Image via Wikipedia
In my 2009 review of the possibility of fighting another Falklands War, I identified a lack of escorts – Frigates and Destroyers – as a critical problem that might inhibit Britain’s ability to retake the Falklands after a hypothetical Argentine invasion.
In order to assess whether the Royal Navy has a suitable number of hulls, we need to assess what tasks Frigates and Destroyers are needed to perform. I can think of the following off the top of my head:
In 1982 the type 42 Destoyers were used as up-front radar pickets ahead of the main force. It was in this role that HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet Missile, whilst acting as a radar picket along with her sister ships HMS Coventry and HMS Glasgow. The Type 965 air surveillance radar carried by the Type 42‘s in 1982 had a reasonable range of 230 nautical miles, but was becoming obsolescent and was due to be replaced by the more advanced Type 1022 system with a range of 225 nm. But using their radars three ships could still provide a reasonable radar screen, ahead of the main force. True, HMS Sheffield was hit, but that was partly due to her radar being ineffective at an unfortunate moment, and in addition, better to lose a destroyer than a carrier.
Fast Forward to 2012, and the Royal Navy has three Type 45 Destroyers in commission having passed all sea trials, with another – HMS Dragon – due to be commissioned in Spring 2012. The Type 45’s use a SAMPSON air surveillance radar, far in advance of anything that the Royal Navy possessed in 1982. It has been reported that SAMPSON is so effective, that in exercises with the US Navy a Type 45 Destroyer was asked to switch it off as it was ‘inhibiting training’. Specifications for SAMPSON are hard to come by, the best I can find is a range of 400 kilometres, which translates to around 250 miles. But apparently the picture is much more detailed, the false-alarm ratio is much lower, and it is all-round more effective.
In 1982 the Royal Navy could only deploy two of its new Type 22 Class Frigates, carrying Sea Wolf close range missile system. Both of these carried the original GWS-25 conventional launch system, fired using type 967/968 radar combinations. The rest of the Task Force’s Frigates and Destroyers were only armed with obsolete Sea Slug and Sea Cat systems. The Royal Navy’s Type 23 Frigates now fire vertical launch Sea Wolf, controlled by Type 996 radar. A combination of SAMPSON/Sea Viper and Type 996/VLS Sea Wolf is far in advance of what could be offered in 1982, especially when we consider that the Argentine Navy and Air Force’s equipment has hardly improved.
In an ironic sense, the likely lack of an aircraft carrier would release a couple of escort vessels from air defence duties, although the same role would still need to be performed escorting the amphibious group, or any other valuable or vulnerable group of ships in the Task Force. In a similar manner, ships would have to provide initial air defence for any invasion and subsequent landing zone, before Rapier could become effective – much as in 1982.
One problem I identified back in 2009 was the presence in the Argentine fleet of 13 Excoet equipped Destroyers and Frigates. One would hope that the advanced Type 45 and Type 23 technology would prove to be more than a match for this – and any Exocet equipped Super Etendards – but it does show up a shortcoming in anti-surface capability in the Royal Navy today. Exocet has a range of 43 miles, or 110 if fitted with a booster. This should be well within the range of SAMPSON in the long reach and Type 996 in the short distance, but do we have enough ships to provide defence against so many possible threats? However, since 1982 all RN ships DO have improved Close in weapons defences – be it Goalkeeper, Phalanx or Chaff.
The Type 23 Frigates carry Harpoon anti-surface missiles, which have a range of up to 136 miles, depending on which variant is carried (which I am struggling to find out). Hence Harpoon seems to outrange Exocet by some distance, but following the withdrawal of the Batch 3 Type 22 Frigates, there are only 13 Type 23’s in service. Not all of them would be available at any one time thanks to standing commitments and refits, and when we consider that at least a couple would be required for close-in air defence, only a few at most would be available for forming a surface-action group to combat the Argentine Exocet ships. The Typ3 45 Destroyers are designed to carry Harpoon as an upgrade – there is even space in the ops room for the operators desk – but they do not currently carry them. With the decomissioning of the four Batch 3 Type 22’s, I wonder if their Harpoon launchers and systems could be utilised? The the MOD would only need to purchase two new systems. It depends if the Type 22’s are to be scrapped or sold as going concerns.
The Argentine Navy does have a paucity of Submarines compared to 1982, fielding only three diesel electrics of TR-1700 and Type 209 class. If the performance of the Argentine submarine arm in 1982 is anything to go by, the Royal Navy need not fear too much. The Royal Navy has an expertise in anti-submarine warfare, a legacy of the Cold War. However, of the 13 Type 23 Frigates, only a number of them actually carry towed-array sonars for anti-submarine work – this could be something of a problem. All Frigates or Destroyers carry Merlin or Lynx helicopters for ASW, which one should imagine would provide good defence against submarines. However, the lack of an aircraft carrier might inhibit the carrying of further ASW Sea Kings as in 1982. In the same manner, a lack of AEW might be a problem.
In terms of naval gunfire support, the Royal Navy learnt a big lesson in 1982 – you can never have too many ships with a traditional main gun. As a result the Type 22 Class was modified to carry a 4.5 inch gun, and the Type 23 and Type 45 Classes all have the up to date Mark 8 4.5 inch gun. At Navy Days 2009 I was informed that the 4.5 inch gun direction actually has an offset built in, as in the Falklands it was found that the fire was too accurate – pretty much putting roundsi nto the same holes. Obviously for harrassing fire this is no good. A Task Force in the South Atlantic should be able to provide reasonable gun fire support, but a lack of Tomahawk LAM equipped surface ships is lamentable – although these are carried on our SSN’s, more of them on surface ships would really put the fear up the Argentines.
Technologically, the Royal Navy has progressed in leaps and bounds since 1982, and can offer up radar and weapon systems that should more than prove a match for anything it might encounter in the South Atlantic. The only problem I can identify is a lack of hulls. With advances in technology, the number of ships keeps getting cut to subsidise the improved systems on each hull. With Four Type 45 Destroyers, three Type 42’s, and 13 Type 23’s, that gives only 20 Escort vessels in total. We would do very well indeed to get ten or twelve of them into action for a task force. Whilst one Type 45 Destroyer could probably do the job of two Type 42’s, if it is hit, it can’t do the job of any. A ship can only be in one place at any one time, and hence the politicians and admirals boasts that advances in technology make a lack of ships irrelevant should be treated with caution.
Ggiven that the Argentine Air Force and Navy haven’t really progressed since 1982, I wouldn’t imagine that any Type 45’s or Type 23’s down south would encounter too many problems. The problem would be getting enough of them there in the first place to do everything that we would need them to do. In recent months the RN has struggled to have ONE escort available in coastal waters alone. It could indeed be a close run thing once wear and tear and possible losses come into play.