Can Britain defend the Falkands?

Once lost, the islands would be impossible to retake
February 22, 2012
A Chinook aircraft waits for a load at Fox Bay in the Falklands, 1989. Photo: Flickr Commons

On the thirtieth anniversary year of the Falklands conflict, the Argentinian government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is restating its claim to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Could Britain defend them, if needed?

Britain maintains four Typhoon attack aircraft in the Falklands along with a naval patrol vessel and an enhanced infantry company, backed up by early warning radar and combat support assets. A destroyer or frigate and a nuclear submarine provide more cover, but not all the time. It was announced that in March, HMS Dauntless was to be deployed to the islands. If Argentinian forces landed on the Falklands, they would suffer attrition at the hands of these in-place forces.

But Argentina could retake the Falklands. A successful assault would rely on the achievement of temporary, local military superiority before Britain could reinforce the islands. Most British ground forces are deployed to defend Mount Pleasant Airfield, the umbilical cord that connects the Falklands, via Ascension Island, to Britain. The Argentinians would probably land special forces from submarines. These would destroy early warning air radar sites on West Falkland and the Typhoons on the ground at Mount Pleasant, then isolate the islands by missile-armed frigates and combat aircraft, to prevent rapid British reinforcement by air. Without an airfield, British air power would be unable to intervene (where are those aircraft carriers when you need them?). Argentina could then reinforce and fortify the Falklands at its leisure.

Is Argentina likely to do this? A sign of trouble would be if Argentina sent warships and aircraft into the islands’ economic zone. British assets would be drawn to these infractions of sovereignty; in this way, Argentina would increase what Gerry Adams used to call “the costs of occupation.”

The retention of the Falkland Islands depends on two factors: the resolve of the islanders to decide their own future, coupled with a desire to remain British; and the continued political willingness of Britain to provide an adequate military deterrent.

If Argentina did manage to capture the islands again, it is extremely doubtful whether Britain could recover them by military means, given its recession-hit and incoherent defence policy, with its hollowed-out capabilities, weak lines of supply and lack of aircraft carriers. Also, the Obama administration has stated that it wants no part in any dispute. According to the State Department: “We recognise de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands, but take no position regarding sovereignty; it is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom.”

The Falklands are a valuable territory. Bloomberg has estimated the oil reserves at 8.3bn barrels, which could earn Britain an estimated tax windfall of £111bn. The Falklands also attract tourists, mostly on the way to and from Antarctica. The fishing industry is also worth tens of millions of pounds.

Perhaps the greatest threat to British sovereignty is the indifference of the British public or a decline in the political establishment’s determination to retain control. A particularly corrosive argument seems to be that because the Islands are closer to Argentina than Britain, they should, by rights, belong to Argentina. But proximity does not confer ownership. The current government position is that, as long as the islanders wish to remain British, the issue of sovereignty is non-negotiable.