The Falkland Islands – Wash, Rinse, Repeat?

By HOLMES

Once again, the Falklands, a small island group in the cold waters of the far South Atlantic, are demanding headlines in international news outlets. The British and the islands’ residents call their islands “The Falklands,” and the Argentinians call them “Las Malvinas.” By either name, they are on the minds of politicians in the UK and South America, and whatever’s an issue for the UK is of interest to the US government, as well.

There may not be anything like a “real ally” in the world, but Great Britain remains important to us. They will go their own way in response to public pressure in the UK, just as we in the US will, but in a world where only a minority of the world’s nations exhibit signs of civility and cooperation, the UK remains important to the USA so the Falklands issue matters to us.

Most of you will remember, perhaps vaguely if you are not an Argentinian or a UK citizen, that in 1982, the sorry and unskilled military junta of Argentina decided to pull off a quick, cheap triumph by invading the Falklands. We should also remember that the UK, lead by the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, didn’t respond as Argentinian dictator Leopoldo Galtieri predicted it would. The UK sent carriers to the Falklands, and the results were unpleasant for both nations and for Galtieri.

That three month war resulted in the deaths of two hundred, fifty-five British servicemen, three female Falklands civilians, and six hundred, forty-nine Argentinians. When it was over, Argentina had worse relations with the UK and the US, and less influence over and access to the UK island possessions in the South Atlantic.

Oddly, the war had a secondary benefit for the people of Argentina. The Junta lost its support from Western nations. Once the patriotic fervor over the brief defeat of the evil British imperialists turned into outrage over the humiliating defeat suffered at the hands of the British military, the Junta was doomed. Argentina returned to a semblance of democracy in 1983. It has not been a perfectly clean democracy (nor has ours), but by South American standards, it can be called a legitimate government.

So with all that settled, how do we find ourselves slipping backwards to a possible repeat of 1982? There are several factors that play into the situation, and many of them are similar to the conditions that caused the war in 1982.

On the Argentinian side we have President Cristina Kirchner, now in the third year of her term, who inherited a miserable economy. The unemployment rate is somewhere around 8%, but some critics claim that the figures are cooked by the government for political purposes (sort of like we do here in the USA).

Argentina has never quite recovered from its financial crisis of the late 90s, when pensions and savings accounts vanished. That crisis still affects the political thinking of voters and politicians in Argentina.

Argentina consumes about 620,000 billion barrels of petroleum per day and produces about 750,000 billion barrels per day so they do not face any immediate crisis from oil price increases. In fact, in the short term, they will profit from oil price increases if the government can manage the economy skillfully.

But there lies the big “if.”  President (and recently ex-first lady) Cristina Kirchner had her roots planted in the militant, nationalist mentality of the Peronista movement that originated with President Juan Peron and his wife, Evita. She was elected by 45% of the votes and ran on a populist agenda that included little to describe how promises would be met (sort of like most Western political campaigns). She inherited an inefficient economy and a splintered government. Inflation has made life difficult for the working class in Argentina, investment capital is in short supply, European lenders are wanting a settlement on past loan defaults, President Kirchner has worked hard to alienate the United States, and European banks are none too impressed with her “Evita” impersonation.

Kirchner began her presidency by loudly announcing that the “Malvinas” belong to Argentina. When she increased taxes on agricultural exports, the policy proved unpopular, but she was able to divert the anger with a new round of threats concerning the Falklands.

Argentinians are a proudly nationalist lot, but they are well-educated, cosmopolitan, and not the most patient of South Americans. Kirchner is approaching the final act of her “Soy de La Gente” stage production, and the audience is wanting to see some results. The Argentinians have been to a few plays before, and they might not be willing to settle for a disappointing ending. And then there’s the oil factor. Great Britain has begun to produce oil off shore of the Falklands.

Far away from Buenos Aires, the UK also has a reasonably well-educated and cosmopolitan citizenry who have their own ideas about the Falklands. The UK’s conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is not the Iron Lady. For one thing, he lacks ovaries, and for another, the iron glove that he might wish to employ in any arm wrestling with “Evita 2.0” from Buenos Aires is looking a bit tattered these days.

While on paper the Royal Navymay seem to be declining, it would be a mistake to underestimate its ability. The Royal Navy still has in service two aging but battle-ready aircraft carriers of 22,000 ton displacement, which can each operate 18 Sea Harrier aircraft. The UK also has a third carrier undergoing extended maintenance.

