Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Aircraft Carriers and air cover

The Royal Navy Invincible-class aircraft carri...

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In 1982, Britain was able to send two Aircraft Carriers to the South Atlantic – Invincible and Hermes. The Royal Navy was also safe in the knowledge that it had one more aircaft carrier close to completion – Illustrious – and another that could in theory be regenerated in the long term, Bulwark. But even then, it was felt that two flat tops was nowhere near enough.

Fast forward thirty years, and Britain is in a very perilous situation when it comes to the provision of naval air cover. The on-duty strike carrier role was retired in the SDSR, leading to the decomissioning of HMS Ark Royal, and the re-roling of Illustrious to LPH. This effectively means that Britain is unable to project air power by sea.

Retaking the Falklands without air cover would be problematic to say the least. Even if Mount Pleasant and Port Stanley runways were disabled – either by under runway munitions or Tomahawk strikes – the Islands are still well within range of Argentine jets flying from the mainland. And even though the Argentines did not replace their considerable losses in 1982, and for the most part are flying outdated airframes, their air presence would still present a considerable threat to any task force in the South Atlantic without air superiority.

The interesting thing is, that in 1982 the task force did not gain what you might term complete air superiority prior to the land campaign. The Harriers gave a very good account of themselves against anything that the Argentines could launch, but they were not able to completely prevent attacks on the landings at San Carlos, nor Exocet strikes such as that on the Atlantic Conveyor. In that respect, the 1982 campaign did show that you can win a land war without air superiority. Not that such an approach is advisable, of course.

So what alternatives are there to carrier-based air support? The Type 45 Destroyers have been much vaunted for their anti-air capability, and whilst I am not completely au faix with their technology, most commentators describe them as being very capable. The Sea Viper system could probably provide very effective defence against Argentine aircraft. Although designed as an aircraft carrier escort, without a carrier to play goalkeeper to, they could be freed up for picket duty such as the Type 42 Destroyers were in 1982. Not to digress, of course – we’ll look at Destroyers in more detail later.

We are told that Ark Royal is technically at ‘extended readiness’, but believe me, it would be a miracle if she sailed again – practically all of her fittings have been ripped out. And the Dockyard really doesn’t have the workforce the make her ready with any kind of urgency.  Added to which, the expertise and experience to operate a carrier at sea would be lacking, not to mention the fact that only a handful of Sea Harriers are in storage.

By the turn of the next decade, however, things could change dramatically. IF they come in on time and on budget, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers could be a real game changer – I wouldn’t fancy being an Argentine pilot with a naval air wing of F35’s floating in the South Atlantic, technologically far in advance of anything that the Argentines can offer up. But until then, any planning has to take place on the basis of not having carriers. In that respect what options are available? Much has been made of defence co-operation with France, but I find it hard to believe that the French would lend us Charles de Gaulle to provide air cover for a Task Force. I just can’t see French Rafale pilots risking their hides for a war that really isn’t theirs. In the same respect I cannot see the Americans getting involved to the extent of lending us a carrier.

One option that has been mooted – and it really is an outside bet – is the possibilty of somehow getting together a carrier air group from Sea Harriers in storage at Culdrose, and other Harriers that haven’t yet been sold or stripped down. In all honesty, I don’t know enough about how many there are, and how feasible this is. But I know it is something that has been discussed elsewhere, as has the possibility of Britain somehow acquiring second hand Harriers from elsewhere – perhaps India – as an interim measure if the need arose. Interesting thought, but I’m not sure its something that we could rely on. It would require a protracted conflict to give the time to get a carrier up to speed, whether that be Illustrious from the LPH role, or re-comissioning Ark Royal.

New intensity has been shed on the aircraft carrier situation by recent events since the SDSR, particularly in Libya. Although Britain managed to contribute to the NATO operation quite effectively – with air assets flying from Britain and Italy, and ships in the Med – you can bet that there will have been more than a few curses in Whitehall that we couldn’t send Ark Royal loaded with Harriers. According to unconfirmed reports, the RAF even requested the use of an Aircraft Carrier to cut down on flying time and operating costs. Whilst land-based aircraft are nice to have, they are subject to basing costs and air space and overflight issues. An aircraft carrier can go wherever it is wanted or needed. And whilst we managed ok without one, France and Italy – both much closer to Libya – still deployed theirs. In other situations,


