Presuming that the Falkland Islands have been taken by an Argentine assault, as in 1982, the raison detre of a Task Force would be to deliver an amphibious landing on the Islands, with a view to defeating the Argentine land forces and effecting a liberation.
The Falklands War, and the focus that it gave to amphibious warfare, led to the Royal Navy developing strong assault ship capability. The Albion Class, replacements for the Fearless Class, were a significant improvement, as are the Bay Class RFA ships which replaced the Round Table LSL’s. Yet, the recent SDSR decided to mothball one of the Albion Class ships, and to sell one of the Bay Class ships to Australia. This effectively leaves the Royal Navy with one first line Landing Platform Dock and three follow-up Landing Ship Docks.
In order to assess what kind of amphibious assets might be necessary, we need to establish just exactly what kind of force they might be expected to land. Given the Argentine land force levels and their amphibious ability, planning should probably assume to land a spearhead Brigade, followed up by a second Brigade once the beach head has been secured – much as in 1982. Fearless and Intrepid between them carried 8 Landing Craft Utility (LCU) and 8 Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP). Even with the addition of a motley collection of other craft such as Army Mexefloats and Rigid Raider boats, this proved to be very few Landing Craft, and necessitated much toing and froing on D-Day in San Carlos. This suggests that you can rarely have too many amphibious platforms or too many Landing Craft.
In 1982, only HMS Fearless was immediately ready for deployment. The date for the land assault effectively hinged on when HMS Intrepid, her sister ship, could reach the South Atlantic, after a round-the-clock effort by Portsmouth Dockyard regenerated her from being in mothballs – destored, de-ammunitioned and with minimal crew. The same situation would be faced in a hypothetical Falklands War of 2012 – Bulwark would be available immediately, Albion might take some time to get ready. Performing an amphibious landing with just one LPD really wouldn’t be advisdable. Reports suggest that Albion is being kept in ‘high-readiness’, with £300,000 a year being spent to ensure that she is available to be regenerated quickly. How long this would take I am afraid I do not have the knowledge to suggest.
Whilst the Bay Class are a marked improvement on the the Round Table Class LSL’s, we now only have three of them. I am a big fan of them, but is three really enough? For their utility they are among the most useful and important ships in the Royal Navy – they have been used for diaster relief, as minesweeper and submarine depot ships, and for general patrolling in the absence of escorts. In fact, they have been used for pretty much anything other than their intended role! Having only three of them, the likelihood is high that at least one would be in refit, or on deployment somewhere. Getting two available for a task force would therefore be pretty good going. They can operate in much the same manner as the Albion class with a well dock, only with slightly less capacity. They do not carry their own Landing Craft but routinely use Mexefloats. As such the Bay Class could carry troops and equipment to the amphibious area, but would need use of Albion or Bulwark’s Landing Craft to ferry troops to shore. The Royal Logisits Corps has 7 LCL’s, some of which could theoretically be used, if they could be transported south somehow.
Of course one thing that the Albion and Bay classes lack is aviation facilities. Whilst both can transport and operate helicopter up to and including Chinook size, neither have hangars – some of the Bays have a tent like aircraft shelter. Thus far the Amphibious group’s transport appears mainly to comprise transport by sea. If the lessons of 1982 are to be borne in mind, any task force could never have enough helicopters, in particular heavy lift airframes such as Chinook. The only options I can think of are perhaps using something like Argus as an aircraft ferry, or using a container vessel such as Atlantic Conveyor.
On paper, an amphibious group of the two LPD’s and two LSD’s would have a lift capacity of 1,300, potentially twice that in overload conditions. With the addition of HMS Ocean this could rise to over 2,100. As in 1982, more transport -probably requisitioned or chartered – would be required to get two Brigades into the area of operations and onto land. Roughly, the plan would be to get the spearhead Brigade – probably 3 Commando Brigade if available – on shore to secure the beachhead, and then once secure bring in the follow up Brigade and any vehicles – AFV’s, support units etc, using the Landing Craft from the first wave.
Whether HMS Ocean could be used purely as an Amphib would depend on exactly what role we wanted her to play – if we wanted to load her up with Apaches as flying artillery, this would preclude space for troops. There is perhaps a need for a smaller LPH style vessel to operate sections of Apaches in support or amphibious operations, or an ability to deploy Apache on escort vessels as the US Navy did in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles could perhaps be operated in a similar manner, but to my knowledge this isn’t something that the Royal Navy has done thus far. But let’s not digress.
In terms of Amphibious Vehicles the Royal Marines possess a good number of BvS10 ‘Viking’ tracked all terrain vehicles, which represent a considerable improvement on the transport available in 1982. The Vikings would give an amphibious assault a lot of firepower that it would otherwise lack, not to mention durable mobility.
On first impressions it appears that we have much less amphibious capability than when we last looked at the situation in 2009. We have immediately to hand one LPD, and three LSD’s, probably two in reality. Another LPD is in high-readiness, while the shrunken Bay Class fleet isin constant demand. On paper, an amphibious assault on an Argentine-occupied Falklands might be possible with 2 Albion LPD’s and 2 Bay Class LSD’s, as each of these ships are more capable and have more capacity than their predecessors, but the amount of hulls is fewer. On the other hand, amphibious operations have been much practiced in the Royal Navy in recent years. Not impossible, but by no means straighforward either.