Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Auxiliaries and Merchant vessels

English: NRP Bérrio, fleet support tanker of t...

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In 2009 I looked at the role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Merchant Navy. But since then, it has occured to me that their roles are so similar and interlinked that it makes much more sense to look at them in unison.

The RFA of 2012 is woefully small. Even when we consider that the Royal Navy has contracted in size, the RFA has shrunk beyond proportion to that contraction. It can only field:

It should be noted that I have excluded the Bay Class LPD’s, which rightfully belong under ‘Amphibious Warfare’. This is absolutely microscopic when compared to the RFA effort that was required in 1982. In 1982 the RFA utilised:

  • 10 Tankers of four different classes
  • 2 Fort Class replenishment ships
  • 1 Helicopter Support ship
  • 2 Ammunition store ships
  • 1 Ness Class store ship

In addition, the Merchant Navy provided a very sizeable contribution to the logistics effort, and ships taken up from trade and chartered consisted of the following:

  • 9 troopships (to lift two brigades)
  • 4 aircraft/helicopter support ships
  • 1 ammunition ship
  • 1 general transport ship
  • 14 Oil Tankers
  • 1 Water Tanker
  • 2 Ocean going tugs
  • 1 mooring vessel
  • 2 repair ships
  • 3 Refrigerated stores ships
  • 1 hospital ship
  • 2 despatch vessels
  • 1 minesweeper support ship

I have been having a bit of trouble getting access to any kind of information of what ships comprise the Merchant Navy in the present day. Bearing in mind the kind of effort it took to maintain a task force in the South Atlantic 30 years ago, a logistical effort would probably be required on a similar kind of level. If such ships could not be requisitioned from British flagged companies, ships would have to be chartered – at considerable cost. It is surely never ideal to be chartering ships to take to war.

With the shrinking of the RFA, gaps exist for tankers and general store ships. The six Point Class roll-on roll-off ships could provide a very useful capability of lifting vehicles, equipment, stores and possibly aircraft if needed. RFA Argus could be utilised as a helicopter support ship, and given the utility of the repair ship RFA Diligence, it would seem that similar repair support would be invaluable, given that Diligence has also acted very usefully as a depot ship for submarines and minesweepers in the past. Any vessels – perhaps container ships – that could be quickly converted to transport and operate helicopters would be most useful. Liners and medium to large ferries would be needed as troopships, and if Argus was used for helicopter support another option would be needed for providing hospital ship(s).

There is a serious lack of Tankers in the RFA. With only two Wave Class Fleet Tankers, two smaller Rover Class Tankers and one Leaf Class support tanker, the ability to replenish ships at sea is very minimal indeed. Even then, often the Wave Class ships have been sent on patrol duties, intercepting drug smugglers and pirates and the like. Whilst large commercial tankers could be requisitioned or chartered, it remains to be seen how many of them could replenish ships at sea.

Presumably the Task Force would have use of Ascenscion Island as a staging post. The airfield at Wideawake has been used as RAF Ascencion Island since the War as part of the air bridge between the UK and the South Atlantic. Although Ascencion does not have a harbour, it does provide the only sheltered anchorage en-route to the Falklands. The construction of an aiport on Saint Helena, due for completion in 2015, would radically improve transport links with the South Atlantic. Hence Saint Helena could also be used as a logistics hub. I would be very surprised if the MOD has not leaned on DfID to ensure that St Helena Airport is not capable of supporting military operations if necessary.

Histories of the Falklands War suggest that the Ministry of Defence maintains a list of merchant ships suitable for use in the time of war. In 1982, it was found that many of these were light, cross-channel ferries totally unsuitable to sailing 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic. One would hope that the MOD has a similar list maintained in readiness for a future Falklands War, as it looks like any Task Force would be impossible without a significant Merchant Navy contribution. From a logistical sense, getting a Task Force to the South Atlantic and keeping it there would be of prime importance.



Filed under Falklands War, Navy, rfa, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Auxiliaries and Merchant vessels

  1. Brian Iddon

    Hasn’t the RFA also got 3 Bay class landing ships?

  2. Brian Iddon

    Sorry just seen the bit about the Bay class.

    • James Daly

      Hi Brian no problem, the Bay Class are a strange one – they are primarily landing ships, but are operated by the RFA as a cost-cutting measure, and so they can be tasked for other RFA type duties when not required for amphibious ops.

  3. Brian Iddon

    I applied to join the RFA a couple of years ago.I passed the written test down my local recruiting office but didn’t get invited for an interview.Gutted to say the least.
    No doubt i would have been made redundent because of the latest cuts but would still have liked to have got in even if it was only for a couple of years.Oh well,another cunning plan gone up in smoke.

  4. x

    The book on the topic is Merchant Ships at War: The Falklands Experience available from…….

    The interesting thing about the Sir/Round Table Class is that many forget that originally they were Army ships operated and crewed by BRITISH INDIA STEAM NAVIGATION. Colour photos of the era show them resplendent in the traditional trooping livery of white with a blue band around the waist.

    • x

      Note the ships were “owned” by the Ministry of Transport.

    • James Daly

      Looks like an interesting read, haven’t heard of it before.

      That is one thing about the Round Table Class that people don’t realise. I remember reading in Clapp’s book that in 1982 the Navy had to formally ask permission from the Army for the LSL’s to be released for the Task Force. I think they were originally intended to support the British Army of the Rhine, hence how they were often used as vehicle ferries.

      • x

        During the Cold War there was constant Army sea traffic to and from the Continent. Some of it via the Army’s own ships. You could say on balance the RN transporting the Army historically wasn’t too common. Of course in the days of Pax Britannica it didn’t matter whose ships the Army used because the RN kept the seas safe.

        Over at TD some do like to point out that the Army deploys today very well without the RN having a huge fleet. In response I point out the Army deploys only because the USN allows it to deploy. There has to be “sea power” somewhere in the system even if it doesn’t belong to you. Not for nothing are building warships hand over fist.

  5. x

    The Chinese building warships……

  6. James Daly

    It just so happens that Afghanistan is one of very few landlocked states in the world. In any case, just looking at Afghan is very narrow. Now the horn of Africa, the gulf of Yemen and the straits of Hormuz – that’s a very different matter.

    I can think of no examples in history where an Army has deployed succesfully without adequate sea and air superiority.

    • x

      Much the same could be said about Iraq. If the West had gone after say Yemen the RN might have been seen as slightly more relevant. Let’s hope Somalia is a good war.

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