The Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Forth has arrived in the Falkland Islands to act as the permanent guardship for the region. The Batch 2 River class patrol ship will be on station for several years, functioning as the resident British warship in the South Atlantic.
The Royal Navy has maintained a permanent presence in and around the Falkland Islands since 1982, making it one of the longest-running deployments outside of UK waters since the Second World War.
The size and composition of the force has varied over the years, as has the diplomatic relationship with Argentina.
It appears likely that this is a role that will continue for many years to come. But, what does the Royal Navy, and the wider British Armed Forces do in the South Atlantic and why does this presence matter so much?
Following the end of the Falklands War the UK established a sizeable RN squadron in the region, built around escort ships, submarines, patrol vessels and RFA support. This was initially to provide a presence while the major military facility at Mount Pleasant was built and completed, which now functions as the main location for British forces on the islands.
From the 1990s onwards the force stabilised around a permanently based OPV, based on one of the Castle class vessels. This provided a ship capable of patrolling the islands, and embarking a small military force and a flight deck for temporarily embarking a helicopter.
In addition to this the RN usually sent at least one destroyer or frigate down to the region on a permanent basis (known as the ‘Falkland Islands Guardship), although as time passed this changed into a ship that would usually operate in the area, while also deploying more widely - for example visiting South America and Africa too – this became known as ‘Atlantic Patrol Task South’. These days visits by major warships to the islands are rare, particularly as the RN prefers to focus its escort ships towards the Gulf and Far East now.
The RFA provided a tanker (usually a Rover class) to provide on station support and additional cover in the region. This was withdrawn in 2017 when the last Rover class in active service (RFA Gold Rover) returned to the UK for paying off. It is not yet clear whether the UK intends to send a replacement tanker to cover this role, or if instead it will remain a gapped commitment. Given the increased range and reduced fuel requirements of more modern ships, it is possible that no further tankers will deploy to the islands routinely.
The RFA also deployed the fleet repair ship RFA Diligence on occasions into the region. This was usually to act in her role as a support vessel for nuclear submarine deployments, where her workshops and support facilities made her an invaluable source of support for any Royal Navy submarines that were in the region.
It is not clear how often the Royal Navy deploys its nuclear submarine force into the South Atlantic at present.
While previous deployments have occasionally resulted in press releases for high profile port visits (for example to South Africa), the RN rarely publicises the deployments of nuclear submarines, and it must remain an open question as to how often deployments occur into the South Atlantic.
One ship that has been a regular presence for many years now is the Antarctic patrol ship. This role, which used to be carried out by HMS Endurance is now usually filled by HMS Protector, the only red painted vessel in the Royal Navy. The ship often calls into the islands on her way to and from patrols and is a valued part of the wider British presence in the region, alongside other vessels such as the Royal Research Ships (RRS) James Clark Ross and James Cook that carry out support work to the British Antarctic Survey.
This year the role of Antarctic Patrol is being carried out, at least in part by the survey vessel HMS Scott, the largest hydrographic vessel in the Royal Navy, and which is covering for the Protector who has been in refit in the USA.
Since around 2007 the main presence in the Falkland Islands was based on the purpose-built patrol ship HMS Clyde. Built in Portsmouth Naval Base and commissioned in 2007, she spent her entire career operating in the South Atlantic as the local offshore patrol vessel.
The Clyde was an enhanced River class OPV, displacing some 2000 tonnes and armed with a 30mm gun and flight deck.
The Clyde's primary role was to provide an armed patrol capability in the region, ensuring that the Royal Navy could support sovereignty in the region.
The Clyde was only leased by the Royal Navy from BAE Systems, who remain the owner of the ship, and returned to the UK in December 2019 for the first time in 12 years. Her current future remains unclear, with rumours of a sale to Brazil failing to materialise, and it is unclear whether she will be sold on, or, like the Batch 1 River class, be held in reserve for some time pending possible reactivation in due course.
The arrival of HMS Forth in the Falklands represents a significant increase in capability for the British forces locally.
The Batch 2 River class are significant enhancement on their predecessors, being slightly larger and longer (at just over 2000 tonnes and 90m long, she is not far off the size of some early Cold War RN frigates).
On paper she looks lightly armed, with a combination of 30mm, miniguns and GPMGs, coupled with a flight deck capable of landing a Merlin helicopter. In reality this fit out suits both the operational environment she works in, and more widely the RN philosophy that minor war vessels err to being lightly armed rather than be employed as miniature, and not very survivable, frigates.
The Forth could technically be updated to carry additional weapons or even missile systems, although such a move would be costly, require significant expenditure on the ship and also reduce her availability in the region to carry out patrols. Given the need for either anti-air or anti-ship missiles in her day to day role is practically zero, this would seem an unlikely and time-consuming expense for little tangible gain.
On a day to day basis, the Forth will be used for both sovereignty patrols and fishery protection duties, as well as the sort of general ‘maritime constabulary’ tasks that the Royal Navy does all around the world. Fishing in the region is a challenge, with the risk of overfishing of stocks a key issue, and in particular the problem of illegal fishing too. The Falkland Islands Government also maintains its own fishery protection vessels which are armed, and used to monitor stocks in the area.
She will also be used to work closely with the wider British Forces in the region, with the current presence in the Falkland Islands being based around a major airbase, housing Typhoon fighter jets, A400M transport and Voyager tanker aircraft and civilian operated SAR helicopters, as well as infantry and ground support. The Forth will provide the Royal Navy support in region and can be tasked to both patrol the local area or operate more widely as required.
The big question, of course, is whether there is still a threat to the Falkland Islands from Argentina, or if the risk has gone away since 1982?
