Falklands then and now: The Reckoning

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.

Key points

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.

Final Thoughts

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.



Filed under Army, Falklands War, Navy, rfa, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, Vulcan Bomber

9 responses to “Falklands then and now: The Reckoning

  1. Mike Burleson

    Your point about the Type 45 is well taken. If the problems can be fixed, could a future RN without carrier support, but with an adequate surface fleet retake the Falklands, in other words, in absence of either Harrier or the F-35? That is a tough question, and I think it interesting the carrier advocates argue over at my blog not so much the absence of fighter support as the lack of AEW aircraft, something the Falklands Task Force didn’t possess with her light carriers, though this was remedied later by the use of helicopter AEW after the war.

    Supposing then in the future each warship carried its own AEW in the form of UAVs, though some have said they lack capability, the required huge radome as on the American E-2 means you have to use a big deck to launch such a fairly large aircraft. But I think if you increase the numbers of aerial spies, you would compensate for the lack of a high powered single plane. Perhaps it would more than compensate because the more “eyes in the skies” the more likely of detecting a threat that much sooner.

    So you have Type 45s for air defense. Tomahawks and perhaps cheaper bombardment rockets on warships for surface attack. UAVs for early-warning and perhaps even close air support. You have no giant aircraft carriers to defend (recalling that the loss of even one in 1982 meant the operation likely canceled), and you didn’t have to gut this essential surface fleet to afford them. Every warship is now its own aircraft carrier, and you can afford adequate amphibious lift as well.

    It could work but we are in no wise there yet.

  2. The loss of the Sea Harrier (discussed at length here: forums/showthread.php?t=98152)would mean this sort of operations is a no no, having said that a few aircraft were eather stored or kept for ground based training purposes and theorectically could be regenerated given adequate intelligence warnings and the political will to act up them.

    Roll on CVF and JCA/JSF/F35B (whatever one you prefer).

    Mike, you have some interesting ideas. However, no ship (or ground) based missile system will have the same range (and ability to worry enemy pilots) as having your own fighters. There is also the issue of relying too much on one system, technology can and does go wrong.

    The use of UAVs for AEW type roles was considered a few years ago, but seems to have ben abandoned because of the value of human operators, and the demands for high bandwidth datalinks if no processing is done onboard. However, your suggestion of fusing data does have merit….

    Several years ago, a nice chap called Mr Hoon decided to save money by not proceeding with plans to give the RN a cooperative engagement capability. Hopefully CEC will proceed soon. This is a system that fuses data from various sources. Hopefully in future, data from MASC will be fused with data from ship radars and other sensors, other carrierborne aircraft like the F35B by also Merlin HM2, and possibly frigate/destroyer (or RFA) based helicopters. Plus land based AWACS and other assets will have an input.

  3. James Daly

    WEBF, to what extent do you think the withdrawl of the SHAR was brought about by the RAF planning to replace theirs, hence precipitating the demise of the SHAR, in order to undermine the RN and FAA? The SHAR was pivotal to the FAA whereas the RAF probably arent anywhere near as bothered about their Harriers.

    The more I look at it the more it seems that Naval policy is still at the mercy of the age old RAF/RN dichotomy. Its a shame that in this day and age single service politics seem to take priority over ‘UK Defence’. I wish that the RN would make a stronger case to policy makers and to the public about its roles.

    There is an working paper on the RUSI at the moment about relations between the services:


  4. That’s a good question. Some more paraniod people might have suspected that this was partly due to the Sea Harrier force coming under what was then Strike Command, and when HM Treasury started demanding that one aircraft type be removed from service, hey presto, it was the single non RAF that got selected.

    Of course I’m not THAT paraniod, however…..

    I guess it was also to save spending on the upgrade it was due to get from 2002, new engine, Link 16, improved nav/attack system, cockpit improvements and a few other enhancements.

    The RUSI paper is interesting.

  5. James Daly

    I guess issues such as the SHAR show how conflicts such as the Falklands should inform our Defence policy in the present and the future. Especially the upcoming Defence Review.

    Is it acceptable in this day and age of joint operations and tight funding that loyalties are more to ones service rather than UK Defence as a whole? Then again, it is a reality of Government being content to let the forces squabble with each other.

  6. Pingback: Warrock Hacks

  7. Great post, VERY informative

    I just did a post on the Falklands you may find some amusement in, from a Yank’s perspective, fwiw

    Argentina Trying to Screw with Britain in the Falklands Again (Because It
    Worked-Out SO Well Last Time)

  8. BTW- no carriers, but can’t they just load up the island with planes? This time there would be no surprise element if the Argentines tried anything… and they don’t have much amphibious capability themselves, you know

    Their forces have been driven right into the ground… just base some planes and rockets on the island, no?

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