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 Audaciousclass 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.

60 COMMENTS

  1. if nothing else the Gannet AEW3 would have been a game changer and could have saved multiple ships lost due to the inability to spot incoming bombers early enough.

    • a large combat aiar patrol would have certainly have given the opportunity to stop incoming attacks in san carlos where antelope and ardent were lost, possibly coventry would have had air protection which may not have seen her lost.

      • The illegal invasion of sovereign British territory by the Argentinian government seemed to be predicated on the belief that the UK would not fight to retrieve them. Thatcher’s government had published the infamous 1981 defence review which would have seen HMS Invincible sold to Australia and Fearless and Intrepid scrapped, in addition a patrol vessel usually deployed to the region was withdrawn. The message to the desperate Argentina government seemed clear. Ark Royal would have been a great asset in 82,with the benefit of hindsight.

  2. Obviously a third carrier would have been beneficial and given us greater odds. But I think the simple question is would we have been better of with just HMS Ark Royal, or as it was Illustrious and Hermes and personally I’d say no. While the Gannet would have literally saved lives, the carrier was to small to operate modern jets, hence why it only had 12 Phantom. Not only would we have had far to few aircraft, but those aircraft would have had a lower reaction and operation rate as the harriers. Had we had a large carrier capable of carrying three squadrons of phantoms then it would have been a walk in the park.

    • arks cmplement of aircraft would have been bolstered with harries perhaps taken from atlantic conveyor, where numerous air assets were lost.

      • What people need to remember when discussing these things is the wider image. Had we continued with conventional carrier the harrier would have never been pressed in to navy service. Therefore its likely that it would have never have crossed the Airforce mind to deploy theirs on ships. Also the issue if space remains, and all of the conveyors harriers where already disembarked.

    • Harry, I partially agree with you here, however, you’ve negated the fact of what Ark Royal could bring to the party. The Phantom for starters would have been providing a long distance outer screen CAP supported by the Gannets. The Phantoms would have been armed with the radar guided Sky Flash AAM. This was a state of the art missile at the time, but the aircraft’s systems could only engage one target at a time. It could carry at least four with an additional four Sidewinders. The Harriers would provide local air defence due it short legs. But the next awesome asset it would bring is the Buccaneer, quite simply the best interdiction aircraft in the World at the time until it was replaced by the Tornado. This aircraft had the range and payload that could threaten the Argentinian mainland, specifically its airfields. It could also carry out Buddy air-air refuelling which would of extended the range of the Phantoms and the Harriers. I don’t believe Argentina at the time had an aircraft radar platform, this put them in very dangerous position, especially where strategic assets are concerned e.g. fuel storage etc.

      The Gannet AEW did not have a data link, but relied on voice comm’s to relay information. Although not ideal, still useful. The Super Entendards carrying the Exocets would have been detected significantly earlier and had a pair of Phantoms sent their way. Would it prevent them launching, perhaps not, but it would have meant that they in all likely hood would have been firing blind. Also they would have been intercepted by the Phantoms, with a very good chance of being shot down. Don’t forget they only had five operational aircraft at this point of the war, with the same number of Exocets. Further, the Gannet would have directed the Harriers to suppress any leakers.

      Having Ark Royal there would have been a major game changer for the conflict. Even though it didn’t have a large compliment of aircraft. It would be sufficient to make the Argentinians start second guessing as to their homeland’s vulnerability!

  3. It’s a nice thought. However one realty remained that governed everything. The weather. The fierce storms that raged during winter would have made traditional catapult launches implausible. The harrier with the ski jump gave the Royal Navy a critical edge.

    Even even the phantoms and buccaneers could take off, landing was a whole new ball game.

    There has been a lot of bagging of the invincible class, and the harriers, by many, and lamenting about the glory days of the big carriers is an easy thing to do.

    War is about making the most of what you have at the time. History not nostalgia teaches you that

    As a boy living in plymouth in the 70’s, I can remember the ark gliding into plymouth sound. It was stirring stuff. So I have a special spot for the ark and the old navy, and an appreciation of the not so stirring but immensely practical invincible class.

    It will be interesting to see the sortie rates of the new queen Elizabeth class in the stormy seas compared to conventional carriers…..who knows the politicians may actually have a greater grasp of history than we give them credit for.

