Falkands then and now: The Air War

The Falklands was a difficult war for air commanders. At the very limits of the Royal Navy’s range, it was hard to see how land-based air could have any impact on the conflict, given the lack of friendly bases for thousands of miles from the war zone. Air Defence of the task force therefore fell upon the Fleet Air Arm Sea Harriers, embarked on the Aircraft Carriers.

Yet, by a Herculean effort, a ‘forward’ air base was established on Ascenscion Island. The RAF made a contribution to the Falklands War much beyond what could have been expected.

The picture in 1982

Vulcan - a strategic Bomber in 1982

Vulcan - a strategic Bomber in 1982

The Royal Air Force in 1982 was heavily geared up towards the Cold War. This was reflected in its assets and its locations – in the UK and in Germany. As well as providing air defence over Western Europe, the RAF provided battlefield support to the Army – in the shape of ground attack and helicopter support, as well as transport. But most of its aircraft were ill-suited to fighting as far afield as the South Atlantic.

The ageing Vulcan Bomber was beginning its withdrawal from service in 1982. Nevertheless, it had a wide range, and after significant retraining and engineering work a fleet of Vulcans was made ready to launch long-distance bombing raids from Ascenscion Island. As well as rendering Stnaley airfield inoperable to fast high performance jets, this also caused the Argentines to fear Bombing raids on the mainland itself, withdrawing fighters to defend Argentine cities and dispersing their effort.

Victor tankers performed a vital task in fuelling the long distance bombing raids. Harrier GR3’s were flown to the Aircraft Carriers to provide ground attack capability, although of the 10 that arrived 4 were lost. Nimrod Maritime Patrol aircraft operated from Ascenscion, and Hercules transports maintained an air bridge between there and the UK. At the time the RAF Lacked an AEW (airborne early warning) capability.

4 Chinook heavy-lift Helicopters were transported south on the Atlantic Conveyor. Fortunately one, Bravo November, was airborne when the container vessel was sunk. The lack of heavy lift support made the land war on the Falklands a hard slog for the foot soldiers.

The picture in 2009

An Army Apache on exercise onboard HMS Ocean

An Army Apache on exercise onboard HMS Ocean

The Vulcan Bomber was retired soon after the Falklands War, with no replacement in the long range, strategic bombing role. However, there is a more than feasible replacement in this respect, in the shape of the Submarine-launched Tomahawk missile. With no other aircraft in the UK inventory (including the hundreds of Typhoons and Tornados) having anything like the range needed to operate from Ascenscion to the Falklands, nor the ability to operate from Aircraft Carriers, all air defence and attack would be reliant on the Carrierborne Harrier GR9’s. As we have already discussed this is far from ideal, as they are a completely different aircraft to the Sea Harrier, designed for a completely different role.

Nimrod Maritime aircraft would once again prove useful in the patrol and anti-submarine role, albeit with a limited range, as might a number of the RAF’s other larger aircraft – the Sentinel surveillance and Sentry AEW might be able to cover the northern part of the South Atlantic, but not all the way down to the Falklands. The lack of a carrier-borne AEW such as the American Hawkeye would be keenly felt.

Helicopters might be a significant problem. High-profile reports have suggested that there is a chronic shortage of helicopters for operations in Afghanistan, even without any other operations occuring. Considering how difficult the lack of heavy lift-helicopters made the land war in 1982, fighting another Falklands War without enough Chinooks – and the mobility that they offer – would not appeal to many Generals. On the converse, enough Chinooks to move an air assault Battalion around the Battlefield at will would be a godsend.

One new air asset that the UK possess might be the Army Air Corps Apache. Even several of these embarked on HMS Ocean would give useful ground attack support. The Apache has been trialed and passed for operational use from HMS Ocean and the Invincible Class Carriers.


The lack of a Strategic Bomber such as the Vulcan would be largely negated by the capability of launching Tomahawk missiles from Submarines. The Nimrod could perform a similar – albeit still limited – function to that that it did in 1982, and newer aircraft such as Sentinel and Sentry might offer a limited capability too. The Apache also offers a mobile, hard-hitting capability that could operate from HMS Ocean.

The inability of interceptor and attack aircraft such as the Typhoon and the Tornado to contribute to any task force would leave air defence solely in the hands of the Carrier-based Harrier GR9’s, which are not primarily fighters. Even though the Argentines operate the same aircraft in 1982, and less of them, achieving air superiority would be a problem. This demonstrates the importance of both a specialist Maritime Fighter, and the ability of RAF jets to operate on Carriers if necessary.

Helicopter support would be critical – if no or very few Chinooks could be provided, it would be a very difficult land war. If in their absence few or no Merlins could be used, then it would be virtually impossible. Given current Helicopter shortages in Afghanistan, few Helicopters could be expected.

With no guarantee of air superiority and a shortage of Helicopters, the air war would be more taxing than in 1982. Even if a task force could deploy all the Helicopters that it might wish for, with no air superiority they would be frightfully vulnerable.



