Jim Dorschner visited the Falkland Islands to report on the Air Component, British Forces South Atlantic Islands.
TWENTY-THREE YEARS after the 1982 South Hi Atlantic War with Argentina, British airpower in the Falkland Islands remains robust, capable and busy. British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI), which replaced the former British Forces Falkland Islands last year and now includes responsibility for Ascension, St Helena, South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha, remains based at RAF Mount Pleasant (MPA), 35 miles (56km) southwest of Stanley on East Falkland. The air component is led by Group Captain Gordon Moulds, a Tornado F.3 navigator with previous Falklands experience who started his career on Phantoms at RAF Wildenrath, Germany, and who also doubles as the BFSAI Chief of Staff. Despite the name change and the enlarged mission area, the focus of BFSAI remains the military defence of the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory just over half the size of Wales. The two main islands, East and West Falkland, and numerous smaller ones, situated in the South Atlantic 400 miles (644km) east of the southern coast of Argentina and 850 miles north of the Antarctic Circle, have a civilian population of 2,400.
Since the war, the threat from Argentina may have steadily declined but it is far from resolved as Argentina continues to vociferously claim sovereignty over the islands, particularly since the election of President Nestor Kirchner in 2003, who has vowed that the ‘Malvinas’, as they are known to his countrymen, will once again be part of Argentina and has made the islands a top priority. Even though Argentine military capabilities never recovered from their costly 1982 defeat, the country remains able to conduct credible offensive military action and must be taken seriously. Of note are Argentine plans to convert the Type 42 destroyer Santisima Trinidad into a high-speed transport for amphibious commandos and the possible purchase of two surplus French amphibious landing ships. Other concerns include asymmetric threats in the form of landings by special forces for reconnaissance or sabotage, and the execution of ‘spontaneous’ acts by Argentine ‘civilians’, such as flag plantings or peaceful occupations of unpopulated areas.
To provide air defence and air support to BFSAI and to support the Falkland Islands Government when requested, the air component consists of four flying elements, an extensive, long-range radar capability and an RAF Regiment Rapier surface-to-air missile capability.
24-Hour SAR Coverage
The principal flying element is 78 Squadron RAF, re-established at MPA on May 22,1986, and currently equipped with two Sea HAR.3A Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters and a single Chinook HC.2 heavy lift support helicopter. In addition to providing 24-hour SAR coverage around the Falklands, 78 Squadron Sea Kings have a secondary trooping role and operated for many years in a tactical grey scheme, reverting to standard RAF SAR yellow after 2003. Sea King personnel are drawn from the UK-based RAF SAR force on five to six-week rotations and during this visit we were fortunate to fly with a crew from D Flight, 202 Squadron, out ot RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland. Only the 78 Squadron CO and maintenance officer are on full 18-month tours.
The Sea Kings have conducted some notable long-range rescues in the challenging conditions of the South Atlantic, including the recovery in February 2003 of a seriously-ill resident of the extremely isolated, sparsely populated British dependency Tristan da Cunha, several hundreds of miles away to the northwest. She was originally evacuated aboard the expeditionary cruise ship MV Explorer, but when the vessel reached South Georgia the patient required immediate advanced care and the Explorer made for the Falklands as the RFA Gold Rover and the frigate HMS Sutherland moved Into position along the route to provide helicopter refuelling. With Explorer still 300 miles (483km) away, the SAR Sea King launched at mid-day with the MPA Hercules flying top cover and completed a first fuel stop on Gold Rover’s helicopter spot. After collecting more fuel from HMS Sutherland by hovering alongside and winching up the fuel hose in very rough seas, the crew, led by Squadron Leader Steve Harwood, then flew on to locate Explorer and winch up the patient and her sister before heading back to the Falklands by way of two more refuelling stops with Sutherland and Gold Rover. Only after landing on the football pitch near the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Stanley to safely deliver the patient, could the crew make the quick shuttle back to MPA and take the rest of the day off following more than eight hours of concentrated flying.
The single Chinook is likewise crewed by rotations from the RAF Odiham Chinook squadrons, providing BFSAI with a capability to sling-load heavy lifts, vital to service mountain-top radar sites, and for the tactical transport of artillery, ammunition and vehicles such as the BV-206 all-terrain tracks used by the land component. They also carry out traditional troop lift duties, though much of the trooping and utility mission is in the capable hands of two Sikorsky S-61s on contract from Bristow Helicopters. Although not a part of 78 Squadron, the S-61s share the same hangar and the Bristow Helicopter crews co-ordinate closely on taskings and training. An example of an S-61 mission is the insertion and recovery of infantry sections which regularly patrol the farthest reaches of the islands to deter and detect unauthorized landings. Helicopter operations, particularly SAR and utility flights, are enhanced by several refuelling pads, such as the one at Fox Bay on West Falkland, manned by three airmen who live in friendly proximity with the local community.
1435 & 1312 Flights
Fast jets in the Falklands are operated by 1435 Flight, callsign ‘Eagle’, and comprise four Tornado F.3s bearing the Falkland Islands’ crest on the nose, a modified Maltese Cross on the tail and the names Faith, Hope, Charity and Desperation after the small force of Hurricanes which defended Malta during the darkest days of World War Two. This tradition began when 1435 was formed in November 1988 to assume the duties of 23 Squadron at Mount Pleasant. No.23 Squadron flew the famous ‘Falklands Phantoms’, operating off the bare minimum metal matting runway at Stanley from shortly after the Falklands War. When MPA opened in 1984 the Phantoms gratefully departed Stanley and were able to put the harrowing full-burner take-offs and arrested landings behind them. Tornado F.3s arrived in 1992, though a Phantom in full 1435 colours still stands proudly on display outside the passenger terminal at MPA.
