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Reagan Readied U.S. Warship for ’82 Falklands War


President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the White House in 1981 The Reagan Library Archives

While publicly claiming neutrality between Argentina and the U.K. during the 1982 Falklands War, President Ronald Reagan’s administration had developed plans to loan a ship to the Royal Navy if it lost one of its aircraft carriers in the war, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, told the U.S. Naval Institute on June 26.

Lehman and then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger agreed to support U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the loan of the amphibious warship USS Iwo Jima, he said.

“We agreed that [Weinberger] would tell the President that we planned to handle all these requests routinely without going outside existing Navy channels,” Lehman said in a speech provided to the U.S. Naval Institute he made in Portsmouth, U.K. “We would ‘leave the State Department, except for [Secretary of State Al] Haig, out of it.’”

Reagan approved the request without hesitation and his instructions to Weinberger had been simple, “Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it,” Lehman said in the speech.

At the time, the Royal Navy had deployed HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes to the Falklands. Each carrier fielded five vertical takeoff Sea Harriers armed with American Sidewinder missiles — all major components of the U.K.’s air war in the Falklands.
The contingency plan to provide a replacement carrier was developed at the Royal Navy’s request.
“As in most of the requests from the Brits at the time, it was an informal request on a ‘what if’ basis, Navy to Navy,” Lehman said.

USS Iwo Jima underway in 1984[U.S. Naval Institute Archive]

USS Iwo Jima underway in 1984
[U.S. Naval Institute Archive]

Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, commander of the U.S. Second Fleet at the time of the conflict, helped develop the plan to supply the Royal Navy with Iwo Jima if the Hermes or Invincible were lost. Though primarily a helicopter carrier, at least one Iwo Jima-class ship was qualified to operate the American version of the Sea Harrier, according to the 1982 edition of Combat Fleets of the World.

“We decided that the USS Iwo Jima would be the ship that would be the easiest for the British to operate and would make for a smooth transfer,” Lyons told the U.S. Naval Institute on June 26. “We also identified ‘contract advisors’ who would be on board to help the British with some of the systems.”

The contract advisors needed to help operate the USS Iwo Jima would have likely been retired sailors with knowledge of the ship’s systems, said current Combat Fleets editor, Eric Wertheim on June 26.

“The arrangement would have probably been a similar operation to The Flying Tigers, when the U.S. sent surplus aircraft to China and then recruited former pilots to fly the planes,” Wertheim said.
“Once the British took over the ship, the crew would have likely been supplemented by privately contracted Americans familiar with the systems.”

Iwo Jima would have functioned well as a replacement for the Invincible as both ships were close in size and function. “Even though the Hermes was a larger ship with more capabilities, Iwo Jima could have filled the gap,” Wertheim said.

HMS Invincible in 1982[U.S. Naval Institute Archive]

HMS Invincible in 1982
[U.S. Naval Institute Archive]

HMS Hermes in 1982 [U.S. Naval Institute Archive]

HMS Hermes in 1982
[U.S. Naval Institute Archive]

Currently, tensions over the Falklands remain high since the U.K.’s 1982 victory. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received backlash from the British media in 2010 after she offered to mediate the dispute. Many British observers thought her offer indicated that the U.S. position of recognizing British sovereignty over the islands was fading.

  • Holy

    “Each carrier fielded five vertical takeoff Sea Harriers armed with American Sidewinder missiles. . . .” This must be an error. According to the current Wikipedia article on Hermes, at the height of the conflict, she carried 16 Sea Harrier FRS.1 (having sailed initially with 12) and 10 Harrier GR.3.

  • Jason Unwin

    A better “message” that could have been sent to Argentina would be sending at least one fleet carrier Like the USS Nimitz with attached escorts, etc to “fall in” with the Royal Navy as it headed south. The “message” to the Argentinians would be, “Get off those islands before we arrive.” After all it was an attack on a NATO member even though at that time it did not come from the former Soviet Union.

    • Talbot

      NATO explicitly excludes attacks on territories outside the “North Atlantic Area” (North America and Europe) as triggering the mutual defense clause. The US did not want to defend British and French colonies and made sure that was part of the North Atlantic treaty. The US, therefore, was not obligated to defend the British in the Falklands as a NATO member.

      • Jason Unwin

        I guess Libya got moved to the North Atlantic. 😉

        • Talbot

          NATO action in Libya was never based on the Article 5 “attack against one” shall be considered an “attack on all” clause of the North Atlantic treaty. NATO countries were not required by treaty to participate in Libya on the basis of mutual self defense. It was a NATO organized action decided on by consensus involving voluntary participation of NATO countries and allowing the use of NATO resources.

          Also Libya is on the Mediterranean which although not part of North America or Europe is a heck of a lot more related to the security of Europe than the Falkland Islands.

  • Red Baron

    Such a loan would have effectively been a declaration of war. The Constitution, which sadly is widely ignored, required Congress to declare war. We should have been absolutely neutral in this conflict.