Filed under debate, Falklands War, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

35 responses to “Falkands then and now: The Air War

  1. The only problem in gaining air superiority is the lack of dedicated fighter on the carriers nad I would suggest there was no guarantee of air superiority in 82 either. This was the advantage in 82 as Invincible was effectively deployed as an anti-air warfare carrier with Hermes tasked with support of land operations, once the GR3’s were deployed. However, isn’t this the point of Type 45. Playing devils advocate isn’t Sea Viper supposed to be able to do this mission in providing air cover to any task force. Assuming the capability is there then the lack of fighters would not be a major issue I suspect. Helicopter should not be a major issue as the militayr is much better equipped than in 82. Maybe not in terms of numbers but certainly in capability. Remeber we are buying more Chinooks and while in general this does not constitute and increase in numbers, despite the government touting it as such, it does represent an increase in capability. The press do not like discusses effectiveness, they just like raw numbers.

    Of course a big difference between now and then is the fact that there are fighters, 1435 Flight, based at Mount Pleasant. These are an effective counter force to the Argentinians. Would the Argentine Air Force, whose main equipment is upgrade A-4’s and Mirage 5’s, consider an preemptive air campaign against the island against the current defence set up. They would, despite the numbers, be at a mismatch as they would not send all their aircraft at once and their Gen3 aircraft would be up against a Gen4.5 airframe that is considered one of the top 3 fighters in the world.

    BTW you forgot to mention the Phantoms that were deployed to Ascension;)

  2. James Daly

    Hi Ross thanks for your comments – especially as they come from someone a lot more ‘air-minded’ than myself 😉

    I still feel that SAM’s are an inferior replacement for a dedicated naval fighter, I think that there is a lot more flexibility inherent in a force of 20 or so fighters than 3 or 4 Destroyers – particularly if one or two of the Missile systems were to malfunction at critical points. It does seem like the infamous ‘moving Australia on the map’ incident – more about justifying cost cutting than any operational reasons. And there are no guarantees about Sea Viper’s in service date either.

    I suspect as well that the Typhoons at Mount Pleasant would be an effective deterrent. If we consider as well that we’re going to have plenty of them that we could rush down to Mount Pleasant and to Ascension.

  3. Yes I agree that putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good policy decision but then again there have not been many of them recently with regards to defence. I think another issue to consider in all this, and this goes for your other posts too, whcih I have enjoyed BTW, in the improvement in capability in our military. You hinted at it when talking about the Army. Our forces in the early eighties were very inflexible, focus primarily on NATO’s central front. As such their doctrine concentrated on this area. Actually the Falklands was very much the impetus for a more flexible military even before the end of the Cold War and the impact it had. The military of today is more multi-mission focussed, therefore, more agile and capable. Also to take a technological deterministic arguement the weaponary is much more capable, therefore, you do not need as much to do the same. It is something you see as technology develops. If we take one aircraft in service then and that is still with use you can see what I mean. That is of course the Harrier. In it GR.3 guise it was a capable aircraft but did not have the best carrying capability, especially if being used VTOL, and was armed with dumb bombs and rockets. In its current iteration, the GR.9, it is far more capable. It is strictly the Harrier II after the development done with MDD and is now capable of carrying a far wider range of ordanance including smart weapons such as are the Brimstone, Maverick, Paveway III LGB and Paveway IV PGB missiles. This makes it a much more capable airframe.

    Another issue when comparing like with like is what about the other side. What state is the Argentine military in? Could they really contemplate such an operation both at political and military levels?

  4. James Daly

    One useful model of air defence I have heard is the onion, with different layers or ‘skins’. On the top you have fighters being directed on to approaching threats by radar picket ships. They you have the medium to long range SAM’s such as Sea Dart or Sea Viper, then the close in SAM’s such as Sea Wolf, and then point defence such as Phalanx or Goalkeeper. It is essentially a naval version of defence in depth. Without less or even thinner layers on the onion, the chances of something nasty getting through have to be increased.

  5. Its in accurate analogue an one that should not be ignored. The key problem is that with the cost of todays military it is not capable. Just look at the americans. If we consider that the onion should start at the strategic level what has happened with their ABM program. It is alway a quetion of cost effectiveness Vs. operational cabability. One will always lose out.

  6. The point of defence in depth is that that different layers of defence complement teach other, componsating for the weak points of any particular layer and each inflicting attrition.

    It is better to have several layers than just rely on one or two, even if they are more capable on paper.

    This concept applies not only in warfare but also in fields such as security or safety engineering.

  7. James Daly

    And of course even when you have everything in place, its still not a guarantee of complete safety.

    The best example I can think of is the Coventry-Broadsword incident. The idea of using Coventry’s radar to pick up incoming aircraft and direct SHARs onto them, with Coventry’s Sea Dart providing medium to long range cover and Broadsword’s Sea Wolf giving close in protection utilised 4 layers of defence. But thanks to a shortage of SHAR’s, weapons systems malfunctioning and pure bad luck, they still got through.

    But without those defensive layers working together, it will be easier for threats to get through and it will happen more often. Against the Args outdated aircraft we probably wouldn’t come off TOO badly, but against an enemy with more advanced airfcraft we might well be in trouble.

