I think it’s well-known the strength of the Royal Navy in 1982 was far from its strongest. Recent years were spent worrying about Russia and the Cold War, with there being no active fighting for a while.
Defence budget cuts were rife from the government. In 1981 Defence Secretary John Nott proposed massive reductions to the Royal Navy in the face of recession.
These proposals included selling BOTH of the aircraft carriers that Britain had at the time. HMS Invincible and Hermes were not the biggest aircraft carriers in the world but they were vital to the maritime defence of the UK.
Without these there would have been zero chance of being able to recapture the islands. They also suggested selling nine destroyers and frigates, minesweepers, auxiliary supply ships and two assault ships.
There were comments at the time saying if the Argentinians had just waited a few more months it would have been almost impossible for Britain to recapture the islands. Recalling HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic had convinced the Argentinians that Britain would not respond with military action if they invaded.
Admiral Sir John “Sandy” Woodward who commanded the Naval task force in 1982, said at the time:
Timing was certainly a factor for our victory in 1982.
Galtieri had wanted to attack much later during Argentina’s spring, after September. However, they got wind that one of our S-class submarines might have been making its way to the South Atlantic and that pressured him into attacking in March. I don’t even think that was correct.
Had he waited, we may well have been without our two aircraft carriers and we couldn’t have done a thing.
So What Did the Main Defence Consist of?
There were already three nuclear-attack submarines heading to the South Atlantic. We included the two carriers Invincible and Hermes. Joining them was a strong force of frigates and destroyers with three Type 42s leading the way in Glasgow, Sheffield and Coventry.
Two Type-22s were also leading the way and they were Brilliant and Broadsword.
The main responsibility for the air defence fell on the shoulders of the Sea Harriers. We didn’t lose a single Harrier in air-to-air combat. The jets performed excellently and were so versatile.
The next layer of the defence fell to the Type-42 destroyers. Armed with Sea Dart missiles, it was a decent weapon when it worked. It had previously, during an exercise, destroyed a target at 51,000 feet moving at 1,500 mph. It did have one weakness though. The destroyers couldn’t engage targets flying low-level.
The Argentine navy matched weaponry with our task force. This was troubling. They should therefore have been aware of the weakness, and they were, so their pilots were flying at low-level to conduct attacks as shown below.
With the enemy jets flying low, Sea Wolf missiles would be used but they were fitted only to two ships so couldn’t be used everywhere. Guns were the last line of defence. 40-mm bofors and 20-mm oerlikon anti-aircraft guns were old and not up to standard but it was all they had.
The Royal Navy went in to battle with the least amount of protection for any squadron since 1954. Ships had no airborne early warning systems. This was unheard of, they were going to war with such a lack of equipment and technology that most would deem a necessity to travel 8,000 miles to take back the islands. If the Argentine forces were more up for a fight then the casualties could have been multiple times worse.
Ground fire or anti-aircraft fire caused the loss of six Harriers. The skilled pilots with air superiority made life easier for the ground troops that forced the surrender in a short time.