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The Falklands in Want of Frigates

February 22, 2010
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British Royal Navy file photo of HMS Cornwall (F99), a Type 22 Broadsword-class frigate.

Some within the Royal Navy who recently called for the dismantling of the Royal Air Force, must be singing the younger service’s praises today. The presence of a handful of Typhoon fighters and especially the potential for Falklands reinforcement by air on the Mount Pleasant Airport there, has reduced the likelihood the Navy would have to deploy another Task Force south as it did in 1982. From the Scotsman, here is Former navy commander Michael Codner now with the Royal United Services Institute on the significance of all this:

“The British have Port Stanley Airport and there are a thousand troops there and four Typhoon fighters. As long as Britain can hold on to Port Stanley Airport they can defend the Falklands by air. The MoD will have dormant plans which could be activated pretty quickly.”

So Britain, as long as it prevents a commando-style raid on its fortified Port Stanley – should hold on to the islands.

 The last war was basically a Navy show, with her small fleet of light carriers providing cover for the Royal Marine and Army landing troops. Today it is more about the Air Force, since over the past decade, modernization has wained in the fleet to bring it to its lowest point in centuries. Part of this is because of the ongoing Middle East Wars where the British Army has been in the thick of the fight on 2 major Theaters, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Secondly, it is about the huge investment made in two American style aircraft carriers, the largest such vessels ever built in the country. It was a bold move on the admirals and politicians part for certain, to return some of the prestige it may have felt it loss with the retirement of its last large deck in 1978. In retrospect, and with the major inadequacies the fleet is suffering through, not the wisest choice.

But naval analysts admit Britain would struggle to project a major naval force 8,000 miles into the South Atlantic today. The problem, they say, would be a lack of escort ships.

Sadly, these have been sacrificed on the alter of carrier airpower. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Royal Navy spent the bulk of its funds on constructing new surface escorts, Since then, with the Fall of the Iron Curtain, the “peace Dividend” of the 1990s, the land wars of the 2000s, plus the search for expensive new aircraft to deploy on its new giant decks, all have forced the Navy to shed off the essential little “cruisers” which traditionally has upheld the country’s interests overseas.

The navy currently has seven destroyers and 17 frigates, compared with 13 and 53 respectively back in 1980. True, its old Type-42 destroyers, some of which saw service in the Falklands, are being replaced by the much bigger and more powerful Type-45 vessels currently being built on the Clyde.

The navy, unlike the Argentines, can carry out amphibious assaults. It has a helicopter carrier, four landing ship docks and two landing platform docks. But they would have to get to the Falklands safely.

Meaning the impressive new carriers and the essential troop transport won’t be able to leave port if it isn’t protected from enemy submarines plus missile armed surface ships and aircraft. As one of our commenter’s Arkady Renko pointed out “The RAF are proving their worth, but at the same time, the dependence on the RAF shows the overall weakness of the British military.” In other words, Thank God for the RAF, but where is the plan B if the Argentines decide to go all out?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Kory McDonald permalink
    May 12, 2011 7:06 pm

    Hello, to the previous comment you need destroyers and frigates to defend a carrier. Carriers are not that well armored like they were in the Cold War, a single shell can penetrate the hull of most modern aircraft carriers. The only nation that has armor with CV, is the USA and that can be penetrated by a 6 inch gun, or a torpedo from one of your attack submarines that you say can protect an aircraft carrier. The Falklands are within distance of the Argies airbases, and there your idea is downright idiotic. And remember most of their fighters fire the Exocet missile hello there read your history.

    What they need to do is have a task force based in the Ascension Islands consisting of a two type 45’s and two Iron Duke class frigates, and if the tyrant in South America has anything to say about it and sends his fighters to intercept this fleet there is a US strategic zone in the South Atlantic and his pitiful air force will be nothing but scrap in a matter of minutes. The strategic zone in question is that of the Panama Canal. Not to mention that UK and the air space he would have to cross (Brazil) are great allies of the USA. Now the Argies have a small navy and they could mount the assault that you suggest, but they would be thrown off the Falklands in a matter of weeks like they were before.

