The majority of the UK’s history has revolved around its naval resources and the ability to engage anywhere in the world. The march of technology as well as the lack of air support limits the actions that the UK can participate in for the foreseeable future.
It has been over a month since Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called for the United Kingdom to give up the Falkland Islands to Argentina. While this could have been nothing more than an attempted distraction by President Kirchner from a multitude of domestic issues, the dispute over the islands is constant background noise for both countries. In the meantime a referendum on the future sovereignty of the islands is scheduled for March and the cultural issues are well documented. What this latest uptick allows is an opportunity to look at the logistics of fighting on the other side of the world and the role of aircraft carriers in modern conflict.
During the Falkland Islands conflict in the 1982 the UK deployed two aircraft carriers and a sizable military fleet to the South Atlantic. Since then the end of the Cold War and shifting priorities changed the composition of military forces for both Argentina and the UK. There is ample research comparing naval forces from 1982 and today but the lack of an aircraft carrier for the UK in particular remains a concern and was was seen as a disadvantage during the intervention in Libya. The lack of a mobile platform to launch aircraft contributed to a more expensive conflict as RAF sorties were flown out of Southern Europe. The end result was longer flight times, fewer missions and higher fatigue.
With the exception of facilities in the Falklands, the region is as far away as the UK can get from friendly bases. minus the facilities it maintains on the island and it won’t have the benefit of numerous local allies ready to allow the use of their airfields and support facilities. While the UK has added significantly to the units deployed in defense of the island, airfields are an easy target to find
Even today, during a gap between carriers, questions remain about the functionality of the ships in development. The two carriers in development lack functionality that existed during the first Falklands Island conflict, functionalities such as aerial refueling that are essential for long term engagements. The first of the two carriers isn’t expected to undergo sea trials for at least a year, with 2017 being the earliest date that it is expected to enter service.
Several English pundits believe that in the event of a Falklands Island conflict France should come to the support of the UK in reciprocal support of French operations in Mali. The situations are in no way similar–one is defense of what it views as its territory while the other is fighting against Islamist terrorists. Immediately at the end of the Cold War, outside of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, international involvement in localized conflicts was focused in the Balkans. Since then Mali, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, and possibly Syria are just the latest countries with international involvement.
Some of these conflicts are within striking distance of NATO bases, others are not. These conflicts are not limited to one region; counter terrorism operations continue in the Middle East, South Asia, North and Central Africa, and there remains concern of Latin and Southern America turning into battleground areas. The majority of the UK’s history has revolved around its naval resources and the ability to engage anywhere in the world. The march of technology as well as the lack of air support limits the actions that the UK can participate in for the foreseeable future.
The United States is the only country that has currently has the resources for not only multiple carrier deployments throughout the world but other operations as well. The future of this is at risk due to the budget issues ping-ponging around Washington. The result for the world’s largest naval power is uncertainty as long term stability and planning for the future changes day-by-day as politicians announce they have ‘fixed’ one problem only to retract their statement hours later. Even if the number of operational U.S. carriers decreases their ability to deploy anywhere in world remains a powerful tool.
What turns aircraft carriers into into a truly formidable force are the carrier strike groups and support craft. By themselves, carriers are offensive weapons and have limited operations. Strike groups combine a carrier with a mix of frigates, destroyers, supply ships and other vessels. These ships ensure non-stop aerial operations while protecting carriers from land, air, and sea based threats. Under its current makeup, the Royal Navy while smaller than it used to be but still maintains a modern efficient force and has all of the pieces of a carrier strike group in place minus the carrier.
The next round of predictions on how the Falklands Islands turns out won’t be able to start until after the referendum in March. Until then, the UK needs to identify how it projects its power and defends its interests abroad.
Photo Credit: Mike Cattell