusion Zone on the 1st of May, taking up picket duties in advance of the Task Force. She alternated between acting as a radar picket and bombarding shore positions around Stanley. For these shore bombardments she was teamed up with HMS Broadsword, for extra defence. On 3 May Coventry’s Lynx was sent to attack the Argentine patrol ship Alfrez Sobral. The patrol boat was heavily damaged by the new Sea Skua missiles, and later boarded by the SBS. On 4 May – the day that HMS Sheffield was sunk – Coventry was to the north west of the task force, repairing her troublesome 909 Radar. Sheffield was in the south-western position that Coventry had occupied until that point when she was hit by an Exocet missile. On 9 May Coventry was sent closer to the Falklands in an attempt to lure out Argentine aircraft. Four Sea Dart missiles were fired – a Hercules transport escaped unharmed, one Puma Helicopter was destroyed and two A-4 Skyhawks may possibly have been shot down. Later on the same day Coventry directed two Sea Harriers to attack the spy ship Narwal.

Remaining off Pebble Island for several days, Coventry and Broadsword continued acting as a radar picket. Coventry directed numerous Sea Harrier patrols onto targets – this is a role performed by surface ships, escorts in particular, that is often overlooked. It is possible, in hindsight, that Coventry and Broadsword had been in the same position for too long, and it is clear that the Argentines were well aware that they were there and determined to do something about it.

25 May – Argentina’s national day – began in much the same hectic fashion. One Skyhawk was shot down after returning from a raid on San Carlos, and another Skyhawk was splashed, this time directly attacking Coventry and Broadsword. The second raid, however, had more luck. Of the six airfraft – in two waves of three – two returned to base before reaching the Falklands. Flying low and using the land mass of West Falkland as radar cover, Coventry was unable to pick up the Skyhawks on their radars. Broadsword DID pick them up, but called OFF a Sea Harrier patrol. Coventry’s radar – designed for operating in open sea – was struggling to pick up the aircraft against Peble Island’s land signature. Small arms fire diverted the first two Skyhawks towards Broadsword. Her Sea Wolf locked on, but unable to distinguish between the two targets, for all intents and purposes went to sleep. Defenceless, one of the Skyhawk’s bombs hit the sea, bounced up and passed through the flight deck, destroying the Lynx helicopter in the process.

The second wave pressed on soon after. Once again Coventry and Broadsword declined assistance from the Sea Harriers, confident that the threat could be dealt with. Coventry fired a single Sea Dart and missed. Broadsword locked on with her Sea Wolf, but at the last minute Coventry, carrying out evasive maneouvres, slewed right in front of Broadsword’s line of fire. The first Skyhawk pilot fired his cannon at the hangar, before releasing his bombs – three 550lb general bombs. All three struck, and exploded seconds later. The second Skyhawk failed to release its bombs.

A large hole was torn in the port side, and men were killed in the auxiliary machine space, the computer room and the dining room where a first aid party were mustered. The explosion in the computer room wrecked the operations room above. Fire spread through the ship, and water poured in through the gaping hole. Smoke and fire spread beyond the capabilities of damage control, particularly as the ops room – the nerve centre of the ship – had been taken out. No order to abandon ship was given, but it was obvious to all onboard that the Coventry was sinking. Quietly and efficiently, liferafts were deployed. Broadsword began picking up survivors, and helicopters began arriving from San Carlos water. Many men – including Captain Hart-Dyke – simply stepped off of the upturned hull into lifeboats. Twenty minutes after being hit, HMS Coventry sank – the fourth Royal Navy warship lost in the Falklands, and the third in four days since the landings at San Carlos. Coventry’s survivors were later returned home on the QE2. 22 men were killed, and one man died in 1983 of his injuries.

Although the loss of any warship is hard to take – and especially the loss of lives – Coventry had performed admirably, and had probably saved countless ships at San Carlos and in the Task Force from being attacked and sunk. Such is the lot of Royal Navy warships sometimes. I’ve always found it intriguing that Coventry was sunk in a manner almost identical to Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942. Different war, 40 years apart, but the same spirit.

