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.
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.
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.