A bloody miracle

One of the great joys of wargame geekery is mutli-tasking. Reading a book about the Falklands War, for example, while simultaneously playing “D-Day at Omaha Beach.”

I intially read “The Battle for the Falklands” by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins quite a number of years ago. As I ramp up to  play the new solitaire game “Where There Is Discord”, I’m taking the opportunity to read it again in order to brush up on my history.

Progressing through the excellent narrative, I am reminded of how ill-suited the Royal Navy was for the task then at hand in the South Atlantic. As British financial resources dwindled following World War II, the RN shrank tremendously in size. By 1982 it was still one of the world’s few navies capable of remote power projection – but only just barely.

Cold War influences led the fleet into a focus on just two threats: Soviet submarines and the new generation of Soviet high-flying, hyper-sonic diving anti-ship missiles. Consequently, most ships were configured for either anti-submarine warfare or area defense against fast, high-altitude targets.

To this day I haven’t figured out why British naval design took the direction it did in the late 70s. Some classes carried single turret-mounted 4.5-inch rapid-firing guns (mostly to provide naval gunfire support), but many British ships of the era were entirely armed with missiles (some of dubious capability) and ASW weapons.

HMS Arrow renders aid to the burning HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982 following an Exocet missile strike.

HMS Arrow renders aid to the burning HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982 following an Exocet missile strike.

None of the ships in the task force carried a close-in weapons system like the US Phalanx. This meant their only defense against sea-skimming missiles like the Exocet was radar counter-measures – typically “RBOC”, or Rapid-Blooming Outboard Chaff. Each ship carried only enough chaff charges for seven complete defensive patterns before resupply – and in order to use the launchers, the incoming threat had to be detected in a timely manner to begin with.

All of the ships were armed with some form of autocannon – 20mm or 40mm – for close air defense, but the systems were all eyeball-directed and totally inadequate for combat in the jet age. There were also very few guns (just two 20mm guns on the ‘top of the line’ Type 42 destroyers, for example) on each ship. During the extremely close-ranged air defense battle fought during the landings at San Carlos Water, all of the RN ships improvised additional defense by jury-rigging the fit of as many general-purpose machineguns as they could scrounge.

Obviously, they were primarily designed with land-based NATO air superiority in mind. And one task force officer explained their vulnerability to sea-skimming missiles very simply: “The Russians don’t have Exocet”.

It appears another case of the famous “our bloody ships don’t seem to be working today” episodes the Royal Navy was prone to suffer in the 20th century. Beatty’s battlecruisers at Jutland, HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales. It’s worth noting that they indeed learned their lessons – after the Falklands their Batch 3 production of both the Type 42 Destroyer and Type 22 Frigate featured an installation of a CIWS automated gun system – either the European-produced Goalkeeper or Phalanx.

I was also interested to read about the oddball limitations of their missile systems. Most systems couldn’t discriminate or track  multiple targets, for example. And none of the British ships had communications or data-linking in place that allowed for ships to cooperate in air defense – each ship was on its own in identifying and engaging air targets.

For comparison purposes, by 1982 the US Navy had been deploying data-linked radar systems on air defense ships for several years. USS Ticonderoga, the first of the very powerful ‘Aegis’ cruisers, was commissioned in 1981.

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