Monday, August 1, 2011

What do we need Merlins for?

More than once, online, i've been horrified by comments like "what do we need ASW helicopters for?", "which submarines will they hunt...?" and "why are we building frigates?".
Who's got an interest for military matters can probably cringe at these stupid questions, and know that there are very good answers to all of them.
But today i want to underline a very interesting development that in my opinion configures one of those "alarming news" that should be considered in Defence Reviews, and shape up the requirements of the UK's armed forces. And supply another good reasons for frigates and Merlins.

If Iran's growing submarine fleet and its deployments in the Indian Ocean are not worrisome enough, if China's first aircraft carrier is far away enough not to be a menace, i find that the growing Argentine submarine force certainly configures a menace to keep in consideration, especially since Falklands-related tension is at an all-times high.

For most of the UK's public, the Argentine armed forces are not an issue at all. They are "rusty and weak", in their words, but this is only partially true, and it does not keep track of recent developments, coming with a quite massive uplift in military expenditure. The Argentine defence budget has recorded a strong compound annual growth rate (CAGR) since 2006, reaching approximately US$2.6bn in 2010. According ICD research's 'The Argentine Defence Industry - Market Opportunities and Entry Strategies, Analyses and Forecasts to 2015' report, the country's defence budget is expected to record significant growth, to reach approximately $5.5bn by 2015. Elections this October are an element of uncertainty, but with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, well-known hawk on Falklands and a firm supporter of military modernization, thought favorite for the victory, the Argies armed forces can be confident in money coming.

Notable programmes include the the acquisition of new "transport ships", a worrisome development in itself as a power projection capability would change the scenario radically from the current situation, in which Argentina lacks the necessary strategic lift and shipping for crossing the 300 miles of sea to get to the Falklands. At the moment, they only have the 10.000 tons ARA Bahía San Blas and the modified Type 42 destroyer ARA Hércules, which can carry and deploy 238 Marines, with two embarked Sea King helicopters, each capable of anti-ship duty with a couple of Exocets.

The Navy is also building four 1800 tons patrol vessels at the Tandanor-Alte Storni shipyard in Argentina under a multiyear $600m contract announced in 2010. In May 2010, Defense Minister Nilda Garre announced that the Navy would continue working on a system that would enable the launch of Exocet missiles from the Navy’s P3 Orion aircraft, giving the Argies a reach they have never had before. In addition, the financing of the local development and construction of a coastal Naval defense system that may also be based on the use of Exocet missiles similar to the Excalibur system was also announced.

In the submarine's realm, though, there are the most impressive and worrisome developments.
Currently Argentine has a single german-designed U209 diesel submarine and two german-built TR1700 diesel submarines. The first two submarines were delivered on schedule in 1984-85. The remaining four, planned to be built in Argentina, were suspended due to the Argentinean economic crisis of the 1980s, with work on them stopped in the 90s. Two of the four submarines were partially built, and now the Santa Fe is being completed, but not as a diesel submarine: it will be Argentina's first nuclear submarine. The shipyards have now almost completed a midlife upgrade and refit of one of the two operational subs, the San Juan, and now the effort will be to complete, by 2015, the Santa Fe as a SSN.

Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission and the National Institute for space and nuclear technology apparently have already finished designing the CAREM reactor so that it can be adapted to the prototype of the future submarine. An attempt had already been made in the past, but the programme was halted in 1980. In February 2008, government negotiations to jointly develop nuclear reactors with Brazil failed (Brazil plans to soon start work on its own first SSN, after work on their four new conventionally-powered Scorpene subs will be completed) and Argentina continued on its own.

The Argentine air force, which has been operating obsolete equipment for several years and has many airplanes not operational, is expected to procure new advanced fighter aircraft, helicopters and transport aircraft, and plans to upgrade the army's airlift capabilities. The country has joined the Brazilian KC-390 programme for the development of a medium lift transport aircraft, with Brazilian firm Embraer as the primary contractor.

The government will also upgrade engines on its Pucara and Pampa fighter aircraft, and is in the process of procuring five Bell 206 helicopters and five Mi17 helicopters from Russia.
Modernisation and repairs of its helicopter fleet is also under progress as the government plans to refurbish its Super Puma helicopters and upgrade its Huey-II helicopters.

Will all this have any effect on the British planning, or even the proliferation of SSNs in the area and the acquisition of amphibious assault vessels will not be enough to sound any alarm bell?

Prudence is in order, i think.


  1. Hi Gabriele,

    That is a very interesting article.

    Has the Argentinan air force shown any interest in those US Hornets, that will be going up for sale soon?

    I think 2015 to 2020 is an ideal window for the Argentinans to try and regain the falklands.
    The UK will have no long range patrol aircraft, no aircraft carrier, only 7 SSN, the RAF will be down to it's lowest strength, No F35 until at least 2020, and the army will be in the middle of changing to 5 MR Brigades.

