Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now when we consider the RAF’s global role, perhaps, beyond a NATO role towards the end of our period, the Falkland War comes up and is a very prominent engagement for the RAF overseas. So Ross, the Falkland War really presented the RAF with some great logistical challenges in 1982.
Skip to 0 minutes and 29 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, the Falkland War for the RAF but also for British military more broadly is, in Cold War context, out of place in some respects. From the late 1960s into the 1980s, there’s been a shift in British defence policy. We’ve gone from east of Suez. And you know, this is a return to expeditionary war for something that the British military in the 70s haven’t really been working on. And of course, the major challenge is that the Falkland Islands– and the Falkland Islands are, of course, part of Britain– is that it’s a very long way aways. That deep in South Atlantic Ocean. There are major logistical issues. How the task group goes.
Skip to 1 minute and 11 seconds A major stopping off point is Ascension Island, which is still a very, very long way from the Falkland Island. But the RAF maintain an air bridge to Ascension Island. And then, from there, they continue supplying a fleet and so forth. But if we think about, for example, the Black Buck raids, the challenge of actually refuelling even a Vulcan bomber that has a long range to attack the Stanley airfield. And the Falkland is a major logistical challenge. The refuelling is something like 13 refuelling points during the attack. So it is a major logistical challenge. Both, for keeping the RAF factor but also for supporting the task force in the Army once it’s there. And of course, the enemy has a vote.
Skip to 1 minute and 56 seconds One of the logistical support that the RAF seeks to provide, initially, is it sends Chinook helicopters. But of course, when the Atlantic Conveyor is sunk, only one of them, Bravo November, survives. And that causes major challenges for the forces deployed.
Skip to 2 minutes and 12 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, Ross. Now you mentioned the Black Buck raids. And they’re probably the most famous RAF engagements in the Falkland War. But how do we view now the RAFs role in that particular conflict?
Skip to 2 minutes and 24 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Well the RAFs role, to some degree, with the exception of the Black Buck raids, which it should be remembered as not just the bombing of the airfield. Also, quite significantly, attacks with anti-radiation missiles against Argentine radar sites. The other major contributions, you know, Black Buck takes up a lot of the literature. But actually, the RAF make a significant contribution. That has been, perhaps, undervalued. We deploy Harrier GR.3s to support operations of the two carriers deployed, the principle of HMS Hermes. As I’ve already mentioned, the RAF seek to deploy helicopters. Only Bravo November survives the sinking of the Atlantic conveyor. But actually, that helicopter plays a significant role.
Skip to 3 minutes and 12 seconds It’s moving and is heavily used, probably more heavily used than it should have been, but in moving forces between various points, especially in the final assault. But also from Ascension Island, I’ve already mentioned the air bridge of the air transport fleet. Both Hercules and the VC10, but also chartered aircraft. The RAF reach a charter. The Short Belfast that had gone out to service a few years earlier to provide that air bridge to ascension. There are phantoms deployed to ascension to provide air defence. And some of these phantoms will, eventually, go down to the Falkland Islands to form the flight that defends the Falklands post-war.
Skip to 3 minutes and 51 seconds But also, probably most importantly, I would suggest is the deployment of the Nimrod to carry out Maritime patrol from Ascension Island down towards where the fleet is operating. This is a Maritime based campaign with an amphibious assault. The fleet needs to be defended. The fleet needs to be aware of where the Argentine Navy is patrolling, etc. So the Nimrod fleet plays a very, very important role in providing that defence for the operation. So the RAF is doing a lot. Some of which is not reported for various obvious reasons. But it’s still playing a really, really key role in victory against the Argentinean forces.
Skip to 4 minutes and 35 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Understood. Now were there any important lessons learned by the RAF from the 1982 Falkland War?
