Once in a Blue Moon

During the 1982 Falklands War, four Argentinian Skyhawks carrying 3 x 1000 lb bombs each attacked HMS Coventry and Broadsword as they defended the landings in San Carlos water. Two x 1,000 lb bombs hit Coventry and you can see the result by watching this dramatization here. The British fleet was doing what the US Pacific did off Okinawa: protecting an opposed landing. In 1982, the British threat was the Argentinian Skyhawks. In 1945 the Pacific Fleet’s enemies were 1,465 human-guided cruise missiles: the Kamikaze. If the navies in each case had been driven off, the entire enterprise would have failed.


The loss of the big type 42 British destroyers off the Falklands came as a shock to the naval world in part because these ships took comparatively much lighter damage than that visited on the smaller US destroyers off Okinawa. Coventry at 4,800 tons went down before 2 x 1000 lb bomb hits. By contrast, the Sumner class destroyer USS Laffey took four bombs, six kamikaze crashes and not only survived the Okinawa campaign, but went on to serve in Korea and throughout the Cold War.

Why were the ships so vulnerable? Because the threats which earlier ship classes were built for were now regarded as unlikely to be encountered. The 1980s were supposed to be the age of open ocean combat against a Soviet Fleet where British ships would sail in company with a giant American carrier. But the scenario never came off. Instead, the Falklands did. Western navies concluded from that experience that armor, damage control and redundancy were still important in the missile age. Those who watch the video link will be absolutely amazed at how little AAA HMS Coventry could employ at close quarters against the Skyhawks. British marines with puny 7.62 mm machine guns and rifles were on the upper decks blazing away at the Argentinians where a destroyer off Okinawa might have 14 x 40 mm and 20 x 20 mm against slower targets. But who in 1982 could have forseen that British ships in combat in the littoral in a modern day replay of the ordeal of the Pacific Fleet off Okinawa.

The Falklands conflict was an example of how history sometimes throws up the very type of conflict that we are unprepared for. Years after the air war over Vietnam had begun F4 Phantoms didn’t even have a gun to counter MIG 17s. The IED and not the Soviet Motorized Infantry Regiment, proved to be the key challenge to Western land mobility. But people mend and make do: adaptations are made. But once the crisis is over people go back to preparing for the same old limited scenarios because not every contingency can be prepared against. Countries buy just enough insurance in the form of military power against what they regard as the most likely threats, and often none at all against low-probability but high impact threats. Some buy no insurance at all and when a terrible thing happens, they simply check into the US military emergency room and demand to be saved. Europe has been underinsuring itself in defense for many decades. This works well enough as long as there are enough resources in the total insurance pool to shift around to meet unforseen contingencies, but nothing can be done if the resource pool is too small.


Captain Clapp writing in the Daily Mail argues that if Britain were confronted by an Argentinian threat today it simply wouldn’t have enough hulls to respond. “In 1982, we had 17 destroyers and sent eight to the Falklands. Now we have only seven – and many of them are engaged in policing waters elsewhere.” The response to the lack of numbers is typified in the class which is replacing the Falkland-era Type 42s is the Type 45 Daring Class, described by the British officials as the most advanced and powerful of their kind. That is a bold characterization which hides the clay feet beneath the brazen idol.

Apart from the fact that there will be only 6 Type 45s other observers have challenged that assertion that the Type 45s will be useful in all except an ideal scenario. Analysts say that while the Type 45s have good radar and fire control systems, they can only pack 48 anti-air missiles. The Type 45 can neither sink engage another warship nor endure a continued and mass assault. It will simply run out of missiles. The key shortcoming lies in its small French built missiles and small launchers, who physical dimensions preclude any expandability. The Defense Industry Daily compares it to other European and US destroyer types. In terms of pure magazine capacity, the Type 45s can pack about third to a sixth of the maximum loadout of a Mk 41 launcher equipped ship — and without a land attack or antiship capability.

The 7,350t Type 45’s VLS holding capacity is smaller than the equivalent American Arleigh Burke Class destroyer’s 90-96 Mk41 cells, and at 48 cells is equivalent to Spain’s 6,250t F100 AEGIS frigates. Its missile array are considered to be similar to, but slightly more capable than, the RIM-162 Evolved Seasparrow/ SM-2 combination found on many other western anti-aircraft ships. The one key difference is that Aster-15s cannot be quad-packed in Sylver launchers the way the RIM-162 can be quad-packed in the popular Mk41 VLS. Whereas an F100 AEGIS frigate could carry a mix of 128 RIM-162 ESSMs and 16 SM-2s, therefore, a Daring Class ship would carry just 32 Aster-15s and 16 Aster-30s in the same number of launch cells.


In a chronically under-resourced system only a crust can be constructed. It works well enough until a saturation point is reached and then it collapses completely. Numbers are good indicator of system fragility. Defence Talk details the history which saw the planned number of Type 45s go down from a planned buy of 12 to their current 6 and asks how the requirement to keep 5 ships at sea can be met with so few vessels. Answer: beat them to death and pay the high maintenance costs.  This dilemma typifies the problems which resource starvation are imposing on the British defense establishment. To plug one gap they have to open a hole somewhere else. If they had 12 destroyers, they wouldn’t be able to afford the two planned aircraft carriers of the Queen Elizabeth Class. But if the Royal Navy is to have its two carriers, then there won’t be enough money to fund the RAF, whose abolition has actually been suggested.

Attempting to remain competitive across the board without sufficient resources to accomplish the goal can lead to shambolic attempts in all of them, resulting in a very fragile force or one in which the entire system is nullified by the absence of a key component. It’s almost comforting to think that perhaps the age of aircraft carriers and amphibious ships escorted by anti-air destroyers is over. In that case the fragile system will never be put the to test and Type 45s can sail the 7 seas if there are no CVs to defend. Or maybe the CVs can sail the bounding main without the Type 45s because there is no air threat to defend against. Maybe it will be “alright on the day”.


But as the Falklands proved so many years ago the unexpected sometimes happens and things are not alright on the day. In fact, they are terrible. Then you are down to the last of the things you thought you’d never need. “My kingdom for a horse!” An insurance pool can be reduced only so much; and the designs margins can be trimmed only so far before the systems starts becoming vulnerable that most common of risks: the unforseen. We don’t see, then we see and we forget.

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