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42 responses to “Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Aircraft Carriers and air cover

  1. x

    Given the parlous state of Argentine air power I think T45 could swing it. It is the number of T45s that is the problem. 12 would like allow 3 to deploy, offering pretty comprehensive coverage, with 3 or so to follow on. What would help matters if these T45 operated the SeaKing ASaC flight. Or the latter could be hosted in Ocean which I suppose could also host AAC Apache for limited CAS.
    That is limited in terms of deploy-ability, no rotor break for example, not platform capability. And Ocean could host additional Merlin ASW. It would be useful if Merlin could carry Harpoon; not much use against a tier one enemy but against a state like Argentina it would be useful. It would be a waste to use Ocean as an LPH.

    • James Daly

      I don’t think the SAMPSON/Sea Viper combo would have any trouble with whatever outdated aircraft the Argentines could put up. If we had 12 T45’s as originally envisaged, I really think that we could have got together a good fleet of 4-6 of them, for a couple to use as up front pickets and a couple for escort duty, whether that be the Carrier Group or Amphib Group. But hull numbers really are an issue.

      I agree, re Ocean. We almost need a floating CAS platform for Apaches, etc. They could play a useful role in providing CAS against bunkers, installations etc.

      • x

        I think 4 to 6 would present too much of a command and control problem seeing as T45 isn’t fitted with CEC; T45 is two generations ahead of T42 and lets be honest really operates in the fashion the designers of SeaDart and graduates of Greenwich thought SeaDart did. One T45 on each beam and one up threat would do the job. The Argentines would be operating at the extremes of their capability. Given SeaWolf VLS proficiency and as I mentioned the availability of ASaC Sea King air defence wise a taskforce would be much better off than in 82. Phalanax may be out of date when put up against say BrahMos but against anything the Argentines have it is still potent. The real problem of course is this would be an all out effort there wouldn’t be other ships elsewhere on the globe ready to move into the roulement.

        • James Daly

          Command and control is a problem – we are lacking enough ships which could act as Flagships, especially after losing the Carriers and the Type 22 Batch 3’s.

          True also re Seawolf VLS – still pretty useful, and we have a few of them to hand in T23.

  2. John Erickson

    You can still do CAS without air superiority, and Argentine planes would still have a long to-and-from, so even if they had “control” of the air, that doesn’t mean an Argentine plane on site 24/7. And the anti-air capabilities of the RN appear (to me at least) far better than back in 1982.
    For air “top cover”, would land-based planes, orbiting and refueling aerially (and thus remaining on site for LONG periods of time) be an option? Fly out of a former possession in the Caribbean or mid-Atlantic? Letting your RAF use our airbases in Florida or Texas might be a little TOO obvious, and for the same reason, we wouldn’t give you a carrier, unless the Argentinians managed to REALLY piss us off somehow. I suppose there might be a chance of us lending you something for “humanitarian support” – the fewer RN ship that have to take care of wounded or resupply, the more in the “gun line”.
    Help me, Obi-wan … I mean, X, you’re my only hope! 😀

    • James Daly

      I don’t think any of our aircraft in our inventory would have the range to fly out of Ascension, and definitely not the Carribean. There has been talk recently of building an airport on St Helena, which although only a 1,000 miles south of Ascension, would give options for long-range aircraft such as Sentry, Sentinel and possibly Nimrod.

      • x

        That would be good. According to some RAF sources without Nimrod there wouldn’t have been a win down south in 82. 🙂

        • James Daly

          Is that a credible RAF source, or their PR Department? 😉

          All joking aside, the more facilities we can get as near to the South Atlantic the better. Actually I’m surprised the Black Widow of Buenos Aires hasn’t kicked up about the St Helena airport plan.

          • x

            I note there is a Falklands story on the Daily Mail website.

            I don’t read them as they get me mad.

            • John Erickson

              MercoSur, a SouthAmerican trade group, has signed an agreement to close South American harbours to any ship flying a Falklands flag. Yeah, right, some fishing ship comes limping in with a wounded crewman on board, and they’re gonna turn the boat away? 😯
              Political posturing. Not even sure who all sits on MercoSur, or how binding it is. And are there REALLY that many Falklands flagged vessels? I thought that was why the country of Liberia was created – to flag your vessels on the cheap! (Kinda like why we created the state of Delaware for corporations!) 😀

              • James Daly

                I’ve noticed that theres a lot of bluff and bluster in Latin American regional politics. The region is full of prima donnas – Fernandez, Chavez, Lula…

                I’m mystified by Uruguays stance, going along with the resolution but then saying that they have no problem with Britain – trying to have your cake and eat it methinks. If you didn’t know any better, from Fernandez’s statement you would think that Britain is a bloodthirsty monster hellbent on exploitation. Pot, kettle, black?

