With the government of Argentina capturing public attention for its outcry against British offshore oil drilling near the coastline of the Falkland Islands, speculation has grown as to whether the world might witness a repeat of events from 1982 when the U.K. and Argentina fought a brief, but bloody war over control of the islands. Despite its defeat in the war, Argentina has never relinquished its claims to the islands, which they refer to as the Las Islas Malvinas.
While Argentina still considers the islands their own and the defeat at the hands of the British a stain on the national memory, the current spat is less about Falkland sovereignty than about oil rights and domestic politics – particularly the latter. British company Desire Petroleum began drilling for oil and gas in the North Falkland Basin on February 22, the culmination of a build-up weeks in the making. Argentina had asked British authorities to refrain from drilling on territory it considers its own and that any such activity would breach a United Nations resolution barring unilateral development in disputed waters. The British government however insists that such oil exploration complies with international law.
With an estimated 60 billions barrels worth of oil in the ocean floor shelf north of the Falkland Islands, tensions over control of such a lucrative resource seem only natural. But for Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, they represent an opportunity to divert public attention from the country’s domestic problems and galvanize support for her unpopular administration by rallying the public around an emotionally-laden issue.
Kirchner, who first announced on February 16 that ships traveling from Argentina to the islands would need to obtain permission from Buenos Aires, has unleashed a diplomatic offensive, securing support for her country’s position from 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as making an appeal to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. Though Buenos Aires has been careful to emphasize that it does not seek another war, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stated that the U.K. will defend the islands.
The present situation strikes some as eerily similar to that of 1982, when the ruling military junta in Buenos Aires under President Leopoldo Galtieri – who much like Kirchner today was facing his own domestic problems – authorized the invasion of the islands, leading to the Argentine capture of Port Stanley.
Some argue that the current debate in the U.K. over cutting expensive defense programs, such as one for two 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers, is reflective of the environment in 1982 when the withdrawal of HMS Endurance was perceived by Buenos Aires as a sign of British weakness, opening the door for the ruling junta to seize the islands. Others point out that if Galtieri had waited a mere six months longer before launching the invasion, the defence review undertaken by the British government of Margaret Thatcher – which emphasized cutting the defense budget as part of a greater effort to slash public expenditures – might have made it impossible for the U.K. to retake the islands.
Such particulars aside, it should be emphasized that the Falkland Islands are better defended today than they were prior to the 1982 Argentine invasion. And while today’s Royal Navy and British Army (many of whose elite troops are currently deployed to Afghanistan) would inarguably have great difficulty in assembling another task force to retake the islands, with seven amphibious warfare ships in Royal Navy service there remains sufficient capability to relieve the islands in case of a military stalemate despite a minimal supply of escort ships.
The crucial question is less what the British could muster should war again break out, but whether Argentina could mount another such invasion. With the HMS Clyde patrol ship and Type 42 HMS Gloucester frigate both patrolling Falkland waters and the Type 42 HMS York reportedly deployed to the area as well, a robust Royal Navy component is patrolling the area. The British also have four modern-generation Eurofighter Typhoons based at Mount Pleasant air base and 1,076 military personnel stationed on the islands.
In contrast, the Argentine armed forces offer up little offensive capability. Once a formidable service, the Argentine Air Force today comprises an aging combination of A-4 Skyhawk and Mirage attack fighters, while the Navy can muster a few Super Entendard strike aircraft and six P-3B Orions. In terms of surface combatants the Argentine Navy has four destroyers that are each nearly thirty years old, and nine frigates only two of which were commissioned after 1990. More importantly, Argentina has retired its only landing craft (the Cabo San Antonio) and no longer has an aircraft carrier, so despite its proximity to the Falklands (300 miles) it would be a difficult hurdle for the country to forcefully retake the islands.
Simply looking at the most recent defense expenditures – $2.2 billion in 2009 for Argentina versus $60+ billion for the U.K. – reveals the discrepancy in training, manpower and equipment commitment provided each nation’s armed forces by their respective governments. That the British armed forces have suffered from years of conducting overseas operations on peacetime budgets is of little dispute. But despite their stretched capabilities and the logistical challenge of reinforcing an island group in the South Atlantic that lay 8,000 miles from their home base, if war were to break out they could still bring more modern capability to bear than their Argentine counterpart.
One aside to the territorial dispute is that the big winner amidst all the public posturing between Buenos Aires and London may prove to be the British Royal Navy. As recently as a month ago the service was bracing itself for program cuts believed to be all but inevitable under the looming Strategic Defense Review. Supporters of maintaining a robust, full-spectrum British defense component are using recent events to lament what they describe as “a state of decay” in the British armed forces, lambasting the Labor government’s defense policies in the process.
While the Falkland territorial dispute will continue to retain its political dimension, the possibility that another war erupts would more likely be the result of an incidental trigger – Argentine warships halting British oil ships, for instance – than another planned invasion of the islands by Buenos Aires. Keeping the fire lit on the issue may provide Ms. Kirchner with a boost heading into the 2011 presidential election, but advocating open warfare to resolve her country’s claim to the island serves no one, least of all Argentina.
With Buenos Aires’ diplomatic envoys going into overdrive to downplay the prospect of war over the islands, the Argentine president no doubt understands this, much as she probably grasps that another such war might very well end for Buenos Aires in the same manner as the last affair – with its armed forces defeated and the sitting government given the boot by an angry public.