Two aircraft carriers would seem like enough of a reinforcement to prevent another attack on the Falklands by Argentina, but here’s the catch. The UK no longer has any Harrier aircraft, and the V-STOL version of the F-35s that will replace them are not yet in service in the UK. The UK’s carriers currently can only deliver helicopters to any battle that arises in the Falklands or anywhere else.

The RAF does maintain a flight of four Eurofighter Typhoons in the Falklands. Given the poor state of the Argentinian Air Force and their few remaining, aging fighter aircraft, those four Typhoons, in conjunction with the air defense system on the Falklands, should be enough to dissuade Evita 2.0 from staging another sneak attack on the Falklands in the near future.

Great Britain has one other very powerful but politically expensive card that it could play against Argentina if pushed to desperation. While Argentina lacks the means to blockade or harm British shipping, the UK could effectively blockade Argentina. Any blockade of Argentine shipping would be a disaster to the Argentine economy.

Evita 2.0 knows that the UK is preoccupied with events in the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Hormuz, but she also knows that if pushed into a corner, the US would very likely lend assistance to the UK in the form of returning recently purchased Sea Harriers to the Royal Navy. For the next few years, that would be enough to defeat even the greatest possible Argentine threat.

Great Britain realizes that there is little reason to match Evita 2.0 word for word in her jingoism. Cameron knows that Kirchner is preaching to her own choir, and that his responses will be twisted or ignored by the majority of the South American press. Both Cameron and Kirchner know that it would be suicidal for Argentina to attempt a Falklands invasion with the forces that they currently have available to them.

Kirchner knows that if she orders an invasion of the Falklands, the Argentine military would probably use it as an excuse to launch, instead, an invasion of “La Casa Rosada” (the presidential residence in Buenos Aires). For now, the battle for the Falklands and it’s oil reserves will remain a diplomatic battle.

Some Western intelligence sources claim Kirchner has quietly promised, outside of the hearing range of Argentine labor unions, some upgrades to the Argentine Air Force. If she is re-elected, and she manages to deliver those upgrades, then, in another five or ten years, we could see another conflict in the Falklands.

If the UK remains alert and is committed to holding the Falklands, then they will always have more than enough time to reinforce the RAF and Royal Marine strength there in time to prevent a war. For at least the next three decades, Argentina will not develop enough military might to overcome a determined UK defense of the Falklands at an acceptable price.

Despite the best theatrical performances that Kirchner and her imaginary Latin American allies might put forth, it’s the UK voters and not Buenos Aires that will determine ownership of the Falklands for the next three decades.

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21 comments on “The Falkland Islands – Wash, Rinse, Repeat?

  1. Larry says:

    Bully for you, Piper. You did your investigation well.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Larry. I accidentally neglected to send Piper the Argentine casualties and I included a typo. The war was 3 months rather than 4. The Argentine military lost 649 lives in the war. I apologize for accidentally implying that the lives of the loyal Argentine soldiers, sailors and pilots were not important.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Thanks, Larry, but this one is all Holmes. :)

  2. tomwisk says:

    Let the UK borrow the planes. It’s a tough call. If the aging lion tries to discipline Evita 2.0 there might be a dust up in the Atlantic. Part of me says give up the dreams of rebuilding the Empire and get real. Argentina should get used to the fact they’ll have to coexist with neighbors they don’t like.
    All I know is we should watch this one. If Evita 2.0 doesn’t deliver someone who’s more bellicose might show up and roil up the waters in South America.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Tomwisk. I think that a transfer of aircraft to the UK in the form of old Harriers could be accomplished before an attack started. Buenas Aires, would have reasonably good intelligence about naval and air strength in the Falklands but not about possible reinforcement intentions.

      The White House, the Pentagon, and the UK DOD have better satellite capability today than they did in the 80s and would have more warning this time. Given the current political situation, and the social conditions in Argentina today I would say that CIA and MI-6 would both have an easier time on the HUMINT (human intelligence) side of their Intel. shops than they did in the early eighties. What this all adds up to is an opportunity for the UK to reinforce the Falklands before an attack could occur.