  2. dave hamilton permalink
    January 25, 2011 3:46 pm

    Destroyers and Frigates ..Complete waste of time and money.. Build and operate two carriers..
    The idea of a destroyer ‘escorting’ a supercarrier is ridiculous.

    Carriers and attack submarines.. all you need..

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 26, 2010 5:52 am

    agent0060-I prefer not to dwell on politics here, and I find it very liberating! For the most part, politicians give the military what they ask for, and I can’t help but blame much of the US and UK equipment deficiencies on the admirals and generals who frequently order the weapons they want instead of what they need.

    So we order aircraft carriers or nuke submarines, and then end up fighting insurgents who don’t have navies or pirates who can skirt around our impressively capable missile battleships built to fight WW 3 with sheer numbers and stealth.

    The politicians might be understandably reluctant to continue funding massively expensive weapons programs that produce fewer and fewer examples. The military might argue these are so much more capable, but throughout warfare the tyranny of numbers still count. As we see in Afghanistan, we need more troops, helicopters, armored trucks, despite having complete dominion of the skies, and absolutely no threat at sea.

    Yet the admirals and generals say they don’t have enough expensive jets and carriers. They they are still very useful, but not like they used to be. Because they are so capable we can make do with less.

    So, blaming this on the politicians and lack of funds is easy, but every military must transform itself periodically, as I recall Fisher here, or it will die. And it must come from within.

  4. agent0060 permalink
    March 25, 2010 8:24 pm

    There are lots of considerations in these posts. But let’s start with the first major one. Four Typhoons are not an Air Force. A search around the Web discovered the information, from the lead pilot of the Typhoons, that the trip to Mount Pleasant Airbase took 18 hours flying time, but done over about 7 days. And there were also considerable air refuelling and SAR resources. The Typhoons are the Quick Reaction Alert. But could they hold out for a week? Well, I suppose it’s possible. After all, each Typhoon has 13 hardpoints. So, provided they don’t miss with any ordnance, 4 Typhoons could put down 52 opponents. According to Wikipedia, the Argentine Air Force only has about 68 combat aircraft. Would they put them all up at the same time? Probably not. So the Typhoons stand a chance for a few days depending on the ordnance available. But a week?

    And is Argentina our only concern? Well, Chavez of Venezuela has been ranting for some time about what he would do the next time the Royal Navy appeared in the South Atlantic in force. Now, again according to Wikipedia, the Venezuelan Air Force lists 24 Sukhoi SU30MKVs and 21 F-16s in their order of battle. The SU-30s are Mach 2 multi-role. Does the balance of forces sound any different now?

    The United Kingdom has, over a period of years, made a number of possibly catastrophic mistakes. When you are a country with a number of Overseas Territories, the UK has 14, and you are committed to their defence, it is criminal not to make proper provision. The 32 countries that support Argentina’s claim to the Falklands are all in South America or the Caribbean. At least 9 of the UK’s Overseas Territories are in that area.

    We NEED, have needed and will continue to need a significant blue-water navy. Two 65,000 ton carriers are not enough. So let’s say four. In 1960 the Royal Navy had 202 vessels, today we have 87. What were we thinking of? We were thinking of ASW in the North Atlantic and leave everything else to the Americans. I think I’m right in saying that the total strength of the Task Force in 1982 was 111 vessels. Can we buy from the United States? Probably not, but we could ask. I’d say we need to double the size of the Royal Navy by the end of 2010. We might have that long.

    The current combat strength of the RAF, Harriers, Tornados and Typhoons is 332 aircraft. The Harriers and Tornados are being phased out, leaving 58 Typhoons, with a further 102 to come. When?

    The Army and the Marines will be OK if the UK can get them there, but an Urgent Operational Requirement for 30 Challenger tanks is not the same as a UOR for 30 destroyers.

    The UK has said that there is nothing to negotiate about the Falkland Islands. Nothing except time. For as long as we are talking, we have time to build up our available forces. So, for the time being, let’s say that we may be prepared to negotiate but not until after the next General Election. After that, if we can’t spend a year in pointless negotiations, we’re losing our touch.

