Falklands then and now: Aircraft Carriers

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

HMS Hermes and HMS Illustrious in 1982

HMS Hermes and HMS Illustrious 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

A very rare picture of all three Invincible Class Carriers at sea together

A very rare picture of all three Invincible Class Carriers at sea together

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.



Filed under Falklands War, Navy, Royal Air Force

31 responses to “Falklands then and now: Aircraft Carriers

  1. Pingback: Falklands then and now: Aircraft Carriers « Daly History Blog | Tailspin

  2. Mike Burleson

    Very good analysis!

    One of the lessons I see from the use of aircraft carriers in the Falklands, is that here the deployment of light carriers was justified. Some, now even the Royal Navy says only American-style large deck aircraft will do in modern warfare. This is a false lesson if you look at the difficulties all nations, including the USN has endured in the past few decades of deploying large decks, and building planes to operate from them.

    Britain proved in the Falklands that you didn’t need to bust your budget and retire essential surface combatants and submarines to deploy naval airpower. Exactly the opposite occurred, starting in the 1970s and into the 1990’s the bulk of her budget went toward the surface fleet, as it should be seeing these are the heart of the RN. If you notice the bulk of operations she has participated around the world, it has been these little “cruisers”, the surface warships of destroyers and frigates that have worked the hardest. This continues to this day as seen with HMS Iron Duke and others in the headlines.

    Large decks floating fixed wing aircraft are very useful, if you can afford them. Consider though who we use these multi-billion pound giants which we gutted our shipbuilding budget to build: the likes of Saddam Hussein, land-locked Afghanistan. In other words and very high tech answer to a low tech problem.

    Now there are even more alternatives to large decks, other than V/STOL planes, such as cruise missiles, which are getting smarter, and UAV’s which are getting better.

    Today even the mighty USN is struggling to keep ship numbers up, now below 300 and falling, even while the fleet is busier than ever. We haven’t built a completely new naval warplane since the 1970s and the JSF, well you know the problems there. Also we build mostly giant Aegis ships as carrier escorts, then are forced to use them to contend with the world’s poorest navies off Somalia.

    It is a terrible waste just for a prestige navy. Hopefully Britain will learn from our mistakes and return to their own proven lessons before its too late.

  3. James Daly

    I agree whole-heartedly Mike. I really think the Royal Navy is missing a trick. I cannot escape the conclusion that more, smaller carriers presents flexibility over one or two giant decks.

    I will look at amphibious capability next, but I recall having a conversation with a colleague recently: HMS Ocean will be due for replacement in 10 years or so, why havent we looked at a class of 3-4 30,000 ton carriers, about Hermes/old Ark Royal size, to fulfil strike and helicopter carrier? A perfect compromise between the lessons of the Falklands and the desire for bigger carriers.

  4. Mike Burleson

    Look forward to the next post! Yeah, I agree that a compromise design is the best way to go. I don’t think all warships should be multi-pupose, but for a carrier this should be a given. I like the Mistral ship very much.

  5. James Daly

    The ironic thing I think is that the Invincible Class have been among the most multi-purpose ships the RN has operated. They have been Harrier-Carriers, ASW platforms, and Helicopter ‘Commando’ Carriers at some point or other. So why are we turning our back on that versatility?

  6. Mike Burleson

    And as you pointed out with the Sea Harriers, they have been out of service for almost 4 years now, as the RN hopes for something better. For small navies, it doesn’t get much better than deploying the Harrier, and Britain started the trend. Even the USMC sees the value of their AV-8B light carriers, though don’t call them carriers in front of the admirals!

  7. James Daly

    Its a common thread in British military technology – inventing something, then forgetting our own hard learnt lessons and leaving it to others to make best use of it and overtake us. The tank, the Submarine, the steam catapult, the angled flight deck, and now VSTOL. Look at the countries using the Harrier-Carrier concept now – the USMC as you point out, Spain, Italy, India, even Thailand… the Japanese could also use them quite easily.

    Mind you, its an open secret that the RAF probably brought about the early withdrawal of the Harrier – and thus the demise of the Sea Harrier – to undermine the Fleet Air Arm. Very sad.

  8. Mike Burleson

    It did the RAF little good, apparently since they bore the brunt of the recent cuts, or at least their share.

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  11. Jed

    James and Mike, I don’t think you stress strongly enough how much the lack of carriers and more accurately Sea Harrier F/A2’s would hamper any FI ops, even against only 15 Mirages.

    If all 15 are equipped to carry Exocets, then the fleet would have to fall back on the ancient T42 / Sea Dart combination – I believer the Aster (Sea Viper ?) PAAMS system has not completed testing yet – and on T23’s to provide local self defence with VL-SeaWolf. I have not researched the rest of the Argentine capability, but if they had some other aircraft for third party targetting, the fleet could be in trouble.