    They couldn't ask for more could they?


  2. Thanks for reading into my stuff, i'm glad the article was interesting.

    I don't know what aircraft has Argentina's eyes upon it, but the Hornet is a possibility. They might very well go russian, though. They do not appear to have problems with it, and the Su35, gods know, is a great fighter. Or buy ex-french Mirages, too. I don't think they can afford the Rafale, but used Mirages could be a possibility.

    Whatever they buy, i know a thing: they'll integrate Exocet upon it! They are obsessed with it, they put it everywhere they can.

    And i have to agree with you: the next few years really represent a formidable window of opportunity for an invasion attempt.
    And if the finds that took place so far around the islands culminate in a very BIG oil find, they'll have yet another reason to try again.

    Today, they haven't the strength to try. But tomorrow the picture could be different.

    New fighter jets, more helicopters, "transport" ships on the horizon and submarines to prevent a UK task force from getting to the islands.

    Doesn't it look like a plan...?

  3. I have just found you, didnt realise you had your own site.

    Argentinas talk is worrying, but at the moment, it remains just that, talk.

    Lots of second rate regional powers make grandiose schemes to become first rate regional powers with dreams of global power, but few actualy make it.
    Time lines slide, purchases are announced, and announced again, and announced again, but orders are never actualy placed, and deliveries are never actualy received.

    Even if it does reach $5.5bn, thats, nothing, its less than 10% of UK expenditure.

    Realisticaly, much of the planned procurement, even if carried out is, pretty poor.

    Exocet from P3 was scary once, but today, whats its chances of getting past a current SeaWolf? Probably good enough. SeaViper? I'm not so sure.

    The nuclear submarine is a worry, but I doubt it will happen, and even if it does, one 1980's submarine with a nuclear reactor is not a Navy.
    Sure, three diesels and nuclear would make life difficult for the single Astute we have down south, but I'm not sure they could be relied upon to defend a convoy.
    And once we had three or more Astutes in the area, they wouldnt stand a chance.

    As for the airforce, new engines for their subsonic, irrelevent, trying to sink a T45 from a Pucaro with a Rocket Pod, you might as well order your pilots to shoot themselves and save the fuel costs.
    Even if they fit Exocet to the A4's, its a bad bet sending them against the destroyers.
    Without new fast jets, either extremely long ranged, or with tanker back up, little point.

    Oddly enough, I agree with you, sometime between 2015 and 2020. Once the Afghanistan drawdown has progressed far enough for the Americans to have forgotten we are or ever were there, and yet not so far that our armed forces are anything but fully commited to it and other urgent events.

    They may seize them, I doubt they will, it takes only a modest increase to the garrison to make them a fortress, imagine 16 Challies being warehoused there....

    But they could never hold them, not with the planned expenditures and procurements.

    There biggest weakness last time, was their logistics train was even weaker than ours.
    They might have a few more medium transport aircraft, The Americans can manage an airhead, no bugger else, 95% of the UK's war material for Afghanistan is trucked from Pakistan, and our air transport fleet is entirely commited.

    They have 7 C130s, thats 140t of supplies a day. Lets say they buy 6 KC390s
    Thats still only 300t of supplies a day.
    A world war two motorised divison needed 350t per day.

    It doesnt matter how many ships they possess, unless they can safely escort them across from the mainland, they are irrelevent.
    Our Task Force would have at least three Astutes, and the resupply convoys would have 400miles to travel.

    Without reliable resupply, they are then forced onto the next step, hampering our logistics efforts.
    They have two possible tools for that.
    Submarines, and Airpower.
    The submarines, well, they will be struggling to avoid the Astutes, if they walked into the T23, nar, not a chance.
    That leaves airpower. A P3 armed with Exocet could cause havoc amongst an unescort convoy.

    Well, as I said earlier, SeaViper on T45 would shoot down Exocet for fun, SeaWolf on the T23 is likely to have a decent chance.
    Ocean has three phalanx mounts (T45 has 2, or will soon), Bulwark and Albion each have a pair of the far more capable Goalkeeper and the three bays are all plumbed for Phalanx.

    An exocet lobbed from on high isnt likely to make it through.

    Now, fighters are a whole different story, but as they learnt last time, the Falklands are 400 miles from Argentine airbases, even the MiG 31 and Tornado F3 need refuelling to do that supersonic.

    If, Argentina buys 36 Superhornets and a tanker fleet, well, yeah, a UK task force would be in trouble, but just the hornets would cost almsot $2bn to buy, and another $400mn per year to operate.

  4. Hi,

    I've recently found your site and you have a lot of interesting articles. Great work.

    I know I'm a bit late in commenting on this article but just thought I would add a few thoughts.

