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The Navy must come first.

uk navy
Written by Adrian Hill

We are a group of islands that trade globally. Over a trillion pounds of our economy last year came from overseas trade. The Royal Navy survives despite our politicians. But it’s a third of the size needed to defend our country and our sea trade.

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Once again we are living in dangerous times. Successive governments have allowed our armed forces to shrink far beyond the lowest levels for dealing with known threats. All three Services should triple in size. Already a former ( who’s possibly the next ) American President is talking about walking away from NATO. Not all Americans agree with Donald Trump but British voters need to watch our politicians like circling eagles.

During the last cold war the Royal Navy was ready to send north sixty destroyers and frigates with thirty submarines and supported by several squadrons of long range maritime patrol aircraft to plug the Greenland-Iceland Gap. We need to make that kind of effort again in defence of our way of life. Stop thinking like your pampered generation, Parliament, and start thinking like ours.

The South Atlantic in 1982 was the last time we fought an oceanic war.One of the warships that liberated the Falkland Islands was HMS Bristol, a Type 82 destroyer, the only member of a class almost the size of a light cruiser. She had been designed and built as the first of several to defend the next generation of three large aircraft carriers. More room was required to store an arsenal of guided missiles. Although large for her era, at 6,300 tons Bristol was actually smaller than the 7,300 tons Type 45s today. In addition to the 4.5 inch main gun plus close defence guns, she was armed with the Sea Dart air defence system, plus Ikara and Limbo mortar anti-submarine weapons. She could host heavy lift helicopters and was fitted with command facilities as well. She was near enough a forerunner of the US Navy’s present day approach to the defence of a carrier strike group.

When the new carriers were cancelled in 1966 by Denis Healey, so were the rest of their escorts. The F4 Phantom fighters ordered for the carriers were handed over to the RAF. The navy knew they needed the means to launch airstrikes and all weather fighters from ships or they faced irremediable defeat in war. They bought Harrier jump-jets and designed a smaller carrier – fully loaded weighing in at 22,000 tons, called a ‘through deck cruiser’ immediately known in the Royal Navy as the ‘see through carrier.’ The first of three joined the fleet just in time for the South Atlantic War and sailed with the Task Force.

John Nott, defence secretary and classic bean counter, probably triggered the war by sending dangerously stupid signals to the Argentine Junta. Proposed defence cuts included the sale of this first small carrier, HMS Invincible to Australia, withdrawing HMS Endurance the polar research ship plus another daft invitation to invade – disbanding the Royal Marines, eighty-three of whom garrisoned the Falkland Islands. Here’s the first big red warning light for the British people. When the Task Force sailed it numbered more warships than the whole Royal Navy today. That’s why the Americans keep telling our politicians to get real.

No Airborne Early Warning (AEW ) aircraft sailed with the carriers – no AEW aircraft were small enough to fly from carriers which had ski ramps instead of catapults – inevitably this gap resulted in the loss of ships. Had the Task Force sailed south with those cancelled super-carriers, therefore AEW aircraft and F 4 Phantoms, they could have destroyed the Argentine air force while passing comfortably out to sea though near enough for the F 4 Phantoms to crater the runways and destroy the aircraft parked on their bases. Those Chinook helicopters on board Atlantic Conveyor would have reached the battlefield. Far fewer lives and ships would have been lost. Four warships, one RFA ship and one merchant ship were lost. Eight other warships and two RFA ships were damaged.

Nor would RAF Victor bombers have made reconnaissance flights from Ascension Island near the Equator right across the South Atlantic to the Falklands near the Antarctic – one Victor took the high altitude pictures, four others took the fuel. These sorties were followed by the Black Buck bombing raids by Vulcan bombers supported by the Victor tanker team.

Our small aircraft carriers proved effective and flexible command ships and good platforms for air operations. A typical example, HMS Hermes – a real light fleet carrier at 30,000 tons fully loaded – launched a dozen Sea Harriers for attacks on Port Stanley and Goose Green. An hour after returning the same aircraft were airborne for air defence patrols.  Twenty-eight Sea Harriers and fourteen RAF Harriers were outnumbered six-to one by the Argentine Air Force. The Harriers flew over 1300 sorties, mostly combat air patrols. They shot down two dozen Argentine aircraft though lost nine themselves to ground fire or surface-to-air missiles.

What were the important Falkland lessons?

The South Atlantic War is significant for many reasons, not least that as a nation we fought alone though greatly helped by the Americans, also the Canadians, Chile and an incredible number of private people. I remember a phone call in Ottawa where I was Director of the British Information Services. The caller from Alberta offered me a fully loaded oil tanker anywhere in the world. Other people made similar offers – amazing and very heart warming. Some months afterwards my wife and I enjoyed the splendid Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) celebration dinner in London where sea and land commanders, Sandy Woodward and Jeremy Moore, sang for their suppers by giving their personal memories and the lessons learned before a very distinguished gathering. We were on the historians table with Jenny Shaw, Lawrence Freedman and colleagues. In those days I regularly wrote articles for the RUSI Journal. The FCO in London didn’t like it but Jenny Shaw, RUSI Journal Editor, encouraged me to keep tapping the keyboard.