There is no doubt that the Argentinean armed forces are a shadow of their former selves, having scrapped significant amounts of equipment and suffered from major funding difficulties for nearly 40 years.
Their air force has a very limited capability, with its sole fast jet fleet being the ancient A4 Skyhawk force, which is now very elderly and utterly outclassed by the Typhoon force. The Navy lacks adequate amphibious shipping, nor does it possess an aircraft carrier anymore, while the submarine force is still recovering from the tragic loss of the ARA San Juan in late 2017.
The bottom line is that the Argentine forces are in no state to threaten to capture the islands, although they could be used to create mischief were the Argentine government so inclined. Anglo-Argentine relations have markedly improved in recent years, with tentative steps being taken to rebuild the military partnership.
For example, when the ARA San Juan was lost in 2017, the UK sent HMS Clyde and HMS Protector (the Antarctic patrol ship) plus air assets and the submarine parachute rescue team to support the SAR operations. Indeed, this marked the longest flight in RAF history, as an RAF Voyager flew direct from Brize to Argentina to bring in people and equipment.
The election of a new government in Argentina under President Fernandez poses interesting questions about how the relationship evolves though. The President has close ties to former President Cristina Kirchner, whose determination to claim the islands for Argentina led to a significant deterioration in relations.
It is not yet clear if the President will ratchet up the tensions further, trying to put pressure on the UK to negotiate, or if he will instead choose to maintain a low profile on the Falklands, accepting the need to be seen to press a claim for sovereignty, but not take any action that could derail the bilateral relationship.
Were Argentina to seek to step up pressure on the islands, then the Forth is going to be an important asset for the Royal Navy.
Her ability to identify and track shipping would help her spot incoming ships, such as Argentine warships, and ensure they were monitored and seen safely away.
Her ability to carry and launch small boarding parties helps her in fishery protection roles, meaning she could theoretically board fishing vessels that didn’t have a licence to be in territorial waters- for example any Argentine vessels that were chancing their luck.
Finally, she has the range and sustainability to stay out at sea for a long time monitoring any possible problems and providing timely information back. This could be of importance if Argentine ships were loitering in the area without permission.
The chances of there being any form of actual military action though remain vanishingly small, and the biggest challenge likely to be faced is dealing with low level ‘silliness’ intended to prove a point rather than pose a threat to the territorial integrity of the islands themselves.
This perhaps then highlights the biggest challenge the UK has with the British Forces in the Falkland Islands, which is namely, what to do with them? The facilities in Mount Pleasant are some of the largest and most capable overseas possessed by the UK. The airbase represents the very pinnacle of Cold War design, capable of housing far more aircraft and support troops than are based there now.
The risk to the islands is minimal but it is not at the point where the presence can be switched off completely. Before the invasion the islands were defended by a single platoon of Royal Marines, compared to the nearly 2000 strong force today.
The challenge though is that with the threat of attack being ever less likely, it is difficult to work out what the role of the base is for. The UK cannot withdraw completely, and the need to be certain of assuring sovereignty over the airspace and waters of the region means that HMS Forth will be required, as will the four Typhoon jets that mount QRA daily – in the same way as it is mounted in the UK.
Similarly, the A400M is used in a maritime patrol aircraft role, particularly to monitor shipping in the vast tracts of waters around the Falkland Islands, and the other island groups across the South Atlantic that the UK has sovereignty over including South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
What this means is that even if the threat diminishes, it will be hard for the UK to completely draw down or remove its military presence, but it does come at significant cost. The garrison requires regular resupply, and reinforcements, and necessitates the ongoing retention of the RAF facilities at Ascension Island too. This serves as a staging post for aircraft flying to/from the islands and is an established RAF base in its own right.
Consequently, the cost of the garrison is not insignificant and does tie up a lot of important defence resources in the region that cannot easily be moved elsewhere if required. This is coupled with the practical cost of maintaining a nearly 40-year-old airbase in a location where the weather is varied and extreme, and using facilities that will require expensive refits and repairs in due course.
With the defence budget under increasing pressure, one of the big questions in the forthcoming defence review is likely to be how much risk can be taken in the Falklands, and if so, what could be reduced and why?
The problem though is that Argentina remains an unpredictable state and one that may yet choose to engage in potentially foolish courses of action. It has already been proven by Argentine politicians that ratcheting up the narrative on the issue of Falklands sovereignty plays well with the voting public and distracts attention from domestic political woes. It cannot be ruled out that this card may yet be used in the future.
So, the MOD and wider Government has a really difficult set of decisions to make – if it draws down force levels, it can reduce operational pressures elsewhere and potentially save some money. But once drawn down, it is hard to ramp a presence back up, and the risk is that doing so could be interpreted as an escalatory move.
Additionally, the risk is that too great a withdrawal of troops or capabilities may be seen as showing a lack of British commitment to the islands, and also potentially encourage destabilising activity by the Argentine government. Think for instance of the potential for huge political embarrassment were the Argentines to land some kind of military party on one of the islands, raising the national flag and then proving difficult to drive off or remove.
This balancing act is extremely delicate – too much commitment becomes costly and a drain on resources. Too little could potentially be destabilising and increase the risk to the islands security as a whole.
These risks will only increase over time, particularly if oil and gas is found in significant quantities nearby, or if China and Russian choose to make mischief and support the Argentine sovereignty claim over the British one, and actively try to undermine the UK presence in the area.
It is clear that HMS Forth is going to be a very busy ship – she will spend much of the next few years in the region helping keep it safe and protecting British interests, and she will have to do so against the backdrop of a potentially very interesting period of international relations between the UK and Argentina. This is likely to prove a fascinating multi-year deployment, and a great opportunity though for all who get to serve onboard her.