    In the meantime, build, build, build. If the US will go along, buy or perhaps lease. Cruisers, destroyers, frigates.

    But where does the money come from? Well, for a start, all the MPs in the expenses fiddle can pay back the money stolen from the taxpayers. Possible excuses, very few. Ever seen a poor MP? If the only alternative to repayment is the dole, well maybe. But no properties, on or off-shore funds, assets in the names of relatives or second incomes.

    Then, perhaps, we could all agree that all the income from the National Lottery could go to the Armed Forces. At least for the next few years.

    But, in the meantime, the UK’s overseas aid could be reviewed. Why are we giving India £400 million a year to spend on Armed Forces that are bigger than ours? I understand the need to keep friends, but we’re also taking their emigrants/immigrants. India no longer needs the UK’s financial aid. And where else is the taxpayer’s money being misspent?

    Time for public accountability rather than public smokescreens. We don’t need anything complex, that can be fogged. Just enough to tell the UK Government where it’s priorities are and end pet projects. Our relationship with the EU is not a positive factor. End it, and save our money for OUR needs.

    Let’s try to remember that UK Governments are ELECTED to govern, not to RULE. Governance is the direction of the national capability for the benefit of the nation. Rulership is the direction of the national capability at the whim and for the benefit of the ruler.

    So, we need to get rid of Brown and New Labour. The alternatives – not promising. We are not short of politicians, but we are short of statesmen. Now may be the time to demand a Government committed to British interests rather than those of particular political parties. The time for party politics is over. Once again, it is time for national unity both within the United Kingdom and with the Overseas Territories. It may sound old-fashioned but, at whatever cost, we must retain our honour and the trust of the the people of our Overseas Territories.

  5. Chuck Hill permalink
    February 25, 2010 1:17 am

    Complementing the four Typhoons for preventing war in the South Atlantic is not unlike writing on December 6, 1941, how wonderful it is that Prince of Wales and Repulse have cowed the Japanese and kept them in their place. Sometimes putting an inadequate force within striking distance of your enemies is worse than having no force at all.

    If the Argentines do succeed in seizing the islands, they would now have the one thing they really needed in the 1982, an airbase on the islands.

    The real influence squadron is the SSNs. If the Argentines planned to seize the islands they have to wonder if they could resupply them considering that their ships would be at the mercies of the British Nucs.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 23, 2010 4:35 pm

    Jed wrote-“two conventional powered 65,000 tonne carriers is not the same as 12 CVN’s as per the USN force. So to be honest, if the UK Govt did not use the carriers as a reason to run down the rest of the RN, there would be some other reason.”

    Concerning the first statement, in a sense, they are, since the RN must make do with fewer ships, smaller funds, and less commitments. So 2 supercarriers for Britain would be much like half dozen or so for the USN. We don’t have enough funds to build as many carriers we need, or the planes to fill the ones we have. But as I often say you don’t have to depend on naval air to the detriment of your operating forces. Though it is still required, there are other cheaper alternatives you can apply to avoid breaking your budget.

    Concerning the second point, I completely agree that the politicians could make a difference with a diversion of funds here or there, from some special pet project, but when is this ideal situation ever going to occur? This is all politics, which is why I separate myself from it as much as possible, and plead with the admirals and generals to solve their own fiscal problems. The politicos have had decades to do this, even as force structures shrink and aging equipment must soldier in the frontlines for each new war.

    You can’t depend on the politicos for major change. It must come from within just as Fisher did a century ago. If the Navy asks for ships within a reasonable budget, I think the government would quickly fall in line.

    But I still say the funding problems, and technical malfunctions are not budgetary but signs of obsolescence in last century platforms, updated to fight a new kind of low tech warfare. If the fleet were to get into line with the times, there would be far fewer issues with shrinking force structures, massive cost overruns, and programs consistently delayed.

