After the Falkland Islands, the British were, once again significant players on the world scene. Indeed, as the details of the fighting became better known, they gained more in world prestige that the bare results of the fighting would suggest. Although the brutal slugging match between the carriers had received the most attention in the world press, it was the amphibious assault that seized the attention of military professionals. The use of the Junglie Rotodynes to conduct high-speed vertical envelopment operations was quickly seen as a revolution in amphibious warfare. Combining the speed and capacity of fixed-wing transport aircraft with the ability to land vertically of helicopters, they had set the tempo of operations, seizing vital points before the Argentine forces even realized that those points were accessible to the British, let alone vulnerable. The slashing, high-speed aero-mechanized operations made the over-the-beach landing techniques of the U.S. Marine Corps seem very dated and clumsy by comparison.
Basking in the sun of world regard after over 30 years in eclipse, did not prevent the Royal Navy from knowing that it had problems to face. The Falklands Campaign had returned it to the world stage but had also revealed serious weaknesses in its air strength. One of them was obvious. Glorious had been hit and was very badly damaged, needing extensive repairs. Yet, she was already 21 years old and approaching the end of her life. Were such extensive repairs justifiable? And what about replacing her and her two sisters? For once, operational necessity overrode Treasury objections and an order for two new carriers was placed in late 1982. Hermes and Eagle were designed to operate newer and more modern aircraft and to carry a significantly larger air group, 48 aircraft rather than 36. They displaced 65,000 tons full load and were capable of just over 30 knots. Their construction was pushed ahead with alacrity and they entered service in 1989 and 1992 respectively. A third carrier in the class, Ark Royal was completed in 1993.
The problem was aircraft. The Buccaneer/Highball combination had seized the public imagination but the truth was that both systems were approaching obsolescence. The Buccaneer was subsonic in a world where triple-sonic aircraft were the norm. Highball was deadly but it required aircraft armed with it to approach all too close to an enemy target. Highball would, in fact, be withdrawn from service in 1984.
Replacing the Buccaneer was relatively simple - or so it seemed. An improved, supersonic Buccaneer had been discussed for some years and now was as good a time to buy it as any. Although Blackburn had long been owned by Dassault Aviation in France, the factory and production line was still in the UK. Only, when the Royal Navy operational teams went to the plant to be briefed on the developments, they found that not only were there no plans for an improved Buccaneer, there was no intention of starting to prepare any. In fact, Dassault planned to close the entire Blackburn operation down. In its place, Dassault were preparing a new multi-role combat aircraft that would serve as both a carrier-based fighter and attack aircraft. This would eventually emerge as the Rafale.
The British Government was, to put it mildly, displeased by this development. Rafale was primarily a fighter with only limited attack capability. To make matters worse, the RAF and Royal Navy were growing disenchanted with their French aircraft, primarily due to a high accident rate. Although their performance was acceptable on paper, they represented a heavy maintenance burden and spares were very expensive. Also, they were noting that spares had a habit of becoming very hard to procure at all if there should happen to be a deadlock in any negotiations in progress between France and the UK. Accordingly, the British Government, citing national security considerations, nationalized the Blackburn facility, returning it to British ownership. The French were not entirely displeased with this development; they regarded the Blackburn facility as an uneconomic appendix and the compensation they received for its assets went towards financing the development of the Rafale.
Two years later, the British Government sold Blackburn to Fairey Aviation. By that time, an advanced Buccaneer was being developed, powered by reheated Spey engines and redesigned with a much thinner wing. Capable of Mach 1.5 low down and Mach 2.2, the new Privateer S.1 would enter service early in 2002. This aircraft proved to be as successful as the Buccaneer and enjoyed the same longevity of service.
The problem, though, was fighters. Although the Mirage F.2 had fought the Argentine F9Us to a standstill, this was hardly a valid comment on fighter state-of-the-art. The F9U had been in service for almost twenty years with the US Navy and was regarded as obsolescent. Yet, it had managed a kill:loss rate of 1:1 against the best fighter Europe could offer. This was better than anybody else had done against Americas fearsome aerial arsenal but it was far, very far, from good enough.
The problem was, as far as the Royal Navy could see, nothing would be. By 1985, the standard US Navy interceptor was the Grumman F13F-4 Tomcat. Capable of Mach 3.3 and armed with six simultaneously-targetable ultra long range AIM-54 missiles in an internal weapons bay, it was an order of magnitude superior to anything else that could be flown off a carrier. The new Hermes class could accommodate it but would the Americans make the aircraft available? The evidence to date was mixed and the probability of US supply was unpredictable.
Several factors converged to bring the debate to a conclusion. One was the decision by the US Marines to organize an aero-mechanized regimental landing team based on the British model. Another was the inability of any other country to offer a suitably-powerful carrier based fighter. A third was the growing closeness of the British Prime Minister and the American President. Finally, the accelerating collapse of Chipan focussed American attention more carefully on the Middle East and Atlantic, areas that until now had been considered virtual backwaters compared with the central importance of the Pacific. In the end, a deal was struck that was to fundamentally change British defense orientation. The US supplied the Royal Navy with 90 F13F-5 Tomcat fighters, straight off the production line and only differing from the US Navys version in that they were not equipped with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles. The US Navy ordered no less than 400 Fairey Junglie Rotodynes as assault transport aircraft, having them license-built by Kaman. In addition, the Royal Marines detached a significant number of its Falklands veterans to the US where they passed on their hard-earned operational lessons.
