So far we’ve looked at the Aircraft Carriers and the Amphibious Assault ships. Prestigious and important as they are, the Frigates and Destroyers of the fleet represent the workhorses of any naval operation. If we were to look for a military metaphor, they are the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ of the sea, the boots on the ground.
Yet, as we will see, the contrast between the escort fleet in 1982 and in 2009 is remarkable, and represents perhaps the starkest reason why any operation similar to the Falklands War may be impossible given the Navy’s current state.
The picture in 1982
In 1982 The Royal Navy deployed a total of 23 Destroyers and Frigates to the South Atlantic. These were not all serving concurrently, as several were sunk or so severely damaged that they had to return to the UK for repairs, ans some arrived late as reinforcements. It should be noted, however, that this number represented around a third of the Navy’s total strength of escort vessels, and that many other ships were either under refit in the UK or on patrol around the world. The 23 ships mentioned above came from 7 classes, all designed to perform various roles and offering a range of capabilities.
The sole Type 82 Destroyer, HMS Bristol, was designed as an escort to a cancelled class of aircraft carriers. She fielded the Sea Dart missile system, designed for combating highflying aircraft. She carried no helicopter, but also had a 4.5-inch gun and an Ikara anti-submarine missile system. The Type 42 Destroyers also carried the Sea Dart system, and a 4.5inch gun. They were used in the Falklands to provide forward air defence, and to act as radar pickets. The County Class Destoyers carried the obsolete Sea Slug missile system, but the useful Seacat SAM system for self-defence and two 4.5-inch guns. As such they were useful for providing shore bombardments. Their Exocet missiles also provided anti-ship capability.
The brand-new Type 22 Class Frigates had the then-new Sea Wolf missile system, designed for providing close in, medium level air defence. They were frequently used as ‘Goalkeepers’ for the aircraft carriers. Although they also carried Exocet missiles, there was practically no chance of them using these in their role as escorts. The Type 21 Frigates were designed as a class of cheap general escort ships. They had a 4.5 inch gun, Seacat SAM missiles and Exocet missiles, and were very much all-round vessels. The Leander Class Frigates was a large class, comprising a number of batches. 3 Leander ships that sailed to the Falklands carried Exocet and Seacat Missiles. One ship of the class carried the Sea Wolf missile system in place of Seacat. There were also two obsolete Rothesay Class Frigates.
In summary the escorts that sailed to the Falklands comprised a balanced and flexible fleet. 14 ships had 4.5inch guns, and experience in the Falklands, where Naval gunfire support was crucial, showed that this was perhaps too few. Six had Sea Dart, and three had Sea Wolf. Given that the Type 22 Frigates were usually used as goalkeepers for the carriers, perhaps one or two more would have been invaluable. The fleet was also short or ships carrying Sea Dart, once losses took effect. 13 ships carried Exocet, which would not be used in the Falklands campaign.
The picture in 2009
The Royal Navy has a total of 24 Destroyers and Frigates, numbers having been succesively cut since the end of the Cold War (many have been sold to Brazil, Chile or Romania at a knock down price). Five of these are ageing Type 42 Destroyers, and two are Type 45 Destoyers that have still not had their Sea Viper SAM missiles tested. In addition, usually there are a large number of escort vessels on patrol duty around the globe, in the South Atlantic, the Carribean, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and off the coast of East Africa. At the time of writing seven escort vessels were at sea on operations. This means that a nominal 17 Frigates and Destoyers would be available for any task force. However, a large proportion of these at any time might be in refit, working up or sailing to relieve other ships.
The Type 42 Destoyers carry the largely obsolete Sea Dart anti-aircraft and anti-missile system. They also have a 4.5 inch gun for providing gunfire support. They are designed for providing advanced air defence and radar pickets in advance of the main fleet. The new Type 45 Destroyers carry the new and as yet untested Sea Viper anti-air system. They are designed as replacements for the Type 42 Destroyers, and perform a very similar role.
The Type 23 Frigates have the capable Sea Wolf vertical missle system, as well as Harpoon anti-ship missiles. They also carry a 4.5 inch gun. They can provide close anti-air defence, and also anti-ship and gunfire support capabilities. The Type 22 Frigates carry the Sea Wolf anti-air and anti-missile system, as well as a 4.5 inch gun. In 1982 Type 22 Frigates were used as ‘Goalkeepers’ for the aircraft carriers, and during the landings for the amphibious group. This later batch of Type 22’s had their Exocet missiles replaced with 4.5 inch guns, in order to give more gunfire support.
All Destroyers and Frigates carry an anti-submarine and anti-ship equipped Lynx or Merlin Helicopter. The helicopters can use a range of missiles and depth charges, and also have dipping sonar. Not all ships, however, carry anti-submarine towed array sonar.
Until the Type 45’s can use their Sea Viper system in action, the Royal Navy could perhaps expect to put together a force of escorts consisting of two or three Type 42 Destroyers, perhaps seven Type 23 Frigates and one or two Type 22 Frigates. This would represent a small force indeed, with a limited range of capabilities, in particular poor anti-aircraft and missile defence against high-flying targets. There is also a lack of anti-surface capability, and of a cheap general purpose Frigate.
The Argentine Navy can field 13 vessels carrying Exocet missiles, much more than in 1982, and these would be a threat. Only the Type 23 Frigates carry anti-surface missiles. The Argentine Air Force and Fleet Air Arm have exactly the same aircraft as in 1982, and less of them, whereas the majority of British escorts now carry Sea Wolf. There are only three Exocet carrying Super Etendards left in service. The Argentine Navy only has 3 Submarines, therefore anti-submarine warfare would not be of prime importance.
The Royal Navy would do very well indeed to put together a fleet of 10 ships for escort duties. Several of these would be required to escort the Aircraft carriers, and several more for escorting the amphibious group. With several providing advanced air defence or acting as radar pickets, this would leave few for providing Naval gunfire support. There would be very few replacements available, and losses would be felt very seriously indeed.
Reportedly the Royal Navy agreed to losing a number of Destroyers and Frigates in order to ensure the delivery of its two planned supercarriers. The Royal Navy might be planning for super-carriers and already has impressive assault ships, but has neglected to build a fleet of escorts to support them or to perform the less glamorous ‘workhorse’ tasks. After learning the importance of being able to act independently in 1982, British Defence policy has once again made it virtually impossible for the armed forces to operate without the assistance of allies.