                Oh, and by the way, I think the sum total of Falklands Islands flagged ships totals more than ten but less than twenty. I doubt many of them are anything other than coastal craft that are never likely to get anywhere near the South American landfall anyway, so it is just a load of hot air.

            • James Daly

              The Mail, Falklands Stories or both? 😛

  3. x

    The Independent? Really? Gosh. Um………

    Turned out nice again hasn’t it? 😉 🙂

    • James Daly

      Ah yes, lovely day. Marvellous weather.

      Only reason I like the Independent is I can sit back and read it safe in the knowledge that there isn’t a proprietor trying to foist their views on me. Theres a lot less editorial and a lot more actual news.

      • x

        When you holding the paper do you have to prop your left arm up a bit so it doesn’t get tired? 🙂

      • John Erickson

        (Gasp!) Are you insinuating a news organisation with a slant? Why, I never! Of all the unmitigated ……
        Oh heck, there’s NO way I can pull this off with a straight face! 😀

        • x

          When The Independent was launched it was supposed to be a new departure for British broadsheets in that it was supposedly objective. But over recent years it has slowly moved to the left. Even the word independent in the masthead is now red in colour.

  4. Brian Iddon

    Wouldn’t us buying Harriers from say India to replace those sold for naf all to the Americans just be the final insult?

    • x

      The Indian Harriers are in very poor condition.

      What the MoD should have done when it launched JFH is had all the NAS GR cabs brought up to a AV8b spec. Basically this would have meant fitted a radar so that NAS squadrons could still have provided some level of air defence (and surface search) for the fleet.

      • James Daly

        I’m sure that the withdrawal of the SHAR was a political maneouvre to undermine the FAA. If the MOD had wanted to it could have upgraded the GR’s with some of the aspects of SHAR, quite cheaply and efficiently.

        • x

          Well aircraft are funny beasts. To simple me it seems things can be bolted on and changed about when its wanted. And then on other occasions modifications of a similar complexity can’t be undertaken without a shed load of cash and umpteen years of testing.

          Politicians are transient in the ministerial posts. They can’t be (or can be) be blamed for having the simplistic view that the Army shoots guns, the Navy does ships, and the RAF fly stuff.

          As for conspiratorial moves to undermine the FAA well I have been around the block a few times now and I know when things smell a funny colour! One of the things I like to throw out over at Think Defence is the blokee at the MoD responsible for Deep Strike wears a light blue suit and that is why T45 never got TLAM (and Mk41 VLS.) TD will then point out that Deep Strike man’s boss wears a dark blue suit. But you can tell me that vested interests and corporate mindset don’t come into play. Take a Libya like scenario. Are you really telling me it is cheaper and better to have a ship floating off the coast about doing one job and then a whole plethora of aircraft sitting 1000nm away to launch a weapon that could be sitting on the ship’s deck? I don’t think so……

          If push comes to shove in the SA next year I hope the RAF have some plan for using some of their 900 short range SS.

    • James Daly

      It would indeed, especially when you consider that we invented the Harrier and have retired it while other countries keep using them, even to the point of buying ours!

  5. Brian Iddon

    We should not totally rule out the argies getting help from their pals in the Mercosur bloc.If they promise them a bit of the pie after they take the islands then who knows.

  6. x

    South American politics is such that they could be at each others’ throat by the new year.

    There are even territorial disputes between individual states within the group.

    I could see Brazil perhaps diverting some cash clandestinely to the Argentines. But it is a different matter entirely the Brazilians putting a ship in a harms way.

    Though these South American nations aren’t as attached to human rights as the West for the moment having a good international reputation for humans right is important for the like of Brazil. The latter may be able to slaughter street kids or displace Amazonian Indians on the quiet but it is an entirely different matter trying to do similar to a Western population.

  7. Correction:

    “This effectively means that Britain is unable to project air power by sea.”

    Should read “This effectively means that Britain is unable to project power by sea.”

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