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
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
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.