  8. Jed

    The law of murphy always wins in wartime, but apart from that layered air defence is not available to the RN any longer. GR9 is a ground attack aircraft, Sea Viper has not yet been launched from a Type 45, Mount Pleasant based Typhoons could be “neutralised” by submarine delivered special forces, and now the Argentine Mirages have a nice airbase to fly out of on the ‘Malvinas’. If we had to do this today, it would be T42’s, T22’s and T23’s, so air defence of the fleet would actually be worse than in 1982.

    James said early on that he did not want to get bogged down in politics, or discussing why the Argentinians may attempt to take the islands again, but that he wanted to explore the capabilities of the UK military, using a “familiar” scenario. So in respect to the RAF we have less tankers, less transports, less Nimrods. No need to even mention Vulcan as Black Buck was militarily pointless, a waste of good jet fuel. Not sure if AWACS could play a role with tanker support.

    The one ‘air’ weapon we have now that would make a big difference, as James pointed out, is actually fired from submarines – the TacTom – Tomahawk land attack ‘cruise missile’. Oh, and the navy also supplies extremely flexible AEW & C helicopters, but then they are mostly deployed in Afghanistan right now, alongside most of our other working helo’s.

  9. I would question whether or not Black Buck was militarily pointless. I know Sharky Ward question its efficacy in his book but the strategic effect can not be ignored. The fact that Britain showed that it could bomb such a target from that distance brought home the realisation that their capital could be a target therby bringing the war to their doorstep. While this threat could have existed with SSBN’s the visual impact of the Vulcan was much more potent.

    While the RAF might be smaller, and I question the efficacy of comapring numbers it does not work in such a technologically driven enviroment, it is a much more capable force than it was in 82. It was a force dedicated to low level operations in Europe based on NATO doctrine. Since the end of the Cold War there has been a refocussing of effort and the RAF is a much more capable and agile air force with a distinct doctrine, AP3000.

  10. James Daly

    On Black Buck, I think the jury is still out – assesments of the operations effectiveness do seem to be polarised by Fleet Air Arm-RAF politics. Sharkey Ward and Rowland White in Vulcan 607 give very different views. Maybe we will get some documents released in 2012 that will shed light on it?

    I think the real value of Black Buck was in demonstrating the ability to hit targets on the Argentinian Mainland, and the PR value of making a big early blow in the campaign.

    I picked the Falklands then and now theme as it gives a historical yardstick to compare against; and hopefully it shows a historical context to current defence policy and developments.

  11. Going back to the issue of defence in depth, in the Falklands the layers were:

    Sea Harrier (but with limited radar and no AEW)
    Sea Dart (with problems with some of the radars etc)
    Sea Wolf (only two ships) and Sea Cat (old)
    Plus simple decoys

    Post Falklands the RN gained an AEW capaability in the form of converted Sea Kings, Sea Harrier was improved and eventually upgraded to FA2 standard with a more powerful, more capable radar and AMRAAM missiles with a longer range than Sidewinder, the Sea Dart system was improved and the radar fitted to the Type 42s was improved, more Sea Wolf armed frigates were brought into service, decoys became far more advanced, and CIWS systems were fitted to the carriers and other high value assets, and aboard the Type 42 as a back up to Sea Dart.

    So a UK task group deploying in the late 90s to mid 2000s would have had thse layers of defence

    Sea Harrier (guided by AEW and better armed)
    Sea Dart
    Sea Wolf
    Decoys of various kinds

    Then the Sea Harrier got prematurely retired*, the number of Sea Dart armed ships fell by about half, the number of Sea Wolf armed frigates got cut, and spending on naval weapon and sensor systems and their upkeep got cutback. Sea Viper aboard the Type 45s is still not working, the new carriers and their airacraft have been delayed (meant to enter service in 2012 originally).

    * As discussed at huge length (including the possible regeneration of Sea Harriers that have been stored or kept for ground based training purposes) on the PPRuNe Sea Jet thread:


  12. James Daly

    So, in essence in the late 80’s and 90’s we improved vastly upon our Falklands capabilities, but in the past ten years or so we have forgotten the lessons and sold ourselves short again.

    It brings us back to a column in Warship IFR’s 2010 guide to the Royal Navy: the Government are happy to write extravagant foreign policy cheques with one hand, but are not willing to make sure there are enough funds in the bank to cash them.

  13. I would temper it by saying the capability is there but lots is untested such as T45, and Typhoon to degree. The key problem is as you rightly say is an extravagant foreign policy form our govt. I won’t go to far off topic but if any British govt wants to pursue the aims it currently has it needs to reconsider the whole Europe issue and get behind the idea of a united Europe before we are left behind.

  14. The capability WAS there, it WILL be there (once several T45s are in service with Sea Viper working, and CVF is in service along with JCA), it is just a dengerous period we are in now.

    It is also true that the carriers have been delayed for political reasons, even though this will drive up the cost. Insane!

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    Hi Ignacio, thank you for your kind words. You are more than welcome to mention my blog on your site!


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