The measure of a navy is not its ability to intercept pirates or conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations. The gold standard of a navy is its ability to carry out expeditionary warfare – to sail half way around the world and project power over a hostile coastline. This is precisely what the British military achieved in 1982 when the Royal Navy led a task force of over 120 ships to dislodge the Argentinian armed forces from the recently-captured British territory of the Falkland Islands. In this article, Alexander Stafford examines whether the modern day Royal Navy could achieve a similar victory.
The Falklands War occupies an interesting place in 20th century history. It was an uncharacteristically bold move by a country that had seen nothing but withdrawal from its role as a global power since the end of World War Two. Many are quick to attribute this to Margaret Thatcher and a vainglorious desire on her part to be seen to restore British pride. The victory also caused the rest of the world to take notice of the UK once more as a credible international power despite decades of defence cuts and strategic retreat.
Politics aside, the Falklands campaign was a textbook example of navy-led expeditionary warfare in which the Royal Navy (RN) projected British power around the world, landed a task force, sustained it logistically, and provided air defence and support. It is also, many years later, the barometer by which military commentators and jingoistic critics alike measure British naval capabilities. You don’t have to look far from a defence review before someone poses the question: Could the UK retake the Falklands today?
In a country with songs such as “Rule Britannia” held in the national repertoire without a hint of irony it seems to be assumed that Britain’s place as a naval power is assured. Diminished maybe, and not comparable to the U.S. of course, but a global player nonetheless. Adherence to this belief however can only be sustained through a zen-like ignorance of just how small the modern RN has become, preferably with a measure of misunderstanding over what this decline truly means. In this context, asking if the RN retake the Falklands is probably the best way to demonstrate the UK’s naval capabilities in a way people can easily understand.
First off, a caveat. Argentina is not about to retake the Falklands. Whatever the decline in the British armed forces has been, it has been worse for the Argentinians. The Falklands today has a far more capable defence force than it did in 1982, and while Argentina has never given up its claims to the islands they are in no position militarily, economically or politically to carry out another invasion. This article is about the RN, not the Argentinian armed forces or even the other UK services, and the Falklands is merely an example of the capabilities needed for expeditionary warfare.
So, could the UK retake the Falkland Isles today? No. And probably not anytime soon, either.
The Falklands task force comprised of 127 ships, with 43 Royal Navy vessels, 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels and scores of other vessels from the merchant marine. It included two aircraft carriers, 15 frigates and six destroyers along with landing docks, six submarines and 24 sea harriers.
Some will say that the prospect of Britain mounting such an endeavor without the support of allies (such as the U.S.) is so remote as to be incredible.
Today, Britain has no carriers or naval combat aircraft and just to match the major surface ships the RN would need to press into service every single destroyer and frigate on the books, an impossible task given that it has struggled to crew its frigates in recent years and placed some ships on “extended readiness”, which is a diplomatic way of saying mothballed. It would also require all of the ships to be functional, something that is unrealistic as the Type 23, while a proven and capable ship, is starting to show its age and the otherwise-impressive Type 45 destroyers, which are among the most capable air-defence platforms on the seas, have suffered propulsion problems since their inception that have not yet been fully fixed.
This is also unlikely to change when the first of the new Queen Elizabeth II-class carriers becomes operational in a few years. When it is launched the new carrier will be the largest ship the RN has ever sailed, but its air wing will likely only consist of 24 F-35 jets – less than it is capable of carrying – and a number of helicopters of varying types and configuration. It is worth noting that the UK currently intends obtaining a total of only 48 F-35s, so the Queen Elizabeth’s air wing in times of war would involve half of Britain’s entire 5th generation fighter aircraft fleet.
In addition to this, while it has been claimed that the new Type 45s are four times more capable and deadly than the old 42s, there are only six of them. No matter how good their Sea Viper radar or Aster missiles, they can only be in one place at a time, and six Type 45s will not equal 24 Type 42s. If the RN wanted to form a fleet of equivalent size to that of 1982 it would not be a task force – it would take the entire RN, leaving the United Kingdom’s entire global mission list unfulfilled. If the RN somehow mustered a Task Force on the scale of 1982 it would take the loss of only one or two of these hyper-modern escorts, whether by enemy action or mechanical failure, to leave a worrying gap in the defence of the carrier, let alone the fleet more broadly.
The Queen Elizabeth II carrier, Type 45s and F-35 Lightning II highlight a trend that has been present in British defence procurement for a long time – that of high tech capabilities that, due to their expense, are not obtained in sufficient numbers. Argentinian bombs and Exocet missiles sank or damaged three destroyers and two frigates, as well as killing 50 service personnel in attacks on RN landing craft. The entire invasion plan was hastily revised after an Argentinian Exocet missile sank the Atlantic Conveyor, sending half the Task Force’s helicopters to the bottom of the sea. Despite these losses the RN, Royal Marines and supporting elements from the British Army were able to press on and win the war.
The lack of depth the RN maintains today poses an interesting question – Would the British dare to actually deploy their high-value naval assets into combat or are they simply too precious to risk? Exercises in recent years have shown vulnerabilities in carrier groups to submarine ambush. One well-placed torpedo and the pride of the British fleet (along with half of the nation’s costly 5th generation air arm) is gone in the greatest catastrophe in the service’s history. Given the thin availability of escort vessels it wouldn’t need many to be out of action for this scenario to look all-too plausible, putting the idea of unilaterally deploying the new carrier on anything more than a diplomatic flag-waving mission out of bounds for all but the most adventurous of leaders. The loss of such a ship today would likely be a blow from which the RN and Britain itself would never recover.
Some will say that the prospect of Britain mounting such an endeavor without the support of allies (such as the U.S.) is so remote as to be incredible. If that is the case then why build carriers at all? The U.S. operates ten carriers with abundant escorts and support ships globally. The UK longs to once more be a global naval leader with the ability to set an independent course, which means it needs carriers, but that should not mean that other elements of maritime power are neglected. The choice to maintain carriers is the correct one when viewed strategically, but short-sighted cuts to the less prestigious parts of the RN are seriously compromising the tactical future of this decision.
The Falklands War is starting to look like it was the last hurrah of British naval power. Unless the Royal Navy is properly resourced it will become less capable of meeting the tasks given it, and the Falklands campaign will be looked at with the same nostalgia for the glory days as Trafalgar. The introduction of the Queen Elizabeth II and Prince of Wales carriers, rather than increasing the capabilities of the senior service, will in reality only highlight how thinly it has been stretched unless investment in less high profile defence requirements, not least personnel, is brought up to standard. The overdue replacement plan for the Type 23 needs to move ahead at full steam and greater resources must be allocated to maintaining existing ships and crews. The necessity of protecting the UK’s new 70,000 ton ambassadors could lead to Britain’s navy becoming even less able to become involved in global maritime operations at a time when Brexit means the UK should be more outward-looking and global in its approach.
Could the UK retake the Falklands today? They probably wouldn’t dare try.
Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime issues.
Photo Credit: Ken Griffiths