[Ed: This is the first part in a four-part series of a thorough analysis of the state of our Armed Forces by Mike Hookem MEP. Parts II to IV will be published from tomorrow onwards.]
In 1982, as a British Army reservist, I watched on, frustrated, as Chinook helicopters ferried men and supplies around the docks of Hull; loading merchant vessels that would soon form part of the armada sent to free the Falkland Islands.
For weeks, the air around my barracks had been alive with expectation and rumour; that we would be called upon to take part in the largest naval operation since the invasion of Normandy. As the taskforce prepared to depart, we finally knew we were to be left behind while other Hull men and women went to war.
Despite the dangers going to war automatically entails, I felt gutted at the time; in fact, cheated of the opportunity to put to use the months and years of military training I had worked so hard to accrue.
Over time, those feelings have changed. Rather than frustration and feeling like I missed out, I today feel great pride in those who risked all in that short, yet bloody conflict, thousands of miles from home; together with deep sorrow for those who laid down their lives to defend the South Atlantic Islanders right to ‘be British.’
Today, as a Member of the European Parliament; UKIP’s Defence Spokesman; Deputy Party Leader, and a student of military history; I have to say that my perspective of the events that unfolded in 1982 has somewhat changed.
No longer do I pour over the military tactics and battlefield stories, as I once did. Instead, I am more concerned with the political and strategic picture; the logistics employed to mount such a large operation; how causalities could have potentially been avoided; and the important question of whether the UK could still retake the Falkland Islands if it were invaded today.
Let’s examine that question.
Could we retake the Falkland’s today?
Even in 1982, the British Army and Royal Navy were feeling the pinch of politically motivated ‘cost-cutting’ to its operational capability, following the publication of John Nott’s 1981 Defence White Paper, “The UK Defence Programme: The Way Forward.”
Under the plans published by Nott, the regular army was to be reduced to 135,000 men, a loss of 7,000, which, as now, was to be partly offset by the gradual expansion of the Territorial Army by 16,000 personnel. But the biggest blows came to the Royal Navy, with plans to sell its new Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, to Australia and to focus ‘primarily on anti-submarine warfare.’
The Royal Marines, who along with the Paras, were destined to play such a vital role in recapturing the Falklands, were, under Nott’s plans, to look at disbanding their entire amphibious landing force and sell off the landing ships, HMS Intrepid and Fearless. Nott also demanded that nine of the Navy’s 59 escorts would be decommissioned, together with a reduction in manpower of between 8,000 and 10,000 personnel.
Despite the deep cuts proposed a year earlier, the Royal Navy mustered an impressive amphibious force of 115 ships to head for the Falkland Islands. This force included the two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible; two landing platform dock (LPD) ships, HMS Fearless and Intrepid; and six landing ship logistics (LSL) ships. The Royal Navy was additionally augmented by Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT); requisitioned civilian vessels that including the SS Canberra, the Hull-based ferry, MV Norland, and the world-famous Cunard cruise liner, the QE2.
Fast forward 38 years and the thought of having 135,000 troops defending the Realm and our interests overseas seems like nothing more than a utopian dream while the Royal Navy has suffered years of deep cuts John Nott would not have even dared to suggest.
Since the retirement of the Fleet Air Arm’s Harrier force in 2010, today’s Royal Navy does not even have the operational capacity to launch aircraft at sea, despite billions of pounds being investments into two new aircraft carriers. In fact, it is doubtful whether the two new carriers – the biggest ships ever built for the Royal Navy – will ever be fully equipped with aircraft, or adequately protected at sea.
It is already stated that only one of the two behemoths will ever put to sea at any one time, as the Royal Navy cannot refuel, resupply or defend both carriers at the same time. It has also been pointed out that with recent developments in missile technology the inadequately protected carriers are unlikely ever to be deployed on a Falklands style operation, as they would be too ‘prime a target.’ Other questions have also arisen over the combat readiness and capability of the F35 stealth fighter programme, the aircraft chosen as a replacement for the Harrier Jump Jet which is due to enter frontline service in 2020, due to serious ongoing engineering and software problems with the programme.
Many of the issues the UK’s armed forces face today can be traced back over decades, even before John Nott’s white paper. However, it was to be a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, driving for ‘austerity,’ that did the real damage to the UK’s military capability. With the banking crash as a background, and demands from the then Chancellor, George Osbourne, to slash the defence budget by 10% to 20% in real terms, the new coalition Government published its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2010.
[To be continued with Part II published tomorrow, Sunday 13th May.]