The Board of Inquiry absolved Coventry’s crew of any blame. Coventry was noted to be well prepared for war, having spent much time training and 6 months serving with NATO standing forces in the North Sea in 1981, in addition to Exercise Spring Train. However, there were a few lingering mechanical difficulties, such as the 909 radar. The Board of Inquiry – and others – did find that the ships had a lack of close in weapons, beyond missile systems, and this was rectified with the fitting of Phalanx and Goalkeeper to many ships soon after the Falklands War. Coventry and Broadsword had been instructed not to call on Sea Harrier support unless absolutely necessary, as this might chase enemy aircraft away rather than destroy them. Both ships had worked well together. It was found, however, that Coventry was not sufficiently trained for inshore anti-air warfare work. This is not surprising, given that the ship was designed for open-water warfare against the Eastern Bloc in the North Atlantic.

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Falklands 30 – The loss of HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield (D80)

HMS Sheffield (D80) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the sinking of the Belgrano and the Vulcan raid on Stanley airfield, there certainly seems to have been a feeling that the gloves were now off in the South Atlantic.

HMS Sheffield, the lead ship of the Type 42 class of Destroyers, was built at Vickers at Barrow, being launched in 1970 and commissioned in 1975. She was a Portsmouth based ship, as were the rest of the Type 42’s. The Sheffield had been away from home for quite some time, having been taking part in Exercise Spring Train on her way home from an Arabian Gulf Patrol when she was diverted down south.

When the Task Force entered the Exclusion Zone on 1 May, the three Type 42 Destroyers – Sheffield, Coventry and Glasgow – were ‘up front’ performing radar picket duty. Their Type 965 radar in particular gave good long-range coverage, and in that sense the Type 42’s were they eyes and ears of the task force, and the outer layer of the air defence ‘onion skin’ based around protecting the vital aircraft carriers. A very important task – which the modern Type 45’s are very much suited for – but a very lonely and dangerous job too.

It was known that the Argentines had purchased a number of French Exocet anti-ship missiles, which could be launched from Super Etendard aircraft flying from the Argentine mainland. Although the French had withdrawn their technical support as part of the EEC arms embargo, it was expected that the Argentines would at least attempt to use them. After the loss of the Belgrano, this suspicion was even more keenly felt.

HMS Sheffield was first spotted by an Argentine Navy Lockheed Neptune maritime patrol aircraft at 7.50am on 4 May. The Neptune tracked the Sheffield for the next two hours, obviously undetected. At 9.45am two Exocet-armed Super Etendard’s took off from Tierra del Fuego, refuelling from a KC-130 Hercules tanker on their way to the target. At 10.50am both aircraft ‘popped up’ from their low-level flight. After failing to sight the target initially, 25 miles later the Sheffield appeared on the Etendard’s radar screens.

Both Etendards launched their Exocet’s at 10am, at a range of 20 to 3 miles. The sea-skimming missiles raced towards the Sheffield. The Etendard’s had not been detected by the task force as had been expected – it was intended that anti-Exocet procedures would begin once the Etendard’s radar signature was detected. The missiles, however, were spotted by the other Type 42 Glasgow. Sheffield, however, appeared to be silent and inactive. She had been using her satellite communications, which rendered her Typ3 965 radar inoperable for a short time. Sheffield was silent, until the anonymous message was heard ‘ Sheffield is hit’.

One of the Exocets was eventually picked up by the Sheffield, but far too late to do much about it. Five seconds later, the missile struck Sheffield amidships, tearing a gash in her hull feet above the water line. Evidence suggests that the missiles warhead did not explode, but the ships fire main was fractured. The combination of this and the burning of un-spent missile fuel caused a fire to spread through parts of the ship. Eventually the fire was so hot that the ships paint bubbled and blistered, and the heat on the deck could be felt through boots. The Sheffield was effectively dead in the water.