  4. As Harry said, had history been different and the Ark survived into the 1980’s, then (assuming it was available) it wouldn’t have been as effective as the combined effect of Hermes and Invincible.
    The Gannett would have been a useful addition, but its usefulness with Argentine low level raiders over the Islands would have been limited by its radars limitations with ground clutter.

    The 14 Phantoms and 14 Buccaneers would have been pressed very hard and the horrendous sea conditions in the South Atlantic might have well made launch and recovery impossible at times..

  5. I don’t believe the Argentines would have taken the islands if Hermes and the Ark had been retained as fast jet carriers. The likelihood of retaining the territory would have been very low, and likely that the Argentines would have held back their plans. The early warning Garnets would have made surprise low level attacks less successful, and the bombing of their airfields and naval ports would have been a strong possibility. Whether or not the British would have taken the war to the mainland, is open to conjecture, but the possibility of such action would have halted their ambitions for an invasion. The idea of British planes bombing the Argentine mainland, would have not been palatable nor tolerated by the public. By scrapping with the Ark and the calibre of planes she carried, would have strengthened the argument to invade. We should also remember the Sea Harrier was an untested aircraft in a wartime scenario, and I do believe its effectiveness came as a surprise to both sides.

  6. The fact is that the Government and MOD are not interested in “History Lesson” or assessing future threats only the moment is considered and turn a blind eye to the Future. We are cursed by Governments who seem to ignore their first duty “Defence of the Nation”
    Hammond is a first class example of an idiot who with a wave of the hand stresses we only need an Army of 50,000 . I wonder if these constant threats of further cuts bear down on the morale of the Armed Services, course they do , but the Politicians safe in their own beds just dont care ,all the time praising our “superb Forces” at the same time threatening their future

    • failure to learn from the past, increases the chances of those mistakes happening again, the two world wars and the fact that submarines could have starved the u.k into submission, the same threat applies today. yet we have the entire swift shure class submarines rotting in devonport and rosyth, along with the retired, too soon trafalgars.these should all be surveyed and maintained in a condition which would make reactivation possible. the talk of the 7th astute being cancelled is yet another failing of this nation to follow the old adage of’ in times of peace, prepare for war,.

  7. The Argentinian junta invaded because they believed that Britain did not have the national and political will to liberate the islands, so the availability of Ark Royal would not have made a difference to their reasoning imo. Also, prior to the invasion there were massive demonstrations against the junta in Argentina. After the invasion there were wild celebrations, relieving the pressure on the junta. Obviously, Galtieri and his gang launched the invasion to distract attention from their domestic problems, and as I said before, in the expectation that Britain lacked the will to do anything militarily, irrespective of what forces could deploy.

    • i, d say not just the will, but and this is where my worries around’ comrade corbyn come in, the bravery and ambition to prepare beforehand for the likeliest source of future aggression. never mind the rivers, t45,s, frigates et al the u.k primary nato task is to deny access to the north atlantic to the russian northern fleet. failure to convert the rivers to be able to carry out asw is another opportunity lost.

  8. Thatcher’s government had been working on a white paper to handover or ‘lease back’ the islands. The indication to the Argentineans’ was that we no longer wanted/had the will to defend the islands.

    Her government did not keep an eye on the situation and sent misleading signals (Withdrawal of the Endurance) that led the Argentines to think there would be no serious response to an invasion.

    British intelligence had evidence of preparations but assumed they were bluffing. Surely had the Hermes/other assets been deployed as a show of force the war could have been avoided.

    Francis Pym was replaced as he was seen as being too hesitant on introducing cuts to the Armed Forces (Not so different today I may add).

      • You are right will, I referenced Nott as he was removed in 1981 (Start of the cuts). The Tories had promised in their election to strengthen the forces.

        I don’t want to side with either party (On here), but I think it is a myth that the Tories are stronger on defence. Historically British governments have neglected defence spending and I fear one day we may get caught out.

      • Indeed. Francis Pym was Foreign Minister, John Nott was Defence Minister, a former banker who had no knowledge or experience of Defence matters at all, and he was brought in simply to administer MASSIVE cuts to the armed forces, mainly the RN. Hermes was to be scrapped in 1983, Invincible sold to Australia in December 82, Fearless was to be scrapped (rescinded a month or so before the invasion as ‘compensation’ for the loss of Invincible, but she was still an old ship and would have probably been axed a few years later, and she wasn’t a carrier so hardly a replacement. Her sister Intrepid was to be sold abroad, to ARGENTINA! Nobody at the Foreign office asked what they wanted with an amphibious assault ship…

        At least ten DD/FFs were to be axed and only the two newer Invincibles (Illustrious and Ark Royal, neither complete at this point) were to be retained and the Navy would be concentrated around the ASW mission in the North Atlantic even more strictly than it was, with the SSNs being top priority at the expense of the surface fleet.