From 1982 until just a few years ago, RAF fighters in the Falklands maintained a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) capability similar to that in the UK during the Cold War. For many years, Argentine military aircraft – usually Hercules or other transports — would routinely play ‘cat and mouse’ on the edges of the 200 nautical mile Falklands Exclusion Zone in an attempt to harass the British garrison and to gather intelligence on defensive reactions. Based on a steady reduction in tensions and the absence of any serious incidents for a number of years now, 1435 stood down from formal QRA, though it is constantly ready to react and regularly conducts high-speed transits and radar illuminations to make sure Argentina remains aware.
Crews from 1435 serve three to five-week rotations from the Tornado F.3 squadrons based at RAF Leuchars, Fife and RAF Leeming, Yorkshire, the limiter being concern over the erosion of complex fighter skills that cannot be practised in the Falklands. On the other hand, while at MPA Tornado crews enjoy virtually unlimited low-level flying, the opportunity to work with land and maritime forces, and to practise intercepts of each other and inbound RAF transport aircraft or their supporting VC10 tanker and the resident Hercules. The latter make up 1312 Flight. The VC10, with rotational crews out of Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, provides in-flight refuelling for the Tornados, the 1312 Hercules and any transit aircraft coming down from Ascension Island that may require a top-up. The Hercules is a jack-of-all-trades, carrying air-droppable survival equipment and rafts while conducting routine radar, photo and visual surface surveillance patrols in Falklands waters and the 800 miles (1,287km) down to South Georgia, where it also takes mail and vital supplies to resident scientists of the British Antarctic Survey. Importantly, the Hercules provides top cover to SAR Sea Kings and is available transport — to Uruguay or Chile — patients who may require urgent medical treatment unavailable in the Falklands and who cannot be evacuated all the way back to the UK.
Falklands Air Bridge
The position of BFSAI in the Falklands stands upon having sufficient warning of an Argentine threat to permit substantial reinforcement of the garrison in time to either deter aggression or defeat an attack. Other than additional fighter and strike aircraft self-deploying with tanker support, this means the bulk of reinforcement troops coming down in long-range air transports to MPA to marry up with pre-positioned equipment. Today, under conditions far below the threshold of anything like an imminent threat, RAF Tristars of 216 Squadron service the garrison with weekly — and occasionally twice-weekly — round trips to the islands from Brize Norton, with a stop for fuel and a crew change at Wideawake on Ascension.
The aircraft stops overnight at MPA and returns the same way next day. In periods of high demand for Tristars, such as the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, civilian aircraft are chartered. RAF C-17s also make the trip down into the South Atlantic, and during our visit a Globemaster arrived and made a low fly-past of Stanley in company with the VC10 and a pair of Tornados. The Falkland Islanders are very appreciative of the British military presence and welcome these displays of the security MPA provides.
Trooping with 78 Squadron
Our visit to the Falklands included taking part in a joint trooping exercise between 78 Squadron and the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF), the Territorial Army-like, but unaffiliated, military citizen service and specialized rescue arm of the Falkland Islands Government. A Sea King and the Chinook were tasked to provide helicopter operations training to the FIDF ready for a larger mountain SAR exercise the next day. Training was conducted on the Stanley cricket pitch and its vicinity, and included entry and exit procedures for both helicopters, rapid loading and unloading of the FIDF’s quad bikes and opportunity for every member of the FIDF present to be winched into the Sea King. The FIDF contingent included a number of new recruits undergoing initial training, for whom the highlight was repeated tactical approaches to the Landing Zone. The helicopters would arrive low and fast in formation to make a quick, power-on simultaneous landing, at which the troops would hurriedly ‘de-bus’ with their weapons and bergens and take up a defensive posture as the aircraft pulled pitch and departed over the rooftops of Stanley.
At the controls of Sea King ‘Tiger Two-five’ was Flight Lieutenant ‘Curly’ Elstow, a Royal Marine for 24 years, mostly as a Sergeant pilot on Gazelles with the 3rd Commando Brigade Air Squadron. ‘Curly’ transferred to the RAF in 2000 on the demise of Royal Marine Sergeant pilots, where he gladly accepted the offer of a direct commission and duty as a SAR pilot. In 1982, he served aboard ships in San Carlos Water as a gunner in the anti-aircraft role, where he reportedly fired over 17.000 rounds in the first hours of D-day on May 21 and shared in the downing of two Argentine Mirage jets.
A clear benefit of maintaining British forces there, beyond the important military defence function, is the ability to operate and train at the junior leadership level. This helps to practise techniques and procedures mostly impossible in the UK or during more pressurized and directed overseas deployments. Such a scenario happens every day during air operations in the Falklands. where SAR crews can practise trooping skills. Tornado F.3s work with Royal Navy ships and Army Forward Air Controllers and Hercules conduct maritime patrols, all part of the many demanding BFSAI missions carried out under challenging conditions in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, and with the keen support of the civilian populace.