Many people know about the Harrier’s exploits during “Operation Corporate,” the UK’s offensive to reclaim the Falkland Islands in 1982. The two Royal Navy carriers that played a key role in countering Argentina’s air force, which outnumbered the Royal Navy’s embarked Harrier fleet by a factor of three, as well as supporting ground forces and attacking key targets, were the HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. What many do not know was that there were actually a number of other “aircraft carriers” deployed to the region by the UK’s Ministry Of Defense for the war. Primarily, these were the SS Atlantic Conveyor and the SS Atlantic Causeway, both requisitioned by the Ministry of Defense under the Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) system on short notice to be put into use as large resupply ships for the British Fleet, as well as improvised helicopter and Harrier carriers.
These ships would utilize their massive fore-decks, and smaller aft-decks, as aircraft holding and staging areas. After being packed with helicopters and supplies back in England the SS Atlantic Conveyor sailed to Ascension Island, a remote British stronghold in the center of the Atlantic Ocean, in April of 1982. There she would be boarded by over a dozen Harriers, a mix of Sea Harrier FRS1s and Harrier GR3s, who had made their way to Ascension Island via a 4600 mile flight with the help of Victor Mk2 aerial tankers. A few of the Harriers remained at Ascension island as a rudimentary quick reaction alert detachment in case Argentina attempted to attack the key outpost, although the likelihood of such an attack was apparently quite low. More capable RAF Phantoms would arrive at Ascension Island just days later, relieving the Harriers of their point defense role on the island
Leaving Ascension Island, the SS Atlantic Conveyor would be stuffed with six Wessex and five Chinook helicopters, and fourteen Harriers along with tons of other supplies to support the remote military operation. Aircraft on the deck were stored between walls of containers, for both stealth and protection from corrosive salt water. All aircraft were wrapped in custom plastic covers for their journey south. Although a pair of Sea Harrier FRS1s were armed with a pair of sidewinders and sat alert “cocked and locked” for the voyage in an attempt to field some form of aerial defense for the unarmed commercial ship.
By mid May the Atlantic Conveyor had made it to the Falklands area of operations and her precious Harrier cargo was dispatched off her fore-deck launch pad to the decks of the HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. The GR3s going to the Hermes exclusively, and the Sea Harriers being split amongst the two vessels evenly to reinforce the existing Harrier force. The Atlantic Conveyor continued on as a helicopter carrier and forward re-arming point over the next week until tragedy struck. The unarmed and unarmored merchant ship, which had a massive radar cross-section and thus was incredibly easy to detect by marauding fighter jets, was struck by a pair of French built Exocet anti-ship missiles launched by Argentine Super Etendard attack aircraft. Only one Chinook was airborne at the time, callsign Bravo November, an aircraft that would go on to be one of the most famed and lucky helicopters in history (stay tuned for an upcoming post regarding the mystique surrounding RAF Chinook Bravo November). The sea-skimming missiles hit the Atlantic Conveyor’s fuel storage tanks, unimpeded by armor, and the vessel was set ablaze. Once the fire finally went out the ship was a deemed a total loss and scuttled.
The successful attack on the defenseless SS Atlantic Conveyor resulted in the loss of every heavy lift helicopter the UK had in theater aside from the aforementioned Chinook now known as “Bravo November,” in effect an aerial assault on Port Stanley would be impossible. Instead UK troops would have to march across the Island in order to reach their objective.
Just days after the SS Atlantic Conveyor was lost, her sister ship, the SS Atlantic Causeway had reached the war zone, packed with 8 Sea King and 20 Wessex helicopters. This ship was outfitted more elaborately than the Atlantic Conveyor for sustained flight operations, with a hangar bay fabricated onto the bow of the ship and full service aviation fueling system was installed. Some say that she even had a ski-jump to operate Harriers at gross weights, although this was not the case, although such a design was floated at one time. She would remain active as carrier throughout the rest of the conflict and would amass over 4000 helicopter landings while in service, and refueling over 500 aircraft in the process.
Two other smaller merchant ships would act as helicopter carriers in the Falklands theater, one continuing her military service life decades past her temporary commissioning had expired. The container ships M/V Astronomer and M/V Contender Bezant were also drafted into Royal Navy service under the STUFT program and were modified for aircraft transport and sustained helicopter operations. By the mid 1980’s the M/V Astronomer had been restored to her original configuration and returned to service as a commercial container ship. The M/V Contender Bezant on the other hand was bought outright by the Royal Navy Auxiliary and went through a deep refit in the mid 1980’s. She was renamed the RNA Argus and used as an aviation training ship, with her long open stern resembling a flight deck of a frigate, destroyer, or aircraft carrier, complete with a small utility island structure. She was also outfitted with large medical facilities and used as a militarized hospital ship. She would serve in almost every major conflict to this day, being on station recently in the Persian Gulf as a Sea King ASaCs7 helicopter base. Most notably she was used as the UK’s primary hospital ship during Operation Telic, the UK’s part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq starting in 2003.