  12. James Daly

    Yep, Sea Viper hasn’t been tested yet, and apparently even in preliminary tests it failed to lock on to two targets at once, with no explanation as to why and no sign of when it will be fixed. Until then we have the worlds most expensive fighter control ships, but with no maritime fighters to control! Again, as with amphib warfare, it looks OK on paper but did any deeper and there are problems.

    I’m not sure if the Argentine Mirages can carry Exocet, I believe it is only their 3 Super Etendards that can.

    But I’m going to look at escort vessels in more detail next, and SAM defence and Exocets feature heavily in that analysis.

  13. Mike Burleson

    I think it will be far easier to fix the problems with Sea Viper than to deploy more Harriers, and especially fixed wing air. This is where I see the missile as superior. It may not be cheaper than a reusable fighter, since once fired it is lost, but immensely easier to deploy in adequate numbers.

    Here is another great lesson from the Falklands often overlooked. These older missiles like Sea Wolf and Sea Dart, far less advanced than current SAMs with phased array technology, held their own close to shore with limited air support from carriers. This is a profound moment in history, in which the Royal Navy faced off a superior airpower (at least in terms of numbers and their own lack of numbers), and not only survived but prevailed.

    The surface combatant has regained its historic place as “Queen of the Seas” lost in WW 2, unless of course it is displaced by the submarine!

  14. Matthew S.

    “Here is another great lesson from the Falklands often overlooked. These older missiles like Sea Wolf and Sea Dart, far less advanced than current SAMs with phased array technology, held their own close to shore with limited air support from carriers. This is a profound moment in history, in which the Royal Navy faced off a superior airpower (at least in terms of numbers and their own lack of numbers), and not only survived but prevailed.”

    Held their own? They failed multiple times and left the ships only with 20mm, 40mm and 114mm cannon fire. The Type 22s at the time I dont even think had the 114mm cannon.

  15. Mike Burleson

    Matthew, they still won, often in spite of these failures, which added to the odds of airpower.

  16. James Daly

    From what I can gather a lot of the failings were down to what you might term ‘fog of war’: ie Sheffield being caught napping, or when Coventry went across Broadswords line of fire. I dont think you can expect any weapons system to be 100% reliable all the time, and while there were obviously system failures, we cannot discount human error and chance. It works both ways, the Argentinians fusing their bombs incorrectly, for example…

  17. Jed

    Mike – I really, really hate the “they still won despite the failings” argument. It is of course accurate, and can be said of many battles and many wars, but it is not an excuse, and certainly not a good argument for your missiles versus expensive carrier air group preference, which I know well from your blog.

    SeaWolf was new, and it was improved with the 911 tracker and the VL version. However whether it works better close into land is more about the type 996 radar on the T23’s. SeaDart was also improved, with specific improvements to the missile and the 909 fc radar, but again, the fact that it managed to shoot down a land launched ASM during the gulf war is likely down to either the 996 or the datalinked air picture provided by E2D, AWACS or Sea King AEWC.

    So, in the FI the naval missiles were not brilliant, Sea Cat of course was already obsolete, and the Army did not do much better, Blowpipe being useful only against the slower turbo-props COIN aircraft, and the much vaunted Rapier having many problems and issues after its rough transit south by sea. From what I have read the best performing missile, in terms of launches divided by hits was the Sea Harriers AIM9L Sidewinder !

    Back to topic though, as James notes, even the guns we had to fall back on were ancient, WW2 era systems, and as a T23 has only 2 x LS30B 30mm cannon, a modern T23 that suffers a “Murphy’s law” failure of its GWS26 VL Sea Wolf system just at the wrong moment is gonna be as screwed as a Leander or T21 was the first time around.

  18. Mike Burleson

    Jed said “So, in the FI the naval missiles were not brilliant”

    You continue to make my argument for me. Like I said, the new untried missiles back then allowed the British to prevail, despite lacking large decks and adequate air cover. The Harrier V/STOL allowed the fleet to retake the Islands in spite of being outnumbered 3-4 to one.

    Britain did not have to build an attack carrier arm, and deploy only a 40 ship navy. Back then she had the Soviets also to worry about. She only sent about 40% to 50% of her fleet south, with others to spare. Today she would have to send the bulk of her Navy, with no reserves, and there is no guarantee she would win anymore than we thought back then.

    The carriers are important, don’t get me wrong, but they are not all important. The surface combatants are the heart of any fleet, without which large amphibious ships and aircraft carriers can’t even leave port, no matter how capable they are. Now with their own land attack missiles and phased array radar, they can even do without the latter in most instances. The most important ships in the RN today are her frigates, just look at the headlines, and they are in the fight for freedom everywhere.

    There are so many alternatives to manned naval air, that we don’t need to break our budgets anymore. Building carriers is always a burden, but it should never be an unreasonable one, forcing you to cut essential missions, or gut your surface fleet. There are ways of deploying effective seapower without short-changing everything else. Britain proved that in 1982, and these lessons will apply to our stretched thin fleets today.

