One of the pre-requisites of any military operation is air cover. And when you are looking at an amphibious assault against a prepared enemy, thousands of miles from any friendly base, in the enemys back yard, that means aircraft carriers and as many of them as you can lay your hands on.
The picture in 1982
In 1982 the Royal Navy could call upon two Aircraft Carriers. HMS Hermes was a post-world war two Centaur class light fleet carrier. After serving in numerous guises in her career, in 1982 she was equipped to operate Sea Harriers. She could carry 12, in addition to 18 Sea King Anti-Submarine and Airborne Early Warning Helicopters.
HMS Invincible was virtually brand-new, and the lead ship of the new Invincible class. Although officially ordered as an anti-submarine carrier, she could operate 8 Sea Harriers and 15 Sea Kings. She was also fitted with the cutting edge Sea Dart Surface to Air Missile. HMS Illustrious, Invincibles sister ship, was also nearing completion.
Therefore, the British task force in 1982 could call on 20 Sea Harriers and 33 ASW and AEW Sea Kings, on two carriers. Wisdom at the time taught that this was the bare minimum needed, given the strength of the Argentine Air Force (something that we will look at later). Given that Combat Air Patrols usually consisted of 2 aircraft, the Sea Harriers would be very stretched indeed. There were also doubts about how the Sea Harrier would perform against the super-fast Mirages that the Argentines possessed. A few replacement Sea Harriers could be expected, and halfway through the war some RAF GR3 Harriers arrived.
That these aircraft were on two ships is also important. It meant that if one ship had to slip out of action temporarily, to clean a boiler, for example, then there was at least another ship to cover. More hulls give flexibility. But still, the loss of one carrier would probably have ended the war.
The picture in 2009
In 2009, the Royal Navy only possesses two active aircraft carriers, both of the Invincible Class: HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal. HMS Invincible is technically in ‘extended readiness': however, with her propellers removed and sitting on her deck, and denuded of parts to keep her sister ships running, it would take at least a year to her running again.
Of the two ships, one is usually at high readiness, and the other is usually either undergoing trials or in refit. Much would depend on the status of the reserve carrier: if it was in deep refit, it would take a lot of time to make ready. Even if it were ready, the crew might not be completely up to speed with operating aircraft.
The Sea Harrier was retired in 2006 as a cost cutting measure, and in its place the Fleet Air Arm shares Harrier GR9’s with the RAF. These are far from ideal for providing air defence, and do not have the Sea Harrier’s Ferranti radar, for example. RAF Harriers are designed for providing close air support to troops, their electronics and weapons fit is completely different to the Sea Harrier. They might struggle against the Mirages in terms of performance, although Argentina only has around 15 of them currently.
In addition, there are only enough Harriers – eight – available to the Naval Strike Wing to equip one Aircraft Carrier at a time. Even if somehow more were made available, this would entail a maximum of 16 Harriers. The Carriers do not embark their Aircraft as often as they did back in 1982, so operational effectiveness is bound to be affected.
The Royal Navy has a much weaker Aircraft Carrier capability than in 1982. It can operate markedly fewer aircraft, which are not specialist maritime jets and are not designed for providing air defence.
Everything would pivot on whether the second Aircraft Carrier were available. In a very best case scenario, two Aircraft Carriers might be available, and operate 16 Harrier GR9’s. If only one Carrier were available, sailing to war with 8 aircraft would be unthinkable. And both of these Carriers are now over 25 years old. Interestingly, the elderly HMS Hermes is still serving in the Indian Navy, operating Sea Harriers. What a difference she would make to the Royal Navy….
Fortunately, the Argentine Air Force possesses far fewer Fighters than in 1982: 15 high-performance Mirages, although she does still have many Skyhawk multi-role attack jets.
Given that the performance of the Sea Harrier was one of the pivotal aspects of the Falklands War, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that even in a best case scenario, the air defence that any modern task force could offer might struggle in terms of effectiveness, even against a reduced Argentine Air Force.
We must await the Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers and the Joint Strike Fighter with interest.