So did both British High Commissioners I worked for – one had witnessed the sinking of the Scharnhorst by HMS Duke of York in a night action known as the Battle of the North Cape. As an eighteen year old Ordinary Seaman, Lord Moran had been in the aircraft lookout near the top of HMS Belfast’s main mast. His father was Churchill’s doctor. Afterwards at Scapa Flow the Captain said he would be flown south, destination secret. After hours flying, they refuelled at Gibraltar, then headed further south. On landing he discovered he was in Casablanca, where he was ushered through a fine villa into a lush garden to find his father and Franklin Roosevelt sitting in comfy chairs, chatting. After family greetings Churchill invited with anticipation, ‘ Now, my boy, tell us what happened. We didn’t want to hear it first from the lips of an admiral.’

After liberating the islanders the Royal Navy studied the lessons learned during the first oceanic naval warfare since the 1940s. (The US Navy set up their study group just as fast.):

  • Tight command and control by a small group of ministers and senior officers meeting daily and chaired by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
  • Sufficient capacity for huge surges of signals was essential though priority went to operational messages. Satellite telecommunications and fibre-optic cables were comparatively new; today we’re living in the age of the Internet.
  • Be guided by the three established principles of maritime warfare: containment of enemy forces, defence in depth and keeping the initiative.
  • Training counts: this point was stressed by Sandy Woodward and Jeremy Moore as a significant part of any victory. Young sailors took a task force 8,000 miles from home, fought off a hostile navy and air force, then liberated the islands. Young soldiers and Royal Marines successfully carried out a brigade attack at night – one of the most difficult tasks – during their first exposure to hostile fire on land.
  • A balanced fleet, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary must be kept strong enough to supply and refuel multiple operations globally. The Falkland Task Force numbered just over a hundred ships, forty-five were ‘ STUFT ’ – ships taken up from trade – from QE II to trawlers. Some were hit such as Atlantic Conveyor lost after an Exocet missile set her ablaze. Consequently future governments must make it worthwhile for ship owners to stay on the UK shipping register.
  • The whole amphibious force package – commandos, assault ships, landing craft, helicopters – gives Britain the means to react swiftly and effectively to emergencies anywhere on the planet where the sea allows.
  • The core lessons were the need for super carriers and nuclear submarines. Both played crucial roles. After the sinking of the cruiser, General Belgrano, the Argentine surface fleet effectively took no further part in the war.

The Red Sea

We are fully engaged fighting in the Red Sea conflict because global free passage of merchant ships is under daily attack. Three warships are on the gun line already. That became four when HMS Diamond (she sailed 20,000 miles since leaving Portsmouth in November) was relieved by HMS Richmond. This week returning HMS Diamond reached the Red Sea and relieved HMS Richmond. Other warships are based in the region. Late last year two bumped into each other in Bahrain harbour, probably through a mechanical fault, but need replacing. That makes six warships and we’ve only just started.

Typhoon fighters are flying to Yemen and back from Cyprus. One of our new carriers ought to be on station with the USS Enterprise Aircraft Carrier Strike Group, able to react within minutes when hostile missiles are spotted ready for launch. That’s the easiest moment to hit them. Neither carrier is on patrol because five out of our six Daring class destroyers are undergoing maintenance/refits and the Royal Navy has no RFA ships to provide support to HMS Richmond with the USS Eisenhower carrier strike group, let alone one of our carriers and its escort group. A few days ago HMS Queen Elizabeth suffered the same problem with a shaft coupling that kept her sister ship in a dry dock for nine months.

One carrier is about to go into dry dock and the other takes part in a NATO exercise with an allied escort force. That’s another British destroyer or frigate plus at least a pair of attack submarines and a pair of RFA ships.

Our lone operational aircraft carrier would be both welcome and busy in the Arabian Sea. Rishi and his ministers need to wake up and make sure a carrier and escort group are ready. One idea is for a British carrier to replace the USS Dwight D Eisenhower. That’s a good idea but don’t assume she’ll have the US Navy escorts or the US Marine Corps lending an F 35 Fighter squadron. Should Donald Trump win the Presidential election in November, supported by his isolationist throwback version of the Republican Party,this time next year without a British aircraft carrier, only two British destroyers and possibly an attack nuclear submarine may still patrol the Red Sea. The US Navy will have been recalled home. Trump and his fellow Republicans risk learning why NATO was important for America’s safety.

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About the author

Adrian Hill