      If Kirchner intended a sneak attack she likely would not have gone out of her way to insult the US in her first days in office, nor attract the attention of US and British intelligence establishments by publicly palling up with the likes of Hugo Chavez. My guess is that Kirchner had more Argentine military information in her hands than she legally should have when she entered office and she knew the military score in the South Atlantic before she took her oath.

      The jingoism is intended to allow her to keep funding promises to the Argentine Navy and Air Force. She wants their influence in order to keep her position.

      Least I confuse anyone let me be clear that my research is based solely on open source information and in no way reflects the thinking of any part of the US government. My opinions are only MY opinions. The US political establishment speaks for itself, albeit incoherently and opaquely.

  3. Jo says:

    And please don’t forget that in the middle of all of this are 3,000 people who merely want their right to self determination respected.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Jo. I apologize for omitting that essential fact. I’ve never traveled to the Falklands and from this distance it is my second hand understanding that a majority of Falklands citizens prefer to remain British.

      As you are contacting us from the Falklands please do speak up.

      • Jo says:

        Correction: ALL Falkland Island citizens wish to remain British!!

        I should also have added that this is the first (I think) article I have read for a long time that actually points out that in many ways Argentina scored a major victory in 82 by finally getting rid of the appalling dictatorship and their Dirty War. This seems to be lost on many people, including many Argentines.

        Argentina will never ‘get’ the Falkland Islands. Academics and lawyers can argue over the modern day interpretation of 200 or 500 year old documents all they like. I have read much about 1833 (many pieces of information actually come from the Argentine National archives in Buenos Aires) and I still come to the conclusion that the British claim based on 1833 is sound. However, all that aside, it is FACT that there was no indigenous population in the Falkland Islands. It is FACT that Britain has maintained the only population in the Falkland Islands since 1833 (or thereabouts) apart from 74 days in 1982 following Argentina’s invasion and occupation of a defenceless country (apart from the handful of marines stationed here). It would take a very ‘special’ person indeed who would sign off the paperwork deporting a whole country of people (no-one would remain under Argentine rule), some of whom can trace their roots back to the orginal settlers 9 generations ago, so that another country can take over, despite never having having had a population there in the past (except the 74 days after the invasion of 1982). And that is the only way that Argentina would EVER ‘get’ the Falkland Islands, so it will never happen. All Falkland Islanders want to remain British and that is how it will stay, no matter how hot and bothered and aggressive the Argentines get. And whatever side of the fence you sit on, the right to self determination is something that every one of us should be defending.

        I have lived in the Falkland Islands for very nearly 20 years. The Falkland Islands are British, Falkland Islanders are British. I am actually quite pleased that this is being discussed in so many places right now. It is highlighting that this is still an issue for us here. I hope that by the time by son is an adult it will no longer be an issue.

        • Jo says:

          I should also add (sorry!) that we feel very supported by the British in our wish to remain British, and we are very grateful for that support. We also feel very secure with the defences that are based here.

        • J Holmes says:

          The following is solely my opinion:

          Hi Jo. You are in a better position than I to speak more bluntly about the position of the Falkland residents. Thank you for doing so. It rings a little hallow for a Yankee to speak for you folks in the Falklands.

          The people of the Falklands face insulting claims by Argentino propagandists but the people of Argentina are the ones that are suffering the most from the nonsense that Evita2.0 and her scheming supporters put forth.

          I see myself as being fairly objective on this issue. I have friends in the UK and have traveled to the UK many times but I have friends and family in Argentina and If I had to relocate from the USA I would likely choose Argentina over the UK. I am comfortable in the UK but I am more at home in Argentina.

          Argentinos are similar to people in the USA in that they usually have strong nationalistic feelings and they are therefore a bit vulnerable to the old “Malvinas scam” routine. The press in Argentina is every bit as lazy as the press in the USA or the UK. The more Kirchner can inspire imperialist sentiment in those Argentinos that are gullible enough to buy it, the less scrutiny her domestic policies will face. But Kirchner should not allow herself to be too inspired by the unsophisticated rantings of Hugo Chavez. She does not have the same police state apparatus that Hugo has or that Galtieri once enjoyed in Argentina. Further isolating Argentina from the world banking community with her Jingoistic antics was not in the interest of the economy of Argentina. Hugo has huge oil reserves to play with, Kirchner does not.