Sheffield was taken in tow by HMS Yarmouth, but sank days later after water flooded through the gash in her side. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since the Second World War. Twenty of her crew were killed, most of whom were in the Galley at the time of the missile strike. As a Portsmouth based ship all of them were either from Portsmouth or had Portsmouth connections. Looking back, it is difficult not to form an opinion that the loss of the Sheffield – the first havy loss of the conflict – delivered a serious reality check to officials and public, many of whom might have been under the illusion that the Falklands might be an easy war.

As a result of the strike on the Sheffield, the Task Force changed it’s missile defence procedures. As soon as the Etendard’s radar signature was picked up, the codeword ‘handbrake’ would start the wholesale launching of chaff decoys, thousands of tiny metal strips that were intended to divert any missiles away from ships. The Argentines launched other Exocet strikes, but the only other ship to be sunk by one was the merchant vessel Atlantic Conveyor, later in the war.

The official MOD report into the sinking – as is cutomary whenever a ship is damaged or lost – found that the ships fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures were poor, and criticised certain anonymous members of the crew, who are difficult to positively identify and the report is heavily redacted. When the Sheffield’s Captain, Sam Salt, landed on the flagship HMS Hermes, he was received in a cold manner, and all but left on his own according to eyewitnesses. This coldness would suggest that their was a feeling at the time that the Sheffield was caught with her pants down. It’s probably difficult for those of us who have not commanded a Destroyer in war to form any kind of opinion on this, except perhaps that in the ‘fog of war’ unfortunate events do sadly happen.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Air War

The Eurofighter Typhoon is capable of supercru...

Image via Wikipedia

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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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Submarine warfare

English: Cropped version of public domain File...

Image via Wikipedia

In 2009 I identified a serious risk of the Royal Navy losing a useful mass of numbers when it comes to submarines.

As in 1982, one would imagine that the Submarine service would be expected to shadow the Argentine fleet, and try to take out some of its inventory – in particular the Exocet equipped ships that might cause our surface vessels trouble. They would also be expect to loiter off the Argentine mainland watching for aircraft and shipping, to provide land strike capability, and also to slip ashore special forces.

The Astute Class are regarded as the best submarines in the world, perhaps on a par with the US Navy’s equivalent Virginia Class. According to one website, she is as quiet as a baby dolphin, which probably makes her as good as undetectable in skilled hands. And a submarine that cannot be detected can act with impunity. And knowing that British submarines can roam around the South Atlantic at will is bound to put the fear of god into Argentine naval officers.

The Astutes carry advanced sonar and weapons systems, more weapons than any other British submarine previously – Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. With a range of 1,240 miles, this means that Astute could accurately target sites in North Africa sitting off the South Coast of England. Such a range and sophistication really would cause severe problems to the Argentine forces. The only problem might be replenishment of Tomahawk stocks, both in terms of the US allowing us to purchase more, and then getting them to the South Atlantic. But as I identified in 2009, Tomahawk would provide a more accurate and less risky alternative to the Black Buck Vulcan raids.

In terms of slipping ashore Special Forces, I must confess I had always laboured under the impression that bigger SSN’s were not as ideal for the task of inshore work as the smaller, old diesel electrics where. After all, in 1982 HMS Onyx was sent south reputedly to work close inshore with special forces. Yet it seems that the new Astute Class boats will be able to use a piece of American technology, the Dry Dock Shelter (DDS). The DDS enables special forces teams to enter and exit the submarine much easier. As with much special forces and submarine technology specifications are hazy, but I can imagine the DDS being pretty useful.

The big problem – and this is the same as with Destroyers and Frigates – is that we simply do not have enough Submarines. By the time the Astute class are finished in 2024 – yes 2024, in 12 years time! – the RN will have seven SSN Submarines – critically short. Of course, as with any vessels a number of these will be in refit at any time. As the Astute class boats are commissioned – at a rate of one every two or three years – the Trafalgar Class will decommission, with the Navy maintaining a level of seven SSN’s in service. Of course, there is a strong possibility that the Trafalgars might start falling apart long before then.