        • I was never a fan of Nott myself, but he did serve in the Army. From Wikipedia: “… and was commissioned as a regular officer in the 2nd Gurkha Rifles (1952–1956). He served in the Malayan emergency after a period of service with the Royal Scots.”

  9. After the war, members of the junta stated that they had not expected Britain to do anything about it and it came as a very big shock when the task force sailed. From that moment, war was inevitable as the junta could not have backed down and survived. Of course, the loss of the Falklands led to the fall of the junta anyway, so it was really Britain’s liberation of the islands that paved the way for democracy to return to Argentina. With no Falklands war the junta would probably have survived for some time, with increasingly brutal suppression of demonstrators and opponents, and many more would have ‘disappeared’.

  10. So nothing really changes then, with wholesale disposal of assets only to discover they are needed just a few years later.

    Generations of our political leaders are quite disgraceful.

  11. Interestingly, a similar situation occured in 1976. Argentina’s junta were making threats against the Falklands–again trying to draw attention away from domestic problems. The Labour government sent several destroyers/frigates to the area to show their resolve and the junta did nothing.

  12. Do not forget HMS Eagle, a newer ship than Ark Royal. Wilson scrapped the newer ship. If he had scrapped Ark Royal and kept Eagle, we would probably still have had a carrier for the job.

    • The Ark was a nightmare to keep operational her whole career. By the time she was paid off in 79 she was in a horrendous state. Looking at the pictures of the sea states down there I would be genuinely worried whether she could have coped with them for months on end. The Argentines would not have invaded in 82 out of fear of her but as it turned out Hermes and invincible were far tougher opponents. Yes the Gannets would have been vital but the weather in the South Atlantic was such that the Phantoms and Buccs would have been non-op most of the time leaving the task force wide open to attack.

      • Ark Royal’s career spanned 27 years she spent more time in final fitting out and subsequent resits and modernisation (15 years) than she did in commissioned service (12 years). Intensive and increasingly unsuccessful maintenance and a new programme of continuous servicing and repair with RN maintenance ships always in her task groups, kept her going until late 1978, with increasing mechanical and electrical failures-leading to decommission in Nov 1978.

        • During her last refit she was fitted for four Sea Cat missile launchers, but they were never installed, so she emerged from this refit with no defensive armament. More penny pinching by yet another Government.

        • there’s no way ‘big lizzie’ and ‘fat taff’ will give 50 years service. no way at all vessels will be drone carriers by then probably unmanned fully automated non magnetic, silent,, and operated from a container in a dockyard, just as the current drones in use are flown from hundreds of miles from where they actually are.maybe even built of fibreglass

      • i was a stoker on the ark just before she went ‘in the bin’, the engine/boiler rooms were scary places to work, such was the state of the ship. i doubt she would have even got to the falklands. eagle was in far better condition and, as still goes on ships are not maintained as they are in the u.s in a state where reactivation is possible h.m.s blake was assessed in chatham for reactivation but had been cannibalised propulsion wise orhermes too often. tiger and bulwark were looked at, tiger was a mess and would have needed a comprehensive refit. bulwark’s boiler explosion had never been fixed or she may have been made ready in time to arrive just at the end of hostilities

        • I remember the look see’s on Bulwark and Tiger and Blake. The last two would have seriously altered the shore bombardment profile if they where available. Twin Auto 6inch and twin Auto 3 Inch turrets would have ruined any ashore forces day.
          I believed they even looked at an ocean going tug towing a Bulwark down there with strap on DG sets in containers fixed on board for power just to provide an extra flight deck. Saner minds prevailed and they didn’t reactivate any of them.

  13. Unless this about lessons we shouldn’t forget this is just another counter factual.

    In terms of lessons;

    Island nation.

    Island nation that can’t feed itself.

    Island nation that depends on imported energy to keep the lights on.

    Island nation that has the same sea but a fraction of the ship above or below the water.

