You are here

The Falklands: The Security Equation in 2012

Commentary, 16 March 2012
Americas, Defence Policy, Europe
Megaphone diplomacy precedes the forthcoming thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War. But the stakes are too high for Argentina to turn the rhetoric into another armed conflict.

Megaphone diplomacy precedes the forthcoming thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War. But the stakes are too high for Argentina to turn the rhetoric into another armed conflict.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director-General

HMS Invinsible returns from Falklands 1982

The argument over whether Britain could still defend The Falklands from an Argentinian invasion, or re-take them if they were lost, has become an emotional touchstone for arguments about the level of defence cuts to British forces.  But asking whether Britain can still beat Argentina in a Falklands conflict is a bit like worrying whether defence cuts have made it impossible for Britain to beat Germany at El Alamein.  The Falklands dispute between Britain and Argentina cannot be wished away, but in military terms, the thirtieth anniversary of the conflict might just as well be its centenary for the difference there now is in the real security equation. 

The Political Commitment

The current political context could hardly be more different.  In 1982, the British government had repeatedly shown itself to be irresolute over the defence of the Islands.  It was no secret either in London or Buenos Aires that the Thatcher Government would have preferred to divest Britain of responsibility for the defence of the Falklands.  The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, had made three attempts to get the Cabinet to make a clear decision over the Islands one way or the other and each time the issue was put on the back burner.[1] The intelligence was poor; preparations non-existent, and the shock of the invasion created a reaction in the Prime Minister that became the defining moment of her years in power.[2]

Having fought a war to re-take the Falklands, Westminster's political commitment to the self-determination of the Islanders is now total.  No British government would survive their loss and any Prime Minister for at least another generation will be hyper-sensitive to any indications of a military threat in the South Atlantic.  The political signals the Government has been sending Argentina in this anniversary year - that sovereignty is non-negotiable and that Britain's best military assets will be deployed there at its own volition - could hardly be more different from the political signals Buenos Aires was receiving in the early 1980s.

Not least, the government in Buenos Aires bears no comparison to the witless military junta that ruled Argentina in 1982.  Argentina has been democratic since 1983 and has a $1.4 billion trade relationship with Britain that produces a surplus for Buenos Aires.[3] Cristina de Kirchner, the current President, has made great political capital out of the Falklands issue, precisely because she is under such democratic pressures on the domestic economic front. But any temptation to military adventurism on her part would have to be set against the collective leadership that would not be rail-roaded, and the knowledge that a democratic Argentina would be totally unforgiving of anything other than decisive success in such an adventure. The government in Buenos Aires has repeatedly said that it is committed to a peaceful campaign over the Falkland Islands and their preparations to launch any sort of military campaign against them has to be measured in years, not months. The current overblown rhetoric and political gestures to involve Argentina's neighbours in the issue should not be confused with the sort of conspiracy to launch a military coup de theatre that gripped the leaders of a vicious Argentine junta in 1982.

The Current Security Equation

The military balance around the Falklands has been transformed by the construction since 1982 of the Mount Pleasant airbase 30 miles outside Stanley, which replaced the small airstrip that existed at that time.  Mount Pleasant is a major military facility with two runways of over 4,000 meters between them. It will take military aircraft of all types and as such is a critical military asset that transforms the 'can we defend/re-take The Falklands?' equation into a simple military fact: whoever controls Mount Pleasant controls the Islands.  As long as Britain occupies the base competently, Argentina could never mount a successful invasion; if Britain ever lost Mount Pleasant to a competent occupier, its forces would never get back onto the Islands, even with twice the military assets now available.

The base at Mount Pleasant normally consists of an infantry company and a number of other assorted supporting units, four of the newest Typhoon fighters, which are, by some distance, the most advanced aircraft flying anywhere in South America. Other air assets are available to the commander along with a Rapier air defence battery. Most significantly, the base could be reinforced by air within 18 hours if the need arose.  The nature of the task has changed from essentially a Royal Navy commitment to the defence of The Falklands to an RAF commitment.  Of course, in a major deployment all three Services would be deeply involved in joint operations, but the first line of defence now rests with the frontline fighters, the transport aircraft, the logistics, and the air-to-air refuelling of the RAF.[4]  Any Argentinian invasion force would have to cross 400 miles of open sea and air space to get within striking distance.  All the advantages lie with the defenders of Mount Pleasant and 24 hours notice of attack - or even something that looks like preliminary preparations for an attack - is all that would be required to make it impregnable as long as London had the will to act.

