One of the reasons why Humphrey started this blog was to try and put start a more reasoned debate about the reality of the Falklands, and how despite our lack of Sea Harriers, the islands were not at risk of imminent invasion. Over the last year the aim has been to try and bring a little balance to a debate which can, at times, adopt the air of hysteria as we hear of legions of retired naval officers pontificating about how UK sovereignty is under threat due to our total lack of Harriers.
Humphrey has had the genuine pleasure of meeting and engaging with members of the Argentine Armed Forces over the years, and he’d describe them as genuinely professional, intelligent, motivated and thoroughly decent people. He has a very healthy professional respect for them, but this does not mean he thinks the islands are under imminent threat of invasion.
Today, reading an article that appeared a couple of weeks ago in the MercoPress (the South Atlantic news agency) about reports from Argentina about the state of their armed forces – it can be found at the link HERE.
It is illuminating reading – it shows just how challenging the current state of the Navy is for Argentina. At present, according to the Argentine Defence Committee, sufficient funding has been allocated for the Navy to spend just 161 days at sea in 2013, compared to 329 days in 2010. Let’s put these figures in perspective for a moment – in a navy comprising some 43 vessels, that is sufficient funding to spend 4 days at sea each in the next year.
Compared to the Royal Navy, where some ships are currently spending over 200 days at sea per year, it makes you realise just how grim things are looking for Argentina at present. The average RN warship spends more time at sea each year than the collective Argentinean Navy.
There are several implications to this – firstly, the growing loss of skills and ability to conduct warfighting operations. Getting a warship worked up to go to sea on deployment takes a long time and lots of practise – with only 161 days of seatime available, it will be a real struggle to get more than a token warship worked up for an operation. While this is going on, the navy will not be sending personnel to sea in all the various roles they need to gain credible experience as naval personnel. There are ever fewer serving individuals who were in the Navy during the 1982 conflict with real operational experience, and probably not that many who remember the UN deployments of the early 1990s. This means that operationally the Argentine Navy is going to struggle to train its crews to work at even the most basic level of capability. It means that everyone across the board is not getting enough training and experience to keep even the basic level of skills like damage control, navigation, pilotage and all the normal seamanship skills up to par. Getting to the stage where the Navy can work up to task group operations, or conducting work with coalition partners will prove all but impossible.
Argentina also faces major challenges in keeping its submarine arm credible and qualified – the same report notes that the Argentine SSK force spent just 19 hours submerged last year – not even one day. That places major challenges on the ability of the crew to qualify in basic submarine skills, let alone escape, and it probably means no real ‘perisher’ like courses can be run. No matter how good their SSK capability is on paper, it is going to take years (if not decades) to regenerate any meaningful operational capability.
Another worrying aspect from the report is the comment that the ordnance has expired for the Almirante Brown class destroyers. In other words, the Argentine Navy has no safe munitions to take to sea that will actually work with their destroyers. This means they have no effective air defence capability, and no real anti-ship capability. To update this requires refits and updates that will cost scarce foreign currency, and as noted elsewhere here on this site, there is no guarantee Argentina will be able to pay for such an update.
So, right now the Argentine Navy finds itself port bound, and unable to operate at any meaningful level of capability. The problem is how to recover from this near terminal decline – the loss of skills and experience in ship handling and operations will take years to rectify, and will make Argentina dependent on friendly foreign powers for help. No matter how optimistic their rebuilding programme for the Navy is, ultimately they are in the process of losing the vital critical mass of ship handling skills and warfighting ability that make the difference between a Navy and a collection of hulls. Although one should always be cautious of single source reporting, particularly where it has an inherent bias, it is clear that the Argentineans face major problems in general for their military. The report notes that the Mirage fleet (the nations primary air defence capability) has not flown a sortie since 2006.
This perhaps illustrates the importance of seatime – the RN may work its ships hard, and cut their numbers – but it is surely better to have hulls at sea where skills can be learned, trained and retained rather than have hulls alongside rusting for lack of funding.
So, in summary, when reading the articles in the media about how vulnerable the Falkland Islands are, one needs to remember that in reality the Argentine Armed Forces are hovering at the point of collapse, and that it is hard to see any real solution in terms of capability, training or credibility that will recover this situation emerging soon. Even if work were to start tomorrow to rebuild the capabilities lost, it is realistic to assume that Argentina is 10-15 years away from regenerating a credible military capable of taking a credible military opponent.