    Island nation that operates a just in time supply chain for just about everything.

    Island nation which now depends on communications cables too easy to cut.

    and on

    and on

    • Good points. I wonder if we will ever learn? I do think that “optically” whether the Ark was a basket case or not, the Argentines may have thought twice about invading if we had the capacity to send thee carriers down there, one of them with fast jets like the Phantom.

  14. AR was on a wing and a prayer by the time it was decommissioned.
    It had already had a reprieve and its time in-service date put forward. Can’t recall anyone at the time suggesting it should have remained in-service: surely the RN had it’s hands full in trying to ensure a speedy delivery of the Invincible class?

    Perhaps the argument would have been better put that the withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’ leading to the cancellation CV-A01, was erroneous, as that in itself set in-train the intentional run down of conventional navel aviation?

  15. I was based at Chattenden across the water from Chatham at the start of the Falklands and HMS Bulwark was still hanging around in the Dockyard

    • I read that Bulwark was actually examined during the war to investigate if it could be brought quickly back into service and rushed south but its material state was too far gone by that time.

      • the boiler explosion that had prompted bulwarks retirement had never been even surveyed. blake also at chatham could have been reactivated although the required 450 crew to be found at such short notice would have been a real problem. blakes 6 inch gun used in ngs role would have been invaluable, plus she had an armoured hull

    • I think you will find that the ship you saw in Chatham Dockyard was in fact the Maintenance Ship HMS Triumph ( Ex Aircraft Carrier ). Neither Albion or Bulwark were ever in the yard.

      • Bulwark and either Tiger or Blake, not sure which, where up the trot at Guz. Scary times where had walking around on them. No lighting , big holes in the internal decks…

  16. A few things:

    In 1972 Ark Royal was rushed to Belize to deter a Guatemalan invasion. Buccaneers flew low over Belize City to reassure residents. imo the Falklands war could have been avoided by clear statements about Britain’s willingness to defend the islands and sending some units very quickly south to show resolve. Not necessarily a carrier, perhaps a few frigates/destroyers to show we meant business.

    At the time that Ark Royal decommissioned one of the papers–Daily Express I think–gave readers the opportunity to buy a painting of the ship with its Phantoms and Buccaneers on the deck. Don’t know if the paper commissioned the painting but I got one and it was framed and was on my bedroom wall for many years.

    Mention of Bulwark reminded me that I had a recruiting pamphlet from the Royal Marines that folded out into a large colour poster of Bulwark or Albion showing Sea King or maybe Wessex helicopters on deck and lines of Marines boarding them. Albion and Bulwark were termed Commando Carriers.

    • Indeed AV, it was Callahan’s decision to withdraw the SSN patrol from the South Atlantic in 1977 that really got the Argentines convinced we had lost interest in our South Atlantic territories.

      Withdrawing the Ark in 79 would only have further convinced them of our North Atlantic/NATO centric pivot.

  17. It’s not as straightforward as many people make out. V/STOL carriers can keep operating in worse sea states than conventional carriers – my understanding is Ark wouldn’t have been able to recover her aircraft for much of the war, making her useless. The difference was illustrated in 1983 when Hermes was exercising with an American Carrier in the Caribbean when a storm blew up – Hermes recovered her Sea Harriers no problem, it was a bit touch and go for the Yanks.
    Given the state of her engines by the time she was retired I’m not sure in she could’ve made the voyage in 1982. She was a nightmare to keep running throughout the 1970’s.
    Of course,if she had still been in service the Argies might not have invaded in the first place – we’ll never know.

    • conquerors sister courageous was in the southern hemisphere at the outbreak, it never actually joined the task force. ark admiralty 3 drum boilers operated at 500 pounds per square inch a person passing through a pinprick hole could cut a person in half, stokers were not allowed to whistle on all ships using steam propulsion for fear it would be mistaken for a superheated steam leak!

  18. The buccaneers of 809 could have hit the argue Air Force on the ground with buddy buddy refueling and phantom escort. Gannets would have eliminated the use of type 42s as radar picket, saving Coventry and Sheffield. As long as we had another smaller carrier too, share could have provided fleet protection CAP leaving the bigger aircraft for more offensive roles. Would have been interesting!

