Retaining HMS Ark Royal, an Audacious class aircraft carrier, would have been beneficial in the Falklands War and perhaps even prevented it.
Having another capital ship, which was an Audacious class aircraft carrier equipped with McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 alongside Blackburn Buccaneers, would have been a huge asset, and potentially could have made a difference in the Falklands War and perhaps even have prevented it.
I think the simple answer to the headline is yes, as there would have been greater air cover and range to protect the ships in the fleet, with Argentina well aware of this fact they may not have invaded.
This is very much a what if question, that has possibly been posed by other scholars. The Royal Navy was in a middle of another round of defence cuts which would have meant some of the capital ships including HMS Invincible would have been sold.
Interesting when you look into the political and strategic aspects that as early as 1966, the UK Defence White Paper had planned to scrap the British Aircraft carriers in the early 1970s, leaving Britain without an aircraft carrier capability. However, a new government reexamined the case and found that only shore-based aircraft was not sufficient to provide the defence needs of our global interests which were ‘East of the Suez’.
Sadly, the political issue of saving money in spite of our defence needs was one which led to the ultimate decision to scrap Ark Royal, without a replacement fixed-wing aircraft carrier to fulfill her role and functions. It is worth noting that HMS Ark Royal, did have a sister ship in its line Audacious–class aircraft carrier’s that was HMS Eagle.
The ship entered HMNB Devonport, and was subsequently decommissioned on the 14th February 1979. Finally, the scrapping of HMS Ark Royal took place in 1980, and this marked an end to the Royal Navy’s ability to project conventional fixed-wing air-power. However, another interesting fact was that breaking up of Ark Royal took until 1983.
A question remains, could she have been brought back to service on time?
During its last tour of duty, the aircraft complement of the Ark Royal was as follows: 14 Buccaneer S2s, 12 Phantom FG1s, 4 Gannet AEW3, 1 Gannet COD4, 7 Sea king, and 2 Wessex helicopters. This is quite something and definitely would have been an effective deterrent.
During its history, while HMS Ark Royal underwent many refits and innovations, it did suffer from technical issues due to the age of the vessel as it was built in 1944. However, sadly the aircraft carriers which replaced her were not able to be equipped with traditional aircraft. It is one of those what-if scenarios that can be debated, would it have stopped the war?
There were also plans to sell the Australians the HMS Invincible, but after the Falklands war, and the government seeing the utility of this ship it was decided to cancel to sale. This is the case of accountancy over strategic necessity. This ship was invaluable during the Falklands conflict and should not be forgotten in its role as a key capital ship.
This is seen in the case of the Centaur class aircraft carrier HMS Hermes which did see successful action in the Falklands, and it could arguably be the case, that its very survival along with the HMS Invincible was the reason the War in the Falklands was victorious for the British. HMS Hermes, was converted to a helicopter carrier, and then to a vertical take-off and landing aircraft carrier – suitable for the Harrier jump jets which were invaluable to military efforts during the Falklands War.
My argument here is that with the ability to launch fixed-wing aircraft which HMS Ark Royal would have been able to, would have shifted the balance of power more favorably to the British Royal Navy, and provided even greater aircover while possibly deterring the war in the first place. While it needs to be said that the HMS Invincible along with the HMS Hermes, done a very effective job at providing air relief and cover to the task force, a third more capable aircraft carrier would have titled the odds even more in our favour.
It was a mistake for the Ministry of Defence, despite the technical and mechanical difficulties which beset HMS Ark Royal, to have scrapped her unnecessarily.