          Sadly for the working and impoverished masses in most of Latin America they receive these sorts of mythologies to live on rather than development, progress, jobs, freedom, or government. These tactics are of course not unique to Latin America. Every day we see similar tactics used in the UK, Canada, and the USA though the mythologies are often more carefully crafted for a more demanding audience.

          In my opinion the Argentinos are too sophisticated and too educated to buy Kirchner’s Peronista tactics for too long. She faces reelection in another year and after that she will be trying to back pedal on her promises to the Argentino military establishment.

          Any Falklanders or Argentinos (or anyone else) are welcome to disagree with me here in this forum.

  4. This seems like one of those things that, if left unchecked, can explode into something major before anyone has a chance to react. I hate war. Absolutely detest it.

  5. J Holmes says:

    Hi Tameri. Any UK government regardless of supposed “party affiliation” will pay attention to the Falklands because unlike Argentina, the UK and most of the rest of Europe is desperate for oil.

  6. Hi Holmes.

    Thanks for the info, I didn’t even know this was becoming an issue.

    You know which side I’m on, so I’m a little biased. The last war was started for completely pointless reasons and cost a lot of lives. If they have discovered oil there then that probably changes things. Despite the reduced state of the UK services, it would be much harder this time to invade. It would be much easier to disrupt the drilling, but eventually that disruption could be dealt with, with Argentina gaining no advantage.

    In fact, I’m not even sure why (ignoring oil for a moment) Argentina wants the islands, they’re small, bleak and not key to anything. You could say the same about Britain, but the people there want to stay British, so the realm has a duty to it tax paying citizens (at least the ones who don’t throw them out).

    Perhaps President Kirchner is playing a game of wag the dog to hide the everyday problems Argentines (and the rest of us) face?

    Cheers!

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Nigel. Yes the drilling operations are vulnerable but not as vulnerable as Argentine shipping. It would be foolish for Argentina broaden any conflict beyond the Falklands. Frankly Argentina needs offshore platforms in that region more than the UK needs the little that they have there. It would be an uneconomic gambit by Argentina even without the UK touching Argentine shipping.

      “Perhaps President Kirchner is playing a game of wag the dog to hide the everyday problems Argentines (and the rest of us) face?” Yes.

  7. Ah – the old ‘fix the economy with a stupid foreign adventure’ trick… I have distinct memories of being briefly aboard Invincible, soon after the 1982 effort – she’d just been fitted with a couple of 20-mm Phalanx systems which they were very pleased with.

    Great analysis, but I have one small gripe. You are not quite right to call the Ark Royal and Illustrious ‘battle ready’. The Illustrious is currently able only to operate helicopters, and has been since a 2011 refit. The Ark Royal is laid up (‘derelict’) in Portsmouth and there’s a pretty good chance she’ll be sunk as an artificial reef. The costs and engineering time required to bring her back up to scratch are going to be significant, quite apart from the ‘working up’ period which these days extends to many months. But the more crucial issue is the dispersal of the trained Harrier pilots and the support crews, along with their knowledge of operations. Easy to throw away, but it takes years to rebuild the expertise and experience. Borrowing the aircraft won’t fix the crew lack, and even if they could get the political accommodation to obtain trained aircraft and crews from the USMC, they’d still be confronted with a steep operational learning curve associated with the ship they are flying from. To quote Heinlein, ‘ships are more than just steel’.

    Of course this is not the first time the British have had trouble with power projection – New Zealanders had that lesson in 1941 when the ‘main fleet to Singapore’ that was supposed to save us from the Imperial Japanese Navy consisted of the “Prince of Wales” and “Repulse”, both sunk two days after war erupted. The US Navy finally rescued us, via Coral Sea and Midway.

    Apropos today’s situation, I would not be surprised if the Brits quietly send Astute or one of the remaining Trafalgars down there, and of course the Dauntless is a fairly obvious sabre-rattler, if nothing else.

    We must, of course, hope that the whole thing remains as it is – posturing.

    Matthew Wright

    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com

    http://www.matthewwright.net

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Mathew. “Great analysis, but I have one small gripe. You are not quite right to call the Ark Royal and Illustrious ‘battle ready’. The Illustrious is currently able only to operate helicopters, and has been since a 2011 refit. The Ark Royal is laid up (‘derelict’) in Portsmouth and there’s a pretty good chance she’ll be sunk as an artificial reef.”

