As tensions rise in the Middle East, the Straits of Hormuz, the Mediterranean and off the Somali pirate coast, the Royal Navy, spreading its small ration of jam thinner and thinner, is sending two ships, the new destroyer HMS Dauntless, and, reportedly, a Trafalgar-class submarine, to the Falklands.
Now there is no doubt that Dauntless, at 8,000 tons, is a very capable ship, bigger than many World War II cruisers, and with an impressive array of weapons. The reported submarine (its deployment is not confirmed) is also very modern and is reported to carry 30 Tomahawk cruise missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. Meanwhile, an anti-British mob in Argentina has cleverly burnt the HSBC bank, which is Hong-Kong owned, and vowed to attack a new British business every day (perhaps after investing in a primer in geography).
There are, however, major problems from the British point of view: Dauntless is one of only 19 major surface combatants in the whole Royal Navy, a situation that Admiral Lord West, the former First Sea Lord and professional head of the Royal Navy, described as “horrifying.” How will the Navy cope if one of the innumerable mishaps possible at sea puts a ship out of commission?
The defense cuts under the Cameron government, Lord West says, have been both too severe and incoherent. They have included scrapping the RN’s last dedicated aircraft carrier and the Nimrod long-range aircraft (some broken up before completion), and selling the Harrier force of short takeoff jets — which at a pinch might have operated from other ships — to the U.S. Already these scrapped assets have been sorely missed in Libya.
The center of the Falklands defenses is the Mount Pleasant air base, with just four aircraft and rapier missiles. Professional opinion is that taking Mount Pleasant by invasion would be very difficult and costly, but if it were taken then there is no way Britain could now assemble a task force to retake it. And four aircraft does not sound like very many to cover a group of islands about the area of Wales plus the maritime exclusion zone
These two ships are obviously a vital card in the game: they are much more modern than anything the Argentineans can put up. However, there is a possible downside here: the design of the Dauntless is impressive-looking but is completely untested in battle. (Seventy years ago HMS Hood was an enormously impressive-looking ship, equipped with mighty 15-inch guns, and the product of hundreds of years of experience, but in its first serious battle blew up with almost all hands).
In the first modern Falklands campaign, in 1982, the destroyer HMS Sheffield, then a new ship, was lost after being hit by a missile that failed to explode but ignited high-pressure propellant. Naval history is full of stories of awe-inspiring new ships that proved inadequate — or lethal for their crews — in the event. In World War I armored cruisers, which both sides had thought the coming thing, were frequently sunk with all hands. Three British battle-cruisers blew up at Jutland with enormous loss of life.
Past history has shown that in sea vs. air combat the aircraft has the advantage unless the ship concerned has a heavy escort of fighters, which is plainly not going to be possible here. It is true that missiles may have altered the equation but seems to be asking a lot of one ship, no matter how sophisticated, to hold off wave after wave of attacking jet aircraft and missiles from relatively nearby bases.
There is another problem, which a layman cannot really assess or know if Dauntless has solved: the more sophisticated ships become, and the more packed with electronics, the more vulnerable they may become. Gone are the days when a ship might be hit with hundreds of cannon balls and repairing it was a matter of calling for the bosun and the carpenter. During Indonesian confrontation a modern British ship was put out of action for some time because an Indonesian sampan dropped a mortar bomb in the water beside it and shook up its electronics. A large modern warship almost approaches a living body in its complexity, and like a living body, the more complex it becomes, the harder it is for it to shrug off damage and carry on. The submarine might also be very useful, but it has an enormous area of sea to patrol, and has to be in the right place at the right time. A further question arises: how long can two of the Royal Navy’s best ships be kept on station with all manner of demands on the Navy’s desperately overstrained resources elsewhere?
This is not to say for a moment that disaster will overtake the two British ships in the event of war. They are a mighty powerful force. Many of the ships’ capabilities are secret, but one can hardly escape the thought that the previous conflict showed modern sea power depends on air cover, and that Britain, without naval aviation, is putting all its eggs in two baskets, and untried baskets at that.