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:
- 2 Wave Class Fleet Tankers
- 2 Rover Class Small tankers
- 1 Leaf Class support tanker
- 3 Fort Class replenishment ships
- 1 Aviation Training/Casualty Receiving ship
- 1 Forward Repair ship
- 6 Point Class Sealift ships
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.
- Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The political dimension (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- The Falklands Then and Now… AND Now: initial thoughts (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- Falkland Islands: timeline of tensions since the war (telegraph.co.uk)