By Ilya Kramnik
The Royal navy celebrates the 30-year anniversary of the Falklands war in an extremely weakened state. Admiral Sir John Foster “Sandy” Woodward, commander of the fleet in the campaign of 1982, believes that Britain will not be able to return the Falklands, if Argentina manages to occupy them again. The main problem of the Royal Navy is the lack of aircraft carriers.
The Royal Navy resources do not allow carrying out any serious operations at a great distance from the coast; many military experts have more than once expressed this opinion. Today only insignificant forces that can defend nothing but the British Isles, and take a limited participation in expeditions, remain of the once-powerful Navy, “the global fleet” of the Queen of the Seas.
The Falklands war of 1982 was the last one in which the Royal Navy managed to rally its forces, sufficient for achieving the domination of the seas, ensuring air defense and conducting an amphibious assault with support from the air.
Today, the Royal Navy is deprived of these opportunities. The last VTOL fighter aircrafts belonging to the naval aviation – Sea Harrier FRS.1 and Harrier GR.3 – were written off from the naval aviation and the RAF. Only one HMS Invicible – HMS Illustrious- remained in the ranks after being classified as helicopter carrier. Three more ships of the fleet also carry helicopter units: the universal landing ship HMS “Ocean” and the landing ships HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, though only one of last two constantly remains in the ranks. Theoretically, these resources are enough for a landing of troops, but definitely not sufficient for covering and supporting it. As far as other ships are concerned, the Royal Navy was cut by more than three times as compared with the beginning of the 80-ies – lots of frigates and torpedo-boat destroyers were written off to be scrapped.
This very situation forced the ex-commander of the aircraft carrier formation John Forster “Sandy” Woodward to express his doubts in the ability of the UK to win the islands back, if Argentina occupied them again.
Meanwhile he drew attention to the fact that there are ships in the fleet that are theoretically capable of supporting a serious air defence for a landing operation: the newest type 45 destroyer “Daring” and his sister ships, equipped with surface-to-air missile systems Sea Viper. However, a good air defense is not equal to the domination in the air, and it is impossible to ensure such domination without combat aircraft. In fact, today the question of the immunity of the Falklands boils down to the fact, whether Argentina is able to “stage a remake” of its 1982 operations, suddenly landing on the Islands and interning the available troops, including the flight on duty consisting of four fighters EF-2000 Typhoon.
The situation in the British Navy should change in the future, when the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, capable of carrying fighters is put into service in 2016. However, the uncertainty with the structure of its wing – F/A-18E/F or F-35C, as well as the obscure fate of the second ship – HMS Prince of Wales, do not give any guarantees. Meanwhile, the British military, analysts and journalists have nothing left but lament about the legendary carrier-borne fighters Harrier dusting in hangars during the NATO Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011. They were written off just before the operation. In addition, the same fate befell marine reconnaissance aircrafts “Nimrod”, and the British pilots had to receive intelligence information from their American allies.
The British situation is an obvious lesson for Russia. Today the “Falklands issue” solution depends on military capabilities and political plans of the Argentine leadership, which can be… different.
A sudden attack on the islands can bring success to the attacker. The return of the Islands will require a well-prepared operation of large forces of the Navy, which Britain does not possess today. For Russia, such a situation can theoretically arise on the South Kuril Islands. Of course, the Kuril Islands are much closer to Russia than the Falkland Islands archipelago is to Britain, but they are even closer to Japan, and the military potential of Japan is much higher than the Argentine.
In such a hypothetical case, the main asset of the defending side is its nuclear potential, but even the use of only tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict of this kind carries enormous political risks.