  7. February 23, 2010 2:45 pm

    “The Penguins of Madagascar”

    No. But I bet the Pentagon wanted it banned for being too close to the truth!!!! :)

  8. Jed permalink
    February 23, 2010 12:17 pm

    x – lol

    I dont know if you have every seen the cartoon called “The Penguins of Madagascar” (based on the movie) but your comment just made think of those rather militaristic penguins: “Kawalski, get the private loaded under the wing of that jet, were about to take the fight to the bad guys…..”

    If you have not seen it and can’t imaging the voices I totally apologize for going off topic…..

  9. February 23, 2010 8:01 am

    “Errata – sorry my last post should of course have referred to 8 x T45 (not 42 !) and T45 derivatives. Apologies – bed time I think……”

    I am glad I am not the only one who makes mistakes………..

  10. February 23, 2010 8:00 am

    “where have you seen Harpoon on the armament list ?”

    It is mention in the builder’s literature and everywhere on the web.

    There is nothing special about Harpoon. It is just a question of systems integration.

    Eurofighter can carry Penguin too. Perhaps the ultimate stealth option for the South Atlantic………

  11. Jed permalink
    February 22, 2010 10:28 pm

    Errata – sorry my last post should of course have referred to 8 x T45 (not 42 !) and T45 derivatives. Apologies – bed time I think……..

  12. Jed permalink
    February 22, 2010 10:27 pm

    Mike – two conventional powered 65,000 tonne carriers is not the same as 12 CVN’s as per the USN force. So to be honest, if the UK Govt did not use the carriers as a reason to run down the rest of the RN, there would be some other reason. The UK and its Government is “sea blind”.

    If the UK wanted it could definately afford 2 carriers, and at least 8 x T42, plus some 8 x T42 derivatives to replace the T22 BIII – IF IT WANTED. As noted on ThinkDefence the UK donates 400 million pounds a year in aid to India, a country with a bigger Navy, its own carrier programs, and its a nuclear power with a space program.

    So even if the Invincible class had been planned to be replaced by for example 3 x Cavour, or even 3 x USS America class ships, with an upgrade to (then) existing Harrier FA2 until the F35 was ready the Govt WOULD STILL have cut the RN surface fleet – after all there is a war on you know !! In a land locked country that does not require RN participation

    By the way I am not pro-RN to the complete detriment of the RAF – I think the Typhoon will mature into an excellent multi-role aircraft if the finance is made available (note that even PIRATE EO/IR is being REMOVED from UK aircraft) – however to all the other commentors – where have you seen Harpoon on the armament list ? Neither Germany nor Italy have it on their Tornado’s ? Maybe the Spanish required it ??

    Finally Mike I think you missed my point (deliberately?) about strategic planning – yes actually you can plan for the unknown, simply by acknowledging that the enemy can bring in factors beyond your control, and then there are other factors you cannot effect, like the weather. Due to this, and the fact that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, you plan for a range of scenarios and contingencies, and basing the defence of your only base in the area and an undersea oil field (which apparently is very important) on 4 RAF fighters and one destroyer which was brand new when I joined the Navy 27 years ago – that is not good planning ! Of course their ‘intel’ is better than ours (we hope), but there is another say in the UK armed forces – about the 5 P’s -> Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance :-)

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 22, 2010 4:12 pm

    Jed said “They have not actually done anything yet”

    And isn’t that a good thing? they haven’t needed to right? Mission accomplished. It is a good example of warfare on a shoestring, as back then over Malta when the British were even more stretched.

    “you don’t “plan” on the enemy being crap, you plan for unknown contingencies, you plan for worst case scenarios.”

    I don’t see how you can plan on the unknown, except deal with present threats as best you know how. then you have veteran ships and men prepared for any contingency and crisis. I don’t see how constantly shrinking your forces to pay for unknown future threats is planning for the worst case. In the financial world, they call that mortgaging your future, not protecting it.

    “Fixed airbases are vulnerable.’

    Not so much if the Argies are as bad off as you say!