In 1989, HMS Hermes entered service with her group of 24 F13F-5 fighters (known as the Tomcat F.1 in Royal Navy service) and 24 Buccaneer S.4M strike aircraft. The M part of the designation indicated that the Buccaneers were equipped to fire a new weapon, the Blue Ice sea-skimming cruise missile. Blue Ice was, in many ways, a form-and-function replacement for Highball. It was equipped with a highly precise radar altimeter that allowed it to maintain an altitude of only a few feet above the sea surface. The anti-ship missile had an explosive warhead, a 500 pound shaped charge with a pre-formed radial fragmentation casing. However, there was another version of the weapon that was intended for land attack use. This, designated Blue Water, was nuclear-tipped and optimized for striking at naval bases and shore airfields. The message to Argentina was, of course, quite pointed.
With the Royal Navy finally achieving a world-standard air capability, the RAF was left to ponder its equipment standards. Tactical Command still was based on the Mirage III and Mirage V families of aircraft and these were now looking painfully obsolescent. The French Rafale would not be ready for at leats a decade (and in fact would take longer that that) so the Dassault group were offering enhanced derivatives of the Mirage III and IV, the Mirage 2000 and Mirage 4000, as an interim solution. These aircraft were a significant improvement over the original generation, faster, better armed and much more agile. Only, their initial flight took place in 1986, the same year as the Russian Tsy-1 Starcobra achieved the first single-stage-to-orbit flight and also became the first fighter to be based on an operational space station. Later the same year, a Tsy-1 became the first such fighter to shoot down an orbiting satellite. In American, the F-121 Delta Demon was following close behind the Russian fighter and was nearing operational service (the F-121A would achieve full operational capability in 1994). Increasing the maximum speed of the Mirage from Mach 2.2 to Mach 2.4 seemed hardly worthwhile when rival fighters appeared to be capable of Mach 18.
This was hardly, of course, a fair comparison. The American and Russian fighters were strategic weapons, intended to protect strategic assets such as space stations and satellites and to provide long-range escorts for nuclear-armed bombers. The tactical air forces didnt need - and didnt have - performance like that. The problem was, even without the spectacular orbital capabilities, Russian and American tactical aircraft were far in advance of anything on offer from France.
There was another option; The Triple Alliance multinational aircraft company, Alliance Aviation was developing a new fighter that was intermediate in capability betwene the French and American designs. The Alliance Archer was a development of the older Alliance Arrow, itself a developed version of a Canadian Avro design. It had a license built version of the American J-93 engine that gave it triple-sonic performance and a service ceiling in excess of 80,000 feet. Better yet, it was armed with eight radar homing missiles and four infra-red weapons. There were hard feelings in the UK about Indias decision to leave the Commonwealth some forty years earlier but the passage of time had softened these and historians had pointed out that India hadnt really had much choice in the matter. There was another advantage to purchasing the Triple Alliance aircraft; they were signifcantly cheaper than their rivals. They also had the reputation of being solid, reliable and dependable.
In the end, the decision was political. The need for a public reconciliation between the ex-Commonwealth countries and the U.K. made the difference. The British signed on for 150 Alliance Archer fighters, the type, of course, becoming the Archer F.1. The first aircraft were delivered in 1994, replacing the Mirage IIIE. Shortly aftewards, the British ordered 80 Hindustan Hornet aircraft to replace the Mirage VE. The Hornet was a twin-engined, multi-role fighter that could swing between interceptor and bomber role as required. It was laos designed for both carrier and land-based operations. The early production versions of the Hornet had been much-criticised for their short endurance but the later aircraft had been extensively redesigned and featured increased capacity as well as a more modern radar set and a much- improved missile armament. It was this version that replaced the Mirage VE from 1996 onwards.
In 1998, the Royal Navy purchased additional Hornets for its aircraft carriers. The Hermes class had a substantial design margin built into them which was utilized to carry a full squadron of 12 Hindustan Hornets in addition to their existing airgroup. Thus, the present British standard carrier air group of 24 Tomcat F.1s, 12 Hornet and 24 Privateer S.1Ms was attained.
Strategic Command also saw some re-equipment during the 1990s. The Blue Baron ballistic missiles were phased out and replaced by a new missile, the Blue Prince. This had a further range extension and had improved throw weight, enabling it to be equipped with multiple warheads. At first the extra throw weight was used to carry decoys and penetration aids but after a heart-rending demonstration of the utter uselessness of such equipment over the Nevada test range, these were abandoned and replaced by an additional warhead. Of course, in the early years of the 21st century, the faithful Buccaneers were replaced by the Privateer.
This left Maritime Command to be re-equipped. The Command was still flying its old Shackletons in the 1970s, a state of affairs that was hardly satisfactory. A new maritime reconnaissance aircraft was required but the offerings on the market were not suitable. In the end, Fairey Aviation produced a design that would fulfill this role. The company had designed a jet airliner to fill the gap between the short- and medium-haul rotodynes and the long haul high capacity transport. Designated the Fairey Airbus, these seated between 200 and 300 people and had a range of 1,500 to 3,000 miles depending on version. Fairey took the longest-ranged version, the four engined A340, and equipped it with forward and sideways-looking radar, a MAD stinger, a sonobuoy handling system and an internal weapons bay. While the aircraft was relatively lightly armed for its size, its sensor suite was splendid. The new maritime patrol aircraft entered service in 1993.
Thus, be the beginning of the 21st century, the UK had finally recovered from the disastrous results of the Second World War and re-established itself as a medium-rank regional power. More significantly, after a brief flirtation with Europe and the French-dominated North European Union, it had re-aligned itself with its traditional American and other Anglophone allies. It had been a long, hard road back and one not free of mis-steps and misjudgements. However, for the next forty years, the UK would have its place in the sun.