The problem with Submarine procurement, is that with the political desire to ‘buy British’, there is only really one option – BAE Systems yard at Barrow. In order to maintain a healthy programme of orders and ensure that a skilled workforce and facilities can be maintained, submarine procurement and constructions works on a ‘drumbeat’ policy – stretching out orders to ensure that there are no quiet periods when workers would have to be laid off. With the MOD looking at renewing the nuclear deterrent SSBN’s by the mid 2020’s, the building programme for the Astutes has been stretched to cover until when work is due to begin on the SSBN replacements. All very well, but according to the National Audit Office this delay will cost more, to the point at which if the boats had been built faster an eighth Astute could have been built. The MOD decided against this, however, no doubt fearful of the running costs of operating another boat.

Obviously, due to their nature it is very difficult to find out too much about submarine deployments, or submarine technological specifications. But if it is true, that an Astute can watch shipping from off the North American coast, then even one Astute in the South Atlantic could provide a wealth of intelligence without actually firing its weapons. And that is actually the beauty of submarines – you don’t know where they are, so you have to assume that they could be anywhere and could strike at any time – a real hinderance on your freedom of operations if you are an Admiral looking to take and defend the Falkland Islands.

In 1982 the Task Force deployed 5 SSN’s of the Churchill, Valiant and Swiftsure Classes, and one diesel electric Oberon class Boat. In 1982 the RN was geared up for submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, and hence had a considerable submarine arm, in terms of numbers and experience. In 1982 the Royal Navy had 11 SSN’s to chose from, and no less than 13 Oberon Class conventional boats. 24 boats, whilst in 2012, we would be able to choose from 7 at the most.

A theme is emerging – a Royal Navy with first class assets, but with not nearly enough of them.

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Breaking – Royal Navy Task Group to Libya

Royal Marines Board Sea King Helicopter on HMS...

Image by Defence Images via Flickr

The Navy News website reports that the bulk of the Royal Navy Task Group that had been exercising off Cyprus has now sailed for operations off Libya.

The Landing Ship HMS Albion, Type 23 Frigate HMS Sutherland, Tanker RFA Wave Knight and support ship RFA Fort Rosalie have broken away from long-planned training exercises to join the international effort against Colonel Gadaffi‘s regime. The Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean had sailed some days before, carrying Army Air Corps Apaches. Britain already has the Destroyer HMS Liverpool, Minesweeper HMS Brocklesby and the Submarine HMS Turbulent on station.

Albion will serve as the command ship, carring Commodore John Kingwell. She is also carrying Royal Marine Commandos. Sutherland will undertake very similar duties to Liverpool in blockading the Libyan coast, while the auxiliaries will be available to both British and international vessels. There has been no word as yet on the movements of the two other ships in the Task Force – the RFA Landing Ships Cardigan Bay and Mounts Bay.

We were told less than a year ago by ‘call me Dave’ that such a deployment would not be necesary for the next ten years. Thankfully we are operating with allies, as the Task Group has no air cover of its own, no any ability to project any. True, jets may be flying ‘epic’ missions (copyright RAF PR Department) from Britain and Italy, but even the French have sent their carrier close in. Shorter range, more economic, more time on station, more flexible.

In terms of getting involved in the land side of things, its hard to see how that could happen. The embarked military force consists of 40 Commando RM, along with ‘elements’ of 3 Commando Brigade Headquarters. These must be very small elements, as the HQ was in Afghanistan when the Task Force sailed some time ago. Apparently there are also a small number of Netherlands Marines onboard, along with other Brigade troops. A reinforced Commando Group with some support elements does not constitute much of a ground force. On the plus side, the force has just trained in amphibious landings.

The lack of ground forces is in some respects fortunate, as the Task Group has scant ability to land much more than that anyway. Ocean’s tailored air group is more aimed at attack aircraft than transporting men ashore. Albion’s sister Bulwark is currently working up, and could join the Task Group if need be. But apart from that, the Royal Navy is creaking – there are no more ships that could be called upon – they are all either at sea or deep in refit.

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