Under the Union Jack since the first-half of the 19th century, yet distant from the nation’s primary interests, the Falkland Islands are in some ways reminiscent of Singapore and Crete circa 1941: All share defence by a garrison, and a few aircraft, with powerful warships standing by. Like the Falklands, Singapore was distant; ‘distance’ ultimately deciding deterrence and determining defence. By contrast Crete whilst nearer and more readily supported, was dominated decisively by the enemy’s land-based strike aircraft. In 1941, British and Commonwealth forces, were perforce focused materially upon Europe, North Africa and the Middle East together with the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Arctic. Like Singapore, will the Falkland Islands, be marginalized strategically, if deterrence and defence need again be focused upon Europe and the Middle East and their surrounding waters? If so, will they go unguarded tactically, if most defence assets are tied down responding to nearer, greater and more strategic interests?
Agreements and post-war treaties, made in a different world long ago, continue to have intractable and far reaching consequences. A crisis in one nation or amongst many, if escalated beyond a threshold, can linger or race along a timeline; one that can vary or be undetermined. Preparedness, to prevail in conflict or in combat, follows its’ own timeline; one that is complex and can’t always be altered hurriedly. As in years past the Royal Navy’s preparedness results from the sum of the scale and battle worthiness of the fleet and aircraft, trained personnel, ships building and fitting out, dockyard capacity and capability and the maritime resources including auxiliaries and the Merchant Navy. Growing technical innovation has seen the innovation and productivity of defence industries, and the maintenance of inventories and stockpiles, balloon in importance. All are predicated upon a requirement for enduring investment.
The suddenness of the start of World War I, and its’ ensuing contagion, was much commented upon at its’ centenary. Ninety days into the war the Royal Navy was defeated in the Battle of Coronel. In response, Fisher’s fast battlecruisers INVINCIBLE and INFLEXIBLE (alongside DREADNOUGHT classes, examples of what is now known as ‘disruptive technology’) sailed from Devonport joining other ships made available and gathered to hunt for the enemy. Battle was joined from the harbour near Stanley, the day after the squadron’s arrival at the Falkland Islands. A chase resulted concluding with the Royal Navy’s decisive victory that day. Enabled by national capacity, including numbers of ships and dockyard resources together with design and applied technology.
One enduring image of impending national need is of Royal Navy regulars and reserves making ready. Whether at a Dockyard or an Air Station, at home or elsewhere under a Union Jack, or at sea. Whilst launched from land, the ships of the Royal Navy are neither aligned to a line on land as the Army can be nor requiring basing as does the Royal Air Force, when tasked beyond the limits of Air to Air Refuelling. In 20th century hostilities naval action commenced almost immediately, inevitably with losses: AMPHION to a mine 6 August 1914, COURAGEOUS to a U-boat 19 September 1939, REPULSE and PRINCE OF WALES to land-based strike aircraft 10 December 1941 and SHEFFIELD to an aircraft-launched Exocet 10 May 1982. Battles at Coronel (1 November 1914) and, thirty-seven days later near the Falkland Islands, as noted above, were fought early in World War I. Likewise the Battle of the River Plate (13 December 1939) in the Second World War. In the Far East (between 10 December 1941 and 9 April 1942) after Force Z was overwhelmed by land-based air attack, the Battles of the Java Sea and the Sunda Straight followed as did losses from carrier-based air strikes, in the Indian Ocean. All the while, ships were either sunk or extensively damaged by submarines and mines; most often in home waters. The effect on the Royal Navy from the loss of ships or of role-limiting damage and the casualties amongst their crews might be disproportionately greatest during the first months of hostilities. Ships defending the nation’s interests, centuries in the making, take years to build and yet may be sunk in days.
In 1982, to reverse Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, a Task Force was swiftly stored and sailed. The Royal Navy, whether for reasons unanticipated by the government or unaccommodated by successive Defence Reviews, sailed south independently into a Crete-like threat environment. Amphibious capability continued to be deployable beyond the sufficiency of fixed-wing aircraft from stations on land; at sea defence was limited without embarked Airborne Early Warning. In the South Atlantic, the Royal Navy was tasked to protect at sea and then to land a combined operations force and stores; an essential prerequisite to the restoration of the government of the Falklands Islands. Notable as an example of the navy’s complex attributes (including an asset’s adaptability and long life) was HERMES. A fixed-wing capable aircraft carrier, laid down when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, became the flagship of the combined operations force ordered, by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to re-take territories re-acquired when the 2nd Earl Grey (under whom slavery was abolished) was Prime Minister. Additional ships were readied and tasked; from diverse and adaptable maritime resources, available then as in years past. During a conflict lasting seventy-five days lost to land-based air strikes were two destroyers (in open water) and two frigates (in shore) as was a RFA Landing Ship Logistics, abandoned and later sunk as a war grave.