Skip to 4 minutes and 43 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, I mean, one of the long lessons is that this, sort of, marks the return to expeditionary warfare, which becomes more and more prominent. And it’s marked out in the 1998 strategic Defence Review that that’s what Britain is going to do. But the 1990s are more recently we have essentially been conducted expeditionary operations in places like Afghanistan. For the RAF in particular, one recognition is the need to improve its airborne early warning fleet. This, eventually, is the decision to order the E-3D Sentry. The RAF needs to improve and upgrade the Nimrod fleet.
Skip to 5 minutes and 17 seconds So there are some operational lessons that come out of it in terms of improving the fleet and this recognition that we need to improve some of the kit that the RAF is operating.
Skip to 5 minutes and 26 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, Ross. Thank you for that. While we will be dealing with the RAF’s overseas role in future weeks, I think this is drawing to a conclusion how the RAF is operating independently of its principal NATO role. So we’ll draw this discussion to conclusion now.
The Falklands War
The Falklands War
In this video we wanted to consider the following statements and questions:
The Falklands War presented the RAF with some unprecedented logistical challenges.
The Black Buck raids are the most famous of the 1982 engagements. How do we view now the RAF’s role in the conflict?
Where there any important lessons from the 1982 conflict for the RAF?
We would like to know what you think as well, so please post in the comments below.
Britain’s last imperial war?
The Falklands War holds a special place in the (relatively) recent history of Britain. This might be considered the last imperial war. Before the war, Mrs Thatcher was the least popular British Prime Minister in the post-1945 era; the year after (in 1983) she won by a landslide – or, at least, a far better showing than could have been anticipated at the beginning of 1982. It was also the last time the RAF could have operated over such huge distances – the Vulcan was taken out of service two years later. Between April and June 1982 Britain and the Argentine were in open military conflict over the Falkland Islands, and a smaller group of islands in and around the island of South Georgia. The Falkland Islands are something less than 500km from the Argentine coast in the South Atlantic. They remain a British Overseas Territory to this day – and they are one of the very few imperial territories still allied to Britain – there has been a British settlement there since the 1830s, and it has been a British Colony since the 1840s. Until the War it was largely forgotten, and its inhabitants were in the process of having their British citizenship downgraded to holders of a British Dependency passport when hostilities broke out – a 1983 Act of Parliament restated the British citizenship of the Falkland Islanders.
The backdrop to the War was a military junta in the Argentine from 1981; and systematic defence cuts by the Thatcher Government in her first term. Sensing a weak commitment of the British to defend the islands, and looking to win a popular victory to curry domestic support, the Argentine military ‘retook the Malvinas’ Islands.
The British response was in one respect remarkable. The Falkland Islands are 51° south of the equator; London is 51° north of the equator. The Operation Black Buck raids (Find out more about these here) saw Vulcan bombers operate 8,000 miles from home, in what were the longest distance bombing raids in history at the time. Victor tankers refuelled other Victor tankers to refuel the Vulcan bombers – the logistics of the operations were more impressive than perhaps the military outcomes of the raids. The operation of the Harriers of the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm proved their worth in theatre, as did the one Chinook helicopter which was able to operate in support of the British army. The Task Force which was despatched from Britain was successful in mounting an amphibious assault on the territories invaded by the Argentines, with the RAF providing a critical support role throughout.
Earlier this year (2016) the British Defence Secretary restated Britain’s commitment to the Falklands (Read about this here). Britain did not always take such a staunch line with regards its far flung remnants of empire – in 1984 Mrs Thatcher came to an agreement with the Chinese government to hand back the Island of Hong Kong when Britain’s lease on the adjacent New Territories came to term in 1997. A more cynical reading of events might emphasize the possible natural resources which may be around the Falkland Islands and Britain’s interests in the Antarctic as being critical here, but I think we can safely say that the Falklands War was the last time that ‘the Empire could Strike Back’ (and references to the second Star Wars movie abounded at the time of the Falklands War).
© Royal Holloway, University of London and the RAF Museum, Hendon