After looking at the military aspects of any future war between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands, it’s now time to try and pull together and form some kind of conclusion.
I have enjoyed the discussions I have had here and elsewhere immensely, and in most cases the contributions that people have made have helped shape my own thoughts on the subject. Apart from the odd snobby comment the series has been very well received. I’m glad to have been able to make my own small contribution to debate over defence issues.
I selected the Falklands War for a case study not only because it has become tedious every time someone says ‘we could not fight another Falklands’, but as a historical example of a challenging tri-service operation it provides us with a relatively sound basis for comparing then and now. If we want to know where we are going, we need to be aware of where we are and where we have come from.
With a weaker Aircraft Carrier fleet and the retirement of the Sea Harrier any task force would struggle for air defence, in terms of numbers and effectiveness. Light Carriers proved their worth in 1982. A dedicated Naval Fighter is crucial. Without it we are lacking a layer of air defence.
The Royal Navy now has a stronger and more flexible Amphibious Warfare flotilla, and is geared up towards expeditionary warfare. However with inadequate air defence would it be possible to win sufficient air superiority to safely deploy it?
The number of Destroyers and Frigates has been cut dramatically. It is very unlikely that the Royal Navy could put together a big enough fleet to escort a task force as in 1982. There are also fewer classes of ship. The Type 45 Destroyers promise much, but there are too few of them and they are as yet unproven.
The cutting of the RFA to minimal levels means that the Royal Navy could almost certainly not operate a large task force at distance from the UK and without friendly bases – the scenario that was faced in 1982.
The Merchant Navy has also shrunk dramatically, to the point where it could not offer anything like the support that it did in 1982. Given also the pitiful state of the RFA, this makes the logistical support of any task group virtually impossible.
Whilst submarines proved to be crucial in keeping the Argentine Navy at bay in 1982, in 2009 the Royal Navy has a lot less boats available, and no diesel-electrics. However they do possess a useful strategic weapon in Tomahawk.
British Land Forces as a whole are leaner but meaner than in 1982, and also better equipped. Virtually all British units have seen service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Overstretch and deployments would limit what troops would be available.
The RAF no longer possesses a long range Bomber like the Vulcan. This however would be negated by Tomahawk. Helicopter support for the Land Forces would be crucial. Apaches also offer a useful new capability.
Command systems are much more flexible than in 1982, and much more geared up to ‘out-of-area’ operations.
So although there are some pretty depressing negatives, there are some positives to take from this analysis: some new and improved capabilities such as Tomahawk, more experienced and better equipped troops, and a better command system and culture.
However compared to these positives, the negatives are overpowering. With weaker air defence a task force would be much more vulnerable, particularly in the amphibious phase. The critical lack of Destroyers and Frigates would leave gaps in our anti-air, anti-surface and gunfire support roles. But the state of the RFA and the Merchant Navy might make the launching of any task force a non-starter simply due to an ability to maintain it logistically. It is hard to see the point of having such a strong Amphibious group if we are unable to protect it or to maintain it.
Against this background, the next natural step is to question what exactly the Government intends for British Defence policy. Effectively British Forces rely on friendly sea based air cover, and allied Destroyers and Frigates to assist in escorting and air defence. The Royal Navy is also reliant on friendly logistical support. While the Government espouses a Global Defence policy, the Royal Navy is effectively unable to operate Globally due to a lack of resources.
It could be said that another Falklands – or indeed any scenario like it – is unlikely. That is probably accurate, for all I know. But who saw the first Falklands War coming? Who could have predicted 9/11? Whilst we cannot plan for every eventuality, we can look back at history and see what can go wrong if we leave ourselves inflexible to changing world situations. It would be hard to argue that British defence policy is not facing a very serious phase in the next couple of years.