  19. We would’ve been far better off retaining HMS Eagle, she was in a far better state than the Ark.

    Also, can whomever writes these articles stop referring to RN ships as “the HMS Ark Royal”? It’s just HMS Ark Royal, no the required

  20. According to those that were there Thatcher asked whether the Ark could be brought back into service and was told she was too far gone (Ark that is, though I imagine Dennis had had a few after they were told the chances of success). They also tried Bulwark and pretty much the same answer.
    The need was the Gannet AEW.
    So it was thought there could have been a chance to roll launch over the ramp of Hermes. Invincible’s deck ws too short and dangerously narrow. Recovery was via emergency straps found storage. Gannets were located and in process of being tested when tests on Hermes’s ramp resulted in failure. Couldn’t get the dome up it.
    There were offers of lending kit from another country but it was turned down as we didn’t have the properly trained crews and everyone else had already gone south by then.
    Aircraft carriers in properly equipped carrier groups have been the best deterrent against aggression for generations. They need proper funding.

  21. This is a narrow and silly proposition. First up, a navy with Ark Royal would be an utterly different navy. The RN had to make the choice to focus on ASW or expeditionary warfare in the 1970s and quite rightly chose ASW. IF you keep the Ark, then you’ve picked expeditionary warfare. You’d be struggling on with very decrepit, expensive ships though, The Ark and Eagle may have managed to stay in service, and maybe the hermes, but crucially the large and massively capable sub fleet would have had too be chopped back, and nothing akin to the type 22s would be available, nor the type 42s. Maybe this navy and general posture would have ensured no Argentinian govt would have considered taking the falklands, but if they had tried to, the task force capable of being assembled would have been a good deal more decrepit, and arguably less effective in the savage environment of the southern ocean. Read 100 days, and try and imagine Adm Woodward’s task if his flagship and all capital vessels had been the age (and the state) of the Ark!

  22. Of course, the capability of ship aside, the very fact of their existence in your Armoury, has a deterrent value all of its own.
    Our new Carriers and their air groups will certainly swing the proverbial big stick of foreign policy, to make people think twice!

    • Not really. Our days of being able to project influence through our military are over. The only way we could realistically take on another country now is with the US and they have more than enough power projection of their own.

      The carriers, whilst being a useful addition to the armed forces, are predominately vanity pieces. The equivelent of jumping up and down and shouting look at me.

      • Disagree Steve.

        Taking on another country? To what end? Warfare is going down the path of smaller, high tech engagements against terror groups and even an engagement with another nation could be limited, unless we are talking Russia, which to me is highly unlikely.

        I would not call the ability of sea denial, in conjunction with SSN’s as vanity pieces.

        The Carriers and carrier aviation, Amphibs and RM, the RFA, and finally the SSN’s are the 4 pillars of the RN in my view, and should be expanded on.

        If it necessary to create a 2 tier fleet of escorts due to the sheer cost of these assets fine by me.

  23. Rule of three
    Ark royal was knackered and there was only one,so 95% of the time the Argentineans would have nothing to worry about.
    Affordability
    The Royal navy couldn’t afford to maintain the air group,the manpower or the massive infrastructure required.
    Same problems with the QE2 class other than the fact that they are brand new. No way are they going to have the predicted service life of 50 years

  24. In the unlikely event of the Ark royal being serviceable ,there’s a fairly good chance that the Argentineans would have sunk her.

  25. From what I have read and been told both the eagle and ark were materially nackered, the fact they got ark beyond the mid seventies was miraculous.

    Keeping her was not a choice that could have been made, just a matter of how long the last of her spare parts (most recycled from Eagle) would keep working.

    The real bit of “what if” history (if you like a we bit of fantasy) would be what would have happened if we had not cancelled the new carrier.

  26. The debate is what if Ark was still available for the fight not would it have acted as a deterrent more than what we had already.

    We (in 1982) are a major NATO nation, a nuclear power with multiple tactical nukes as well as Polaris. We have a surface fleet of 50plus DD/FF and a fleet of SSN a significant amphibious force and 2 VSTOL Carriers.

    It wasn’t the capability which failed to deter it was the will to use it. In 78 the Argentine was making noise and we got a couple of SSN down there quickly enough to act as a deterrent, in 82 we had just announced major cuts but the cuts hadn’t happened yet, however we did not react militarily to the scrap merchants provocation in S Georgia so the Argentine assumed we would simply accept the loss of the Islands. If they thought there was any risk of a real response they would at very least wait a few years till the announced cuts had been implemented.

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