    “Yes the UK Government has axed the flexible frigate force for the sake of 2 x 65,000 tonne behemoths (for which we won’t be able to finance the aircraft) but that does not mean large carriers (or even small or middle size ones) are wrong ”

    It is wrong if you are destroying balance in your fleet. In the last conflict, the RN was well balanced, not perfect, but able to deploy a whole range of capabilities, prepared for the “unknown” you mentioned. Instead of being strong in one capability (today this would be her amphibious forces) and weak where it counts (escorts for the amphibs, plus carrier power), you can managed a range of threats.

    I wish that other nations would get over the carrier worship that they mistakenly imagine is the foundation of US seapower. It was a team effort of ships that won the Cold War, and the silent service owes a great deal of honor for this, if any one ship does. Most of their exploits remain untold to this day. Now even she can’t fill the giant decks she is building, and prediction are the USN will shrink to about 200 ships sooner rather than later. It is a death spiral building only a few technically complicated and enormously expensive capital ships, which still can’t be in more places at once, no matter how capable.

    Meanwhile the fleets of the Third World are enlarging, while the West is declining. I caution any nation against trying to be build a US lite Navy. It leads to a dead end and future bankruptcy.

  14. William permalink
    February 22, 2010 4:04 pm

    “Yes I hear what you are saying and I agree up to a point. But wouldn’t there be a deterrent factor in letting that snippet out of the bag?”

    Yes, it would be a detterent factor. But then what would be the motive for keeping a capability (whatever it might be) secret? It is to surprise your adversary with a capability that they do not know you have.

    “Have the Germans integrated Harpoon?”

    I have no idea, I’m afraid.

  15. Mat permalink
    February 22, 2010 3:56 pm

    Hi, love the site, first time posting:

    AWACS and Nimrod can indeed fit the Mount Pleasant air base, as a quick peek at Google Earth shows (certainly, when compared to other, similarly sized air bases). It might be cramped, but I’d estimate there’s room for a major reinforcement of a full fighter squadron and associated IFR/AWAC. Mount Pleasant can also accommodate additional personnel and stores, and there are weekly freighter flights from the UK. Any additional aircraft might only enjoy portable shelters whilst down there, but that’s another matter…

    The less good news is that the UK is already retiring some of its tankers and Nimrods without full and prompt replacement. It might have to pull resources from Afghanistan to meet any impending threat.

    Longer term, it might take 3 or 4 weeks for an additional navy RFA ship to bring major supplies of stores or outsized equipment to Mount Pleasant.

    I did a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation based on past UK Typhoon tanking operations, and it’s perfectly feasible for the UK to tanker Typhoons and GR4s down to Ascension or Sierra Leone (with whom the UK has excellent relations and military co-operation) within a 48 hour window. 24, if it wanted to.

    As an aside, I recently checked up on Argentina’s naval forces using open source information, and found that they lack any kind of serious air defense. They’re small, aging frigates and patrol craft, really. Being thin-skinned, it’s entirely possible that they could be crippled by Paveways or even cannon-fire. Additionally, they have no serious defenses against UK nuclear subs, just one of which confined the whole Argentine navy to port in 1982.

    Cheers :o)

  16. February 22, 2010 3:50 pm

    “But the Harpoon could be a “Game Changer” if the Argentines weren’t expecting to be facing Typhoons carrying Harpoons.”

    Yes I hear what you are saying and I agree up to a point. But wouldn’t there be a deterrent factor in letting that snippet out of the bag?

    TBH I am not to up on the spec’s of the Eurofighter beyond the basic Jane’s entry. (Especially when it comes to above water warfare!) I should go and find out about its sensors…..

    Have the Germans integrated Harpoon?

  17. William permalink
    February 22, 2010 3:23 pm

    X said “I don’t think Harpoon is that controversial, do you? It could be explained away as a Sea Eagle replacement. I think this could be some form of nuclear device of US origin. Or something more exotic, I don’t know perhaps something thermobaric or one of those US anti-satellite weapon?

    What I want to see is Merlin carrying Harpoon…….”

    But the Harpoon could be a “Game Changer” if the Argentines weren’t expecting to be facing Typhoons carrying Harpoons.