    [Note my post turned out longer than I had imagined and was too long to post in one go so I'm breaking it up into parts. Hope you don't mind]

    One thing that a lot of people forget/don't realise when they talk about the big increases in the Argentine defence budget is that most if not all of that increase will be taken up by the increasing cost of their personnel wages. In Argentina the official inflation rate is around 8.5% but all the independent reports put it at around 25-30%. Even the government unofficially accepts near to those rates as it recently increased public sector wages by around 23% for the next year and average salaries in all sectors have increased by 27.6% over the last year.

    I don't know what the salary increases for the military have been but they wouldn't be able to keep them under the general average for very long.

    So when its reported that the majority of the Argentine defence budget is personnel, then any increase is going to be largely eaten up by wage increases. Which has been the case over the last 5 years where the large increases in the budget have only/mainly covered salary increases.

    So while they are likely to buy some new equipment, as for a start the Mirage III's are reported to have only a couple of more years of air frame time on them at most, but I don't think they will be going on a big spending spree.

    [End Part 1]

  5. [Part 2]

    I really don't think they will invade the Falklands any time soon, but if they did then I think their best chance (in terms of the UK being at its weakest) would actually be in the next few years, before about 2017 and most likely really before 2015.

    I don't think they could be sure of defeating the current garrison but even if they managed to capture the islands they would need to be sure that the UK wouldn't be able to retake them again.

    A lot of people believe that the the UK would need a carrier to be able to retake them. So if the carries time table is kept to (one operational with F-35's by 2020), then the prince of wales would need to have been launched and under going trails by mid 2018. Even though it wouldn't be operational and there might only be a handful of F-35C's under taking testing in the RAF/RN (taking it that there are no more delays in that program), would they really chance it that the F-35's and the carrier couldn't be rushed into service?

    Also in 2015/2016 HMS Queen Elizabeth will most likely be starting first of class trails, even though it won't be fitted to operate CATOBAR aircraft, Argentina would need to be quite sure that the UK couldn't rush it into service with either some Harriers that had either been borrowed from someone or had kept in storage, or even with a few F-35B's that again were borrowed and maybe including even those two or three test F-35B that the UK has bought (the number depends on if one is/was switched for a F-35C).

    While it might be unlikely that the UK could get any operational quickly enough, for Argentina to take the risk they would have to be quite sure. And even HMS Queen Elizabeth operating as a Helicopter and UAV carrier it would still be a big increase in the strength of the navy compared to now.

    Its not only the carriers that Argentina would need to be sure about. Among other things, they would need to be sure that the UK wouldn't use cruise missiles to attack the main land of Argentina. Would they want to pay the price of lots of military and government buildings being destroyed.

    In 1982 they were sure in their minds that the UK wouldn't take any military action to retake the islands and thought the whole thing would be settled in talks once they had captured the islands. If they tried again I think they could be sure that the UK would take action as anything else would be political suicide for the UK government.

    So I think things would really need to change in a big way for Argentina to try invading. I can't really see a elected government trying it as for them to take the risk they would need to sure of success. If they tried and failed then I think they could be sure of losing the next election (if they even survived that long). Most politician want to hang on to power for as long as possible. I guess if a Argentine government were sure they were going to lose the next election then maybe they might think if they launched a attack a week or so before the election then it would increase their support, but it would still be a big risk.

  6. If we had the capability we should send a carrier battle group down there. They were quite for a while after the RN announced that HMS Dauntless was being deployed there, and now HMS Talent is due to go down there, we can be fairly certain that they will not attempt an invasion while they are deployed there. If there is a conflict before 2020, could we use our Reaper drones to attack Argentine Air Fields and Naval Ports? If we need military assistance, we are really alone. France armed the Argies with the Exorcet in 1982 and so they probably would do the same again. The Americans took two weeks to decide which side to pick in 1982 and only picked our side because there was a danger of Argentina getting friendly with the USSR. As for the Commonwealth, I don't think any of the countries have a sufficient capability to give any real help and most of them seem to only arm themselves for self defence.

    However, if Argentina buys any of the Flanker series they could count America out for any kind of support which means that they would be on our side. I doubt that the US would be physically involved however.

    Without help, Argentina will also struggle as their fourty-year-old Skyhawks are no match for a Typhoon. During peace time there are four Typhoons on the Islands. Typhoons are going to be fitted with Meteor BVRAAMs by the end of the year. A single Typhoon could carry four Meteors, four ASRAAMs, two Paveway LGBs and three fuel tanks and would still have about two hundred rounds for its gun. Assuming one hundred percent accuracy, a single Typhoon could destroy eight aircraft with missiles, two ground targets and at least one aircraft with its gun.

    At sea and air, Argentina would be outmatched. And as for the Nuclear Submarine treat, when HMS Astute went to the US for war games, Astute 'sunk' four top-of-the-line US subs without taking a single hit.

    For an Argentine victory, they would need the decimated armed forces to be distracted either by the Olympics Security Mission or an Invasion of Iran.

    1. [Note it should say "quiet" instead of "quite" on the second line of the first paragraph.

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