In May of 1982, the Royal Navy owned just two aircraft carriers: the new and still basically on shakedown HMS Invincible, a 20,000-ton/689-foot long flat top on a cruiser hull, and the elderly 28,000-ton HMS Hermes.
And this was subject to change.
Britain had just scrapped the 45,000 ton HMS Ark Royal, with her air wing of F-4 Phantoms and Buccaneer bombers two years before. Hermes was looking at retirement within months, and Invincible was in the process of being bought by the Australians to replace their own long-retired fleet carrier, HMAS Melbourne.
HMS Invincible with her Sea Harrier airwing
But that month brought the Falkland Islands War between Argentina and the UK. After the fall of Port Stanley and the Falklands itself, the nearest base that the RAF could fly out of (since they weren’t talking to the South Africans) was on Ascension Island, some 4000+ miles away.
In an air war, 4000 miles away is not close.
This meant the only air-power available to the Brits were its two Royal Navy flat tops who could hold about twenty Harriers each.
And the Argentinians were all about trying to sink them. The German-built submarine San Luis was stalking the British fleet and according to some accounts, made some 50 attempted attacks on the carrier task force over the course of a two month war. Argentine land based Mirage III fighters, and A-4 Skyhawk bombers made hundreds of sorties against the fleet while Navy Super Etendard strike planes armed with the new AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missile, stalked anything big enough to be a carrier. They successfully sank the merchant ship SS Atlantic Conveyor, about the same size (15,000 tons) as the Invincible, when they spotted her on radar 25 May 1982 with two Argentine air-launched AM39 Exocet missiles, killing 12 sailors.
This kept the Brits very fearful of losing their now precious flattops. The fleet constantly shifted, keeping the carriers offshore from the Falklands and away from the rest of the fleet, always on the move. Hasty new Exocet defenses were attempted. Destroyers and frigates launched homing torpedoes at every underwater contact, real, imagined, or whale.
Shit got real.
This led the Brits to quietly (read= secretly) ask the US for help, if needed. As in, “Old boy, do you have a spare 20,000-ton aircraft carrier laying about?”
To which Regan, DOD chief Weinburger, and SECNAV Lehman said, “Um..sure.”
Various helicopters line the deck of the amphibious assault ship USS IWO JIMA (LPH-2) during Operation Desert Shield in 1990. She wasn’t as pretty as the Invincible, but she sure could cook
At the time the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) was attacked to the 2nd Fleet and homeported in Virgina. She was a helicopter carrier who traditionally carried marine choppers and the occasional navy anti-submarine helicopter. However since 1974 the Navy had experimented with the Iwo Jima-class ship as a “Sea Control Ship” that could be armed with Marine AV-8A Harriers (principally the same aircraft as the RN’s Sea Harrier only without a radar) for air defense and packed full of subbuster helicopters to help control the sea-lanes between the US and Europe during WWIII against Soviet bombers and U-boats.
The Iwo Jima class assault ships had been some of the first in the world to work with Harriers, as in this early USMC AV-8A aboard the Tripoli in 1975. Gotta love dat camo paint-scheme.
The Iwo was about the same size (18,474 tons/592-feet) as the Invincible, had a NATO-ready communications suite, and had already been operating Harriers off and on for almost a decade, so it made perfect sense. Built in 1961, the ship had already given 20 years of good service to the Navy (including remaining in Vietnam waters constantly from 1965-71) and was scheduled to be replaced by a new and larger LHA or LHD in just a few years anyway, so she was considered near-surplus. Therefore a loan/sale/lease was made ready between the White House and the Pentagon (why get Congress and the State Dept involved anyway) and the RN.
It wasn’t the first time that a US President traded excess ships to Britain during a war. In 1940 Roosevelt swapped 50 surplus WWI-era four-piper destroyers (many of which were nothing more than floating junk) for 99-year leases on a number of Brit bases before the US entered WWII.
The Iwo would have been operated by the RN with a crew made up partially of US ‘military contractors’, presumably former USN personnel who were familiar with her systems.
As it was, the Brits didn’t lose any of their carriers, pushed the Argentinians out of the Falklands by mid-June 1982, and Iwo stayed on the US Naval list until 1993 when, following the Cold War draw down of the “600-ship Navy,” she was stricken and scrapped. The scheme to lend the assault ship to the Brits was not disclosed until 2012, thirty years after the fact.
Still, for at least a little while, she was the Royal Navy’s Plan B.