    It is easy to blame the Navy procurement woes on current wars, like the First Sea Lord telling us to “think beyond Afghanistan”, but these problems have been long coming. Speaking also about the USN, it is the admirals fault for trying to refight old wars, and I mean World War 2 with an over-dependence, perhaps even an overconfidence in manned naval airpower. Welcome to the Missile Age, but its been here awhile, right?

  19. James Daly

    I can see merit in both arguments. But that is the main thing, at least the argument is being made rather than quietly ignored!

    I must confess I am not an firsthand expert on missile systems – how do systems such as Phalanx or Goalkeeper fare as point defence systems? I understand that they are real ‘whites of the eyes’ things.

  20. I hope the following comments and threads are of interest to you:

    Sadly until the JSF/F35 enters service, the RN will not have a fighter operating from its carrier decks, following the premature and extremely controversial decision in 2002 to retire the Sea Harrier by 2006. At this time it was assumed that CVF and its aircraft would enter service in 2012, SDR mandated levels of frigates/destroyers would be maintained, and that the Type 45 Destroyer would enter service in 2007. Hmm, that worked out well….

    I did my best, as did others, to fight the cause for Sea Harrier on PPRuNe and other places and in other ways, letters to MPs, etc. Whilst we were unable to persuade the Government to retain a Shar squadron until CVF and JSF arrive, or at least the Type 45 arrived, or to keep a number of Sea Harriers in storage, I was relieved to discover back in February 2006 that some aircraft were being sent down to the School of Flight Deck Operations at Culdrose for training baby chockheads – better than the scrapyard, and at least they will be intact and regularly powered up and moved about, a good start if we needed to regenerate them, and hopefully still a deterrent to the Argies etc. I am unsure how many are there but quite a few remain either stored or at Culdrose. Last year the UK declined to sell stored Sea Harriers to India, which is interesting. For some reason the MOD wants to retain them, and the Indians must have thought they wouldd be in a good condition.

    I can’t help feeling that

    a) Whilst still a disaster, the RN has managed to salvage something.
    b) The SFDO aircraft will be in use, therefore should be in a reasonable state. Also they should deal with the weather better than Jags the RAF use for similar purposes as they’re naval aircraft.
    c) If RNR pilots could go from flying an airliner to a Shar every year, then the GR9 to FA2 transition would be less difficult.
    d) Engine/airframe spares will be available as India intends to operate the Sea Harrier FRS 51 until 2012 and maybe until 2020. The Captor radar used by Typhoon is Blue Vixen therefore I’d imagine spares would be available that way, also “build to print” is what many parts of the defence industry like to hear.
    e) Exchange tours would maintain radar and other air defence skills.
    f) In a crisis, whilst the Shars are regenerated (including building/modifing parts as needed) a few RN/RNR pilots could get a short course in using radar etc from the RAF, it’s a good job Typhoon has Blue Vixen in a new package. Less likely things were don in 1982, ships and aircraft got out of mothballs, units given new roles, etc.

    Maybe, not quite all is lost……..

    The following links are from the Miltary Aircrew forum on the Professional Pilots’ Rumour Network (PPRuNe).

    These threads are rather long and may take hours to read properly, never read them in full so I can’t say…

    Firstly, the “Sea Jet” thread…..

    Discuss the Sea Harrier’s service and retirement (inc the aircraft retained for training and other purposes), CVF and JCA, other things that increase the risk of disaster (FF/DD cuts, MCMV cuts, SSN cuts) – all at the same time as the high value amphibious shipping is increasing – as well as various other complaints. Did this thread help the RN save some? Who can say?

    Since the Sea Harrier has now gone, the most important PPRuNe thread is the Future Carrier one……

    This discusses all sorts of things relating to CVF including design, build, aircraft, training issues etc. Both thse threads include posting from both sides of the debate.

  21. James Daly

    Hi WBEF thank you very much for your contribution. I would never describe myself as an expert in aviation, so some inside track in this area is very useful indeed. The more I think about it, this Government’s defence policy is driven by saving money above everything else, even more than the Nott cuts in the early 1980’s. And look what happened there…

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  23. James

    Perhaps you should do an “Falklands then and now” comparison poat SDSR?

    Just a thought…

    • James Daly

      I’ve been thinking about that actually. For the past couple of years I have done a Christmas series of posts, kind of like the Open University’s christmas lectures. I think this year we will be revisiting the Falklands then and now.

      I think my idea will be to run a virtual war game thought exercise, with a hypothetical Argentine invasion then run through how things could pan out. Any thoughts, contributions, suggestions etc are keenly awaited.

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  25. I remember when we had aircraft to go with our carriers…

  26. The irony is that the Government could make the whole affair into a success story, as noted here: http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/431997-decision-axe-harrier-bonkers.html#post6023131

  27. Some interesting rumours flying around at the moment. Cannot go into them for obvious reasons, but watch this space.


  28. Rumours continue. Why is the Government unable to sort it out?

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