Britain's tough task: resupply Navy 8,000 miles away
If Britain seeks to expel Argentina from the Falkland Islands with a combination of air, sea, and ground forces, its mission is replete with problems and dangers, say defense experts.Skip to next paragraph
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But the daunting task of resupplying a force 8,000 miles away from home bases and storming onto heavily defended islands is not beyond its capacities, they stress.
If the British capture of frigid South Georgia signals an Anglo-Argentine war over the Falklands, as now seems possible, Britain faces the task of setting up an effective air blockade of the islands. It would also face the task of landing a sufficiently large and heavily armed force to neutralize between 8,000 and 10, 000 Argentine troops now dug into the Falklands.
According to The Times of London, an advance contingent of Royal Marine commandos has already landed in the Falklands, an assertion denied by the British Ministry of Defense.
''If the opposition is pretty strong and you don't have a very good, orchestrated, and powerful capability, you just don't get ashore,'' declares John M. Collins, senior specialist in national defense at the Library of Congress.
Combined operations are ''the most difficult kind,'' naval expert Norman Polmar adds, ''especially when the enemy is waiting for you at virtually the extremity of a very long logistics line.''
The problem of refueling and resupplying the British flotilla - which includes the aircraft carriers Invincible and Hermes and the assault ships Fearless and Intrepid - is a formidable one British naval officers admit, but not an insuperable one.
Collins is less sanguine. ''You're looking at a logistical nightmare,'' he says.
The only significant stepping stone Britain can use in its South Atlantic operations is Ascension Island, where the Union Jack has flown since 1815 and which lies some 3,500 miles from the Falklands. Reportedly troops and supplies continue to pour into the island by air.
But Collins is not impressed with the island's utility. ''It sure isn't a very good staging area or a resupply area,'' he says. ''It's like calling Diego Garcia a good staging post for operations in the Middle East when it's 2,000 miles from the Strait of Hormuz.''
Nevertheless, say defense analysts, Ascension Island is better than nothing. The Royal Air Force is already flying its Nimrod anti-submarine and ocean surveillance aircraft from the island in support of the naval task force, though the aircraft lack the range to operate over the Falklands themselves.
If Britain employs its Vulcan bombers (now carrying conventional instead of nuclear weapons) against such Argentine targets as military airfields and the naval base at Comodoro Rivadavia, they might sortie from Ascension.
The Ministry of Defense in London recently announced that the range of a number of Vulcans is being extended for possible action against Argentina. ''Anything like that will just cause the Argentines more concern, whether its being done or not,'' Mr. Polmar says.
The delta-winged Vulcans carry 21 bombs of 1,000 pounds each and can be refueled in the air.
Two other British islands in the South Atlantic - St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha to the south of Ascension Island - seemingly have nothing to offer in the present crisis. Neither has an airstrip.
''There are certainly no facilities there which would be of any advantage to the Royal Navy,'' says a British source who asked not to be identified. Reactivation of the defunct Simonstown Agreement by which the Royal Navy was permitted use of the Simonstown naval base near Cape Town is not likely according to the source. Britain canceled the agreement with South Africa in 1967.