Just as important in the military balance between Britain and Argentina is the fact that while Britain has added world-class technologies, albeit in lower numbers, to its order of battle, the Argentinians have added nothing since 1982. The government has failed to replace the 1970s Mirage jets that it used in 1982; its rotary wing aircraft fleet is no better off; the highest proportion of its defence budget is spent on the salaries and pensions of military personnel whose numbers are well in excess of Argentina's defence needs (a legacy of the Junta's years).[5] Argentina's road map for military modernisation takes its forces to 2025 just to reach comparable modern military standards of command and competence.  In effect, Argentina's military inventory is now 30 years older while Britain's is two technical generations further on.  In military terms the difference between their relative technologies is probably approaching 80-100 years, and even high numbers of low technologies are largely negated in the sort of 'winner takes all' calculation that Mount Pleasant has created around the Islands. These days, even Argentinian numbers are not very high, except in officer class personnel. 

Some analysts have posited exotic subterfuge strategies that an Argentinian government might adopt. They range from the fanciful to the comical, but the fact that they are devised at all is testimony to a recognition that there is no plausible mainstream military option open to Buenos Aires.  The military balance in this relationship is far more disadvantageous to Argentina than it was in 1982.

Intelligence

The intelligence gap is a final decisive difference between the circumstances of 1982 and 2012.  British intelligence on Argentinian intentions at that time was poor in itself and poorly handled in Whitehall.  The post-war sensitivity over the Falklands in Britain means that such an aberration is not likely to occur again, especially since the Mount Pleasant base puts such a premium on accurate intelligence and the ability to respond quickly.  How Britain handles its intelligence on Argentina is a matter of some secrecy and is not the subject of official reports or Parliamentary scrutiny.  Nevertheless, the balance of intelligence capabilities between the two countries mirrors the discrepancy in the military balance between them.  British intelligence still has unique access to US assets and the military intelligence relationship between London and Washington is even stronger than in 1982, given the immediacy of the jihadist challenge to both countries since.  Even without Washington's normal level of intelligence-sharing with its closest military ally, Britain's own intelligence assets, in GCHQ, the global reach of the SIS (MI6) and the Service inputs into the Defence Intelligence Service dwarves anything in the intelligence sphere that Argentina can field.  Not least, the electronic monitoring that now takes place from Mount Pleasant itself is, in orders of magnitude, greater than existed in 1982.  The scope for any military subterfuge on the part of Buenos Aires - certainly at a level that would pose a credible military threat to the Islands - is very limited indeed. In an archipelago of over 750 individual islands there may be opportunities for informal, private enterprise gestures and incidents that could attract some media attention, but the possibilities of such action are already acknowledged in the Joint Contingency Plan for the defence of the Falklands and it is very difficult to see how they could be more than an irritant in the security equation.

The Political Dispute Will Continue, Peacefully 

All of these considerations emphasise the fact that although the dispute over the Falklands seems set to continue indefinitely, it can only be pursued by Buenos Aires in the political sphere for the foreseeable future.  This is, in any case, the strongest card Argentina can play.  Britain's claims on the Islands are confirmed in international law and in the UN's commitment to self-determination. 

The British government is correct when it maintains that there is nothing to discuss in terms of the sovereignty of the Falklands.  But Argentina benefits from a certain level of inchoate sympathy for its demands on islands that are closer to them than anyone else, and in opposition to a former imperial power that casts itself as a natural partner of the US throughout the world.  President Kirchner may calculate that the political wind is blowing increasingly in Argentina's direction.  If so, a disastrous military adventure that casts her, or any future democratic leader, in the same mould as the junta's General Galtieri, would be the surest way to undermine the progress Argentina seeks to make on the issue.

NOTES

[1] Falkland Islands Review (The Franks Report), Cm 8787, London, HMSO, 1983.

[2] See, Hugo Young, One of Us, London, Pan Books, 1993.

[3] 'Argentina/UK 2011 bilateral trade totalled 1.4bn dollars; could suffer "Malvinas" dispute impact', MercoPress, 21 February 2012.

[4] The commander also has the benefit of a frigate or destroyer on Atlantic Patrol Task (South), the Falkland Island Patrol ship and an RFA tanker for routine operations, as well as search and rescue facilities.

[5] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 2011, London, Routledge, 2011, pp. 351-2

Author

Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research