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.