In 1941, the Royal Navy together with the Royal Australian Navy were tasked initially to defend against a sea-borne invasion of Crete by the enemy (reprised by Force Z for Malaya) and latterly to evacuate British and Commonwealth forces engaged with the enemy. Interdiction of invasion forces occurred during 15 to 27 May 1941 and was immediately followed from 28 May through to 1 June 1941 by the evacuation of approximately 17,000 of 22,000 troops in five lifts during four consecutive nights. Losses were 9 ships; inclusive of interdiction (two cruisers, four destroyers) and evacuation (one cruiser, two destroyers); all in open water, all from land-based strike aircraft. The air group embarked in FORMIDABLE was limited and the aircraft carrier was later so badly damaged as to need ultimately to sail to America for permanent repair. Forty-one years afterwards and in order to achieve the government’s objective during Operation Corporate, the Royal Navy together with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Merchant Navy, were again under intensive day-light air attack from land-based aircraft. At both Crete and the Falklands the ships’ roles required, at times, that they be in close proximity to land whilst at other times in open water. Objectives were to be achieved within a very limited timeframe. Threat environments presented to the flag officers and the ships’ commanding officers were complex. Operational planning had to balance the risks of and consequences from air attack whilst ongoing operations (either the evacuation of or the landing of significant numbers of troops across open beaches) were conducted to completion. FAA aircraft, launched from Task Force South’s two aircraft carriers were a significant determinant between actions around Crete in 1941 and 1982’s South Atlantic campaign. Their aircraft were better able to provide cover than were aircraft in 1941, with their lesser range, based near Alexandria and aboard FORMIDABLE. Any damage affecting capability to or loss of one of HERMES or INVINCIBLE would have compromised operations. Loss of both might have ended prematurely the campaign. The Royal Navy’s capability to launch the assaults from San Carlos Water and to defend the surrounding air space, enabled the land forces to use their distance from Stanley to establish and to strengthen their bridgehead.
Responsibilities, if resulting from government policies that expand the role or constrain the capability, can place the Royal Navy and operational success at disproportionate risk. Success, in the broadest sense whether of deterrence or in defence, is the readiness of crews of ships and aircraft, armed and armoured to prevail, to achieve their objectives. Whilst always maintaining the minimum number of ships in commission, to meet commitments and contingencies, despite loss and battle damage. Whether hostilities are short and sharp or more enduring there is limited likelihood of timely replacement of a warship lost or so damaged as to require lengthy repair in a dockyard. The newest Type 45 Destroyers (six ordered whilst twelve were first planned to keep the fleet at strength) each took six years or so from laying down to commissioning. Economy in spending for defence, whilst lauded by many, will be judged deficient if the near term capability is insufficient when required and limited further by inelastic capacity.
Global interests shared with other nations and accountabilities to alliances are Britain’s in part; added are those continuing responsibilities that are the nation’s alone. The sufficiency of defence resources may always be less than the actuarial ‘worst case’ but their scale can’t be so slender as to put victory at risk. Role over-reach occurs contemporaneously as operations are organized spontaneously in response to events, including those assessed originally as unlikely or unpredicted. The risk from role over-reach, including when operating without fixed-wing air cover (the QUEEN ELIZABETH class aircraft carriers won’t enter service until circa 2020) or to sail without allies, is currently greater if only because there are now many fewer ships in the fleet than there were in prior years. How is the exposure from this risk to be managed if the immediacy of the government’s rhetoric turns to resolve and exceeds the Royal Navy’s grasp? Deterrence, to be credible, requires timely capability from an expansive and oftentimes expensive inventory of assets and skills developed and maintained over many years. If to-day’s deterrence fails, those same assets and skills transform, in the moment, to become active defence; suitability for the former must be sufficiency for the latter.
Tom Perigoe did work in information technology for financial services including assessing cost and risk. With Alexander Wooley, Tom is co-author of Exporting Democracy published in Public Diplomacy Magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexander Wooley is Partnerships Director for AidData. A former Royal Navy officer, Alex has written for Public Diplomacy Magazine and The Huffington Post and is author of the upcoming Discontented Drones: Stoking the Fires in the Boiler-Room of the American Empire. Alex holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University. email@example.com