The little known tale of the SS Atlantic Conveyor, SS Atlantic Causeway and their smaller cousins were minor yet intriguing details within the history of modern warfare, yet their stories may be more relevant today than ever. The UK’s decision to leverage VTOL aircraft, the Harrier and helicopters in this case, on a modified commercial roll-on-roll-off freighter in a time of need is a clear progenitor of what the US Navy calls “Sea Basing” today, a strategy that is currently in its infancy but could change the way the US fights wars in the future on a grand scale. Under current US strategy, Sea Basing will appear in its first iteration as a mobile platform ship that can work as an artery for transferring vehicles and material off large roll-on-roll-off military sea-lift ships and helicopter transports and onto other vessels that will transfer them to land, such as a seized beachhead or shallow port etc. This would allow large-scale invasion operations to take place without an adjacent land base needed to support a ground assault. Whereas the Marines have always been able to deliver a heavy combat punch amphibiously, Sea Basing will allow the Army and their vehicles to get into the fight when deprived of a land avenue into the conflict. The Sea Basing concept could one day see the fielding of large barge like structures, in a modular configuration, that could be assembled to create massive fortresses at sea. Even floating runways, much larger than any aircraft carrier and able to operate conventional fixed wing fighter and transport aircraft are a real possibility depending of how the Sea Basing concept continues to evolve.
Ripped from recent headlines, the aging marine transport dock USS Ponce is being recycled as a mobile special operations Sea Base that will float in the Persian Gulf. Such a craft is not only able to sustain persistent maritime and aviation operations but it also can transport itself and much of its gear to the theater of operations, without heavy reliance on military transport aircraft. Much like the SS. Atlantic Causeway and Conveyor, the Ponce will operate as a helicopter carrier and fast boat launching platform for surveillance missions and assaults on key targets around the littorals of the Persian Gulf. You can read more about the USS Ponce’s special operations rebirth, and it’s similar Sea Basing roots by clicking the link below:
Although innovation such as Sea Basing is nothing new, some of the lessons that have been taught the hard way regarding such a strategy should be taken into full account as America looks toward the Pacific and this companion strategy to operate in its vast expanses. During the Falklands conflict the Atlantic Conveyor and Causeway were more than adequate solutions for the job of transporting key supplies and operating as improvised aircraft carriers. What they had going for them in operational capability and convenience was tragically overshadowed by what they lacked in armor and defenses. Sea Basing using massive commercial ships is cost-effective and expedient but it’s not exactly safe, just look at what happened to the Atlantic Conveyor. She was a massive radar target and lacked even rudimentary point defense systems, and countermeasures such as jamming equipment or even radar confusing chaff. In other words, she was a sitting duck of high strategic value. The Exocet missiles that speared her may not have had such devastating results if the ship were of military grade as her vulnerabilities would have been armored against such attacks. If she had even rudimentary defenses she may not have been struck at all. Instead she was not only vulnerable but she was also soft, resulting in a total loss of the vessel, her strategic cargo, and most important many of her crew.
The US Navy should take this lesson to heart, and really evaluate if commercially available off the shelf maritime solutions are really worth the savings when it comes to Sea Basing associated assets. At a minimum, bolt on close in weapon systems (CIWS) should be outfitted and key areas should be armored in order to deter or even survive such an attack. Relying on guided missile destroyers and cruisers for surrogate defense is great, but in any future war against a well armed adversary the Navy will see tens if not hundreds of weapons launched at key naval combatants during a single attack. The enemy knows that in most cases all it takes it one weapon to break through an overwhelmed layered defense network to ruin the Navy’s day. In the future, assets involved with Sea Basing have to be properly equipped to deal with these “last line of defense” situations or else the story of the SS Atlantic Conveyor may come back to haunt those in command who decided otherwise.
In the end the improvised aircraft carriers and sea bases of the Falklands War can paint a vivid picture of how valuable such capabilities can be when operating in a denied territory, far way from sufficient land basing and a steady logistics train. But it also highlights the vulnerability of such concepts unless proper precautions are taken when it comes to their protection. In a world of shrinking naval fleets and looming possibilities of future wars in areas where naval power projection will be absolutely key to obtaining any kind of victory, a balance will need to be struck between the convenience and risk when it comes to Sea Basing and it’s many moving and in some cases un-hardened parts…