      Sorry if I implied that sustained Harrier operations from the UK’s carrier decks. I was thinking more in terms of a quick ferrying mission. I didn’t wish to make the article too long with military details but I think that Harrier support staff from unnamed locations could quickly show up in civilian clothing if they were needed. IS MOD no longer claiming two deploy-able carriers? I probably missed another downgrade. It’s been too depressing to listen to the UK MOD lately so I miss things.

      While it sounds too generous on the surface, quietly giving the UK equipment to use is a less politically costly tactic for the USA than being overtly involved in air operations against Argentino units. I suspect that we would rather give away every last Harrier that we own rather than pay the political price of actively operating against Argentina. And you know how it is with those AIM-9 Sidewinder air to air missiles. People get busy and they are hard to count. Again, I speak only for myself.

      IN any event I think that the Intel. cycle would be fast enough and the quality of Intel. high enough to allow for reinforcement prior to an attack.

  8. Hi Piper,

    Being English myself, it’s really interesting to read about this issue from a US citizen’s point of view.

    In response to tomwisk, most people in the UK have no dreams of ‘rebuilding the Empire’, but believe that, as long as the people living on the islands call them the Falklands and wish to be British citizens, we have a duty to provide them with the same protection we’d give London, or the Channel Islands, or Northern Ireland. If, at some point, the residents were to wish independence or to join with Argentina, we should respect their wishes on that too.

    I was a little concerned when I read that we only had four Typhoons stationed there, but it’s encouraging to hear that they could probably do the job.
    “The UK no longer has any Harrier aircraft, and the V-STOL version of the F-35s that will replace them are not yet in service in the UK.” <- this was not a popular decision in the UK, I can tell you. Even less so was the fact that we're currently spending massive amounts of money on two new 65,000 tonne carriers with no planes to launch from them… *facepalm*

  9. J Holmes says:

    Hi Jim. Thanks for your UK view, Our commentator Nigel Blackwell is quickly turning into a gun slinging beer drinking Texan so I’m not sure that we can call him a complete Brit any more. I think you are right on the money. The only “Empire building” I see in this case is in Argentina and not all Argentinos are thrilled with the concept.

    As for the new Carriers I believe that you will have Carrier operable attack/fighters available for commissioning of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers. It is not clear to me if the QE will make her first operational voyage with F-35B V-STOL aircraft or F-35C non-V-STOL Aircraft. David Cameron has expressed a preference for the longer range capability of the F-35C but I have not (yet) heard about a catapult system being installed in the QE.

    Drone capablity will also be further advanced by the time the QE goes operational and will likely make up a bigger part of the air mission than could have been foreseen when the UK approved the construction of two supper-carriers. That might mean F-35 B models for force defense and large drones for longer range operations on the first ship and perhaps a mix of F-35B and C models + drones on the second ship. it sounds odd but I think that’s what the current building orders indicate. The catapult issue will determine the choice of F-35 model to be purchased.

  10. Mark Newton says:

    Quite an interesting read as a Brit…
    I remember the last time the Islands were invaded. The Argentinians thought we would not or could not retaliate quickly due to the lack of Navy support in the area. However, what the Argentinians didn’t consider was our Royal Navy…
    The Vulcan aircraft raid on Port Stanley (non-stop from the UK refuelling mid flight there and back. Astounding if you think about it) sent the message firmly home to Buenos Aires that the islands are British and will remain so until such time as the residents decide otherwise.
    Britain may have given up most of her overseas territories (see a map of the globe from yesteryear and see how much of it’s pink) but it’s not ready to let any more go just yet.
    Sabre rattling I think for political gain and posturing costs lives.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Mark. I think that there is a good chance that this will not come to blows again. The Evita2.0 team will squeeze every last bit of mileage out of that they can but their Air Force is still in a shambles. Unlike Venezuela they can not easily order up some Russian Sukhoi fighters.

      The Argentine Air Force wants to build a real fighter capability but the Argentino labor unions and the defrauded pensioners would revolt if the government spent cash on a significant Air Force rebuild.

      Part of Kirchner’s “Evita” act relies on being pro labor and if she loses that support she will be in trouble.

  11. tedhenkle says:

    Apparently, there’s to be a “big announcement” by Kirchner at 5 PM EST today ( 7 Feb 12)

    http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/07/argentinian-leader-plans-big-announcement-amid-falklands-tensions/?hpt=hp_t3

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