    The other weapon I thought it could be would be the Storm Shadow ALCM, which also is not officially yet integrated onto the Typhoon.

    I agree Merlin should be carrying Harpoon.

  18. February 22, 2010 3:09 pm

    Will said “All Typhoons are built to carry Harpoons as standard. But officially the RAF has not “integrated” Harpoons onto its Typhoons.”

    As I thought. I knew Harpoon was on the list of ordnance for the ‘plane so your answer confirms my memories.

    Of course in ’82 the Argentinians didn’t have to try hard to find the task force with their Exocets. But UK aircraft hunting Argentine escorts will have a harder time. As has been pointed elsewhere we need AWACS down there.

    {I know one of the advantages of carriers is that they can hide in large areas of ocean. But in certain circumstances there is only certain places they can be….}

    Will also said “But the MOD also tested an unspecified weapon on the Typhoon which they did not name because paraprhasing “it would jeopardise the national security interests of the UK”.

    I don’t think Harpoon is that controversial, do you? It could be explained away as a Sea Eagle replacement. I think this could be some form of nuclear device of US origin. Or something more exotic, I don’t know perhaps something thermobaric or one of those US anti-satellite weapon?

    What I want to see is Merlin carrying Harpoon…….

  19. William permalink
    February 22, 2010 1:38 pm

    All Typhoons are built to carry Harpoons as standard. But officially the RAF has not “integrated” Harpoons onto its Typhoons.

    However last year the MOD carried out weapons testing/trials for various weapons on the Typhoon. The listed weapons did not include the Harpoon.

    But the MOD also tested an unspecified weapon on the Typhoon which they did not name because paraprhasing “it would jeopardise the national security interests of the UK”.

    So could the unspecified weapon be the Harpoon ?

    I guess we’ll find out if hostilities break out with Argentina.

  20. February 22, 2010 1:19 pm

    Are RAF Eurofighters wired for Harpoon (fitted for, but not with) ?

    Without an ASM they aren’t much of a threat are they?

    Or do the RAF think the Argentines can be “scared” like the Taliban with a low fast overflight?

    I think we are headed for a Cod War type confrontation. If there is oil I wonder if HM Treasury will start releasing funds for the RN. Not so much for new ships. But for fitting ships with the equipment they need or are FFBNW but don’t carry. I do hope so. That will be the second time the Argies have saved the RN.

  21. Jed permalink
    February 22, 2010 9:15 am

    Mike – enough already with the unlimited praise for the RAF. They have not actually done anything yet, this is not the modern story of Faith, Hope and Glory. There is no engagement, we are in the raised tensions stage, which may or may not progress through phoney war into real war, at which point we will see if the RAF can get enough air-worthy fighters, tankers and transports into RAF Mount Pleasant before the Argentine airforce blows it to kingdom come.

    Many may flame me on this – the Argentine air force does not have the capability etc etc, if your the UK Govt / MOD / CDS you don’t “plan” on the enemy being crap, you plan for unknown contingencies, you plan for worst case scenarios.

    So until I see a full scale exercise with a reinforced squadron of Typhoon’s being able to get to, and operate out of Mount Pleasant within 48 hours of the order being given, plus AWACS and Nimrods (if they can all fit at the base) with C17’s delivering ordnance etc etc then stop thanking the lord almighty for the wonderful boys in blue. Fixed airbases are vulnerable.

    Yes the UK Government has axed the flexible frigate force for the sake of 2 x 65,000 tonne behemoths (for which we won’t be able to finance the aircraft) but that does not mean large carriers (or even small or middle size ones) are wrong – it just means defence spending during a time of ‘war’ has not kept up with the Governments rhetoric. If “UK PLC” wants to keep the Falklands oil (not the Islands, I don’t think Argentina would try to invade again) then they better put the T45 procurement back up to 12, fit the ships with Harpoon, CIWS and TT’s and go back to a standing patrol with a decent and well equipped platform which can be SUPPORTED by land based air power.

  22. William permalink
    February 22, 2010 7:11 am

    10 Type 22 frigates were disposed of early as part of the post cold war defense cuts.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_22

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