Carrier Air and the Falklands

The vocal heat level around Falkland Islands sovereignty has definitely gone up in recent months. Tensions have been ratcheted up by various means: the refusal to allow cruise ships to dock at Ushuaia after they visited Port Stanley; rumours that Argentina would prevent flights to the islands through its airspace, and the ongoing war of words between Britain and Argentina (joined, increasingly bizarrely, by a succession of celebrities including Sean Penn and Morrissey).

During the 30th anniversary year of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands and the campaign to reclaim them, attentions have inevitably turned to the possibility of a repeat of 1982. Fears have been expressed publicly by various military figures that in the event of a second invasion, the UK’s armed forces might struggle to eject an occupying Argentine army. During the 1982 campaign, the two ‘Harrier Carriers’, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, were absolutely essential to the operation to retake the islands, and as is well known now, Britain has no ‘carrier air’ at the moment. HMS Illustrious, the sole Royal Navy aircraft carrier, has been converted to rotary wing operations and HMS Ark Royal sits in Portsmouth dockyard awaiting its fate. More seriously, the UK’s Harrier fleet has apparently been sold to America following its withdrawal from service (if the aircraft had been mothballed, they could at least have been re-activated in an emergency).

Ark Royal
HMS Ark Royal awaiting disposal at Portsmouth Dockyard, October 2011

Major-General Julian Thompson, who commanded Royal Marines and paratroops during the 1982 campaign, is quoted in today’s Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror as saying it would be possible for Argentine forces to retake the islands. He is also quoted as saying that if the islands were taken, the lack of UK carrier air would make them impossible to regain.

Thompson said: “The Argentines have a marine brigade. They’ve got a parachute brigade and some good special forces. All they’ve got to do is get those guys on to the islands for long enough to destroy the Typhoon jets and that’s the end of it.”

Maj Gen Thompson added: “You have got to take your own air support with you and you can’t without a carrier. End of story.”

Former Minister Lord West has indicated that to retake the islands would not be possible, and “this is why the defence is so crucial,” he said. “If you’re 8,000 miles away from your nearest friendly airbase you’ve got to have aircraft carriers — and we haven’t.” Lord West’s ship HMS Ardent was sunk by Argentine air attack in 1982, so he has some direct experience to inform his views.

Without carrier air, it’s hard to see how ‘Operation Corporate’ could have been successful. The Sea Harrier FRS1s and Harrier GR3s launched from the two carriers did great damage to Argentina’s air forces, took part in numerous ground attack missions against Argentine ground forces, and although they did not prevent several RN ships being damaged or sunk by Argentine aircraft, the toll would certainly have been higher were it not for the fast jets present. Furthermore, when a beachhead was created on the islands, the Harriers were able to operate from temporary airfields exactly as they had been designed to do.

In 1982, Stanley Airport was rendered unusable by fast jets when a 1,000lb bomb was planted right in the middle of the runway by Avro Vulcan XM607, during Operation Black Buck 1. Stanley Airport was also bombed repeatedly by Sea Harriers, and these raids undoubtedly hampered the ability of Argentine forces to repel the British assault. (Of course, since the departure of the Vulcan from RAF service, the RAF no longer has a bomber with the range to strike at the Falklands either). This may no longer be the case if an invading force was able to capture the airbase intact.

The difference between now and 1982 is that it should be much more difficult to take the islands in the first place. The UK has placed far more potent forces in the region than the token deployment in 1982 (which was in itself arguably an invitation to invasion). The British government has asserted that it does not regard Argentina as a “credible threat”.

The UK’s strategy on Falklands defence has focussed heavily on deterrence since 1982. There has permanently been a warship stationed there – this has worked in the past, as a temporary deployment of two frigates and a submarine warned off a previous invasion attempt in 1977 (‘Operation Journeyman’). In addition, an RAF base was built on the islands, RAF Mount Pleasant, and currently operates two state-of-the-art Typhoon fighters. The RN has in the past been nervous about the RAF base, as if it were seized, it would give any occupying forces the means to defend the islands. Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward wanted to plant explosives under the runway of the new RAF Mount Pleasant so that in the event of invasion, the airbase could be rendered hors de combat. This proved too politically sensitive, and the runway was not mined. RAF Mount Pleasant is therefore, potentially, a two-edged sword.

HMS Dauntless before deployment to the Falklands

It was announced recently that HMS Dauntless, the second of the new Type 45 Destroyers, would deploy to the Falklands as the warship on routine station in the South Atlantic. These ships were designed with air defence in mind – they are essentially escort vessels for the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers currently under construction.

Dauntless has state-of-the-art missile air defences. The main weapon system of the Type 45 destroyer is the ‘principal anti-aircraft missile system’ (PAAMS), known as ‘Sea Viper’ in British service. The missiles developed for PAAMS are the Aster 15 and the Aster 30. The Type 45 Destroyer is able to carry up to 48 Aster 15 and Aster 30 missiles.

HMS Dauntless 2
HMS Dauntless undergoes maintenance and upgrades to its powerful SAMPSON radar in October 2011

The Aster 30 can reach speeds of up to Mach 4 with a range of 80km. It can withstand ‘G’ forces of up to 62G. Aster 15 can reach Mach 3 and manoeuvre at ‘G’ loadings of up to 50G, with a range of 30km. The radar controlling the missiles is apparently highly resistant to electronic countermeasures. The Sea Viper system has been designed with the interception of anti-ship missiles in mind – a valuable capability given the threat posed by Argentine Exocet anti-ship missiles in 1982. The Aster has not been used in anger yet, and it is still relatively early days in its development. It’s notable that in 1982, some of the RN’s missile air-defences did not perform as advertised. Sea Dart, for example, was very effective against a single target but became confused when multiple targets were incoming. There were also tactical issues, with some confusion between ships and aircraft as to which should use its defences against a particular target. So while on paper, the Dauntless’s defences against attacking aircraft are almost unbelievably powerful, it remains to be seen whether they will stand up in the heat of combat.

Dauntless also has ‘stealth’ features (popular legend has it that the Type 45s show up on radar as the size of a fishing boat) and sophisticated anti-ship defences.

RAF Typhoon
An RAF Typhoon similar to those deployed to the Falklands, with ASRAAM missiles fitted

The RAF’s four Typhoon fighters based on the islands also have considerable air-to-air capabilities. The aircraft of 1435 Flight have been seen armed with MBDA Asraam short-range missiles, and the Typhoon is also capable of carrying the medium-range Amraam. It also has an internal 27mm Mauser cannon. In addition to the RN and RAF resources, there is a detachment of around 500 infantry and engineer personnel, and the Joint Rapid Reaction Force aimed at sending further forces from all three services if a threat was detected.

In short, the defences in place at the Falklands are – on paper at least – more than enough to give any invading force a considerable headache. Any attacking force would have to expect very heavy losses. Argentina’s air forces are essentially a developed version of what was available in 1982, with aircraft developed from the French Mirage, American A-4 Skyhawk and the indigenous ground-attack Pucara. All would be extremely vulnerable to the Type 45 and the Typhoons.

Moreover, the forces in place send a signal that Britain is prepared to fight to keep the islands, and that is perhaps as valuable as any actual capability. Nevertheless, until the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and their Joint Combat Aircraft air arms are available, it would be impossible to retake the islands if they were captured. If the self-determination of the Falkland Islanders to remain British is to be protected, it is essential that the local deterrent remains as strong as it can be. It’s also essential that Britain gets its ‘Carrier Air’ back as soon as possible.

See The Navy Campaign’s comment on Carrier Air here

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