Argentina still poses a “very live threat” to the British-ruled Falkland Islands, Britain’s defense minister warned on Tuesday as he announced plans to increase security spending on the South Atlantic islands to counter Argentina’s attempts to improve its military.
Michael Fallon told Parliament the government planned to spend £180 million ($268 million) over the next 10 years to boost the security of the islands as part of a defense review, although the level of military and civilian personnel involved would remain at around 1,200.
“The principle threat to the islands remains,” he told legislators. “I am confident that, following this review, we have the right deployment.”
The minister’s announcement comes as Argentina has been trying to upgrade its military capabilities. It has looked at buying new warplanes and has signed a co-operation deal with Russia that could result in it leasing Russian bombers in return for beef exports.
Argentina has always claimed sovereignty over the islands, which it calls Las Malvinas. Britain has ruled there for almost two centuries and the overwhelming majority of the 3,000 inhabitants are of British descent. Successive governments in London have insisted that it is up to the Falklanders to decide who governs them.
Tension has periodically surfaced between London and Buenos Aires in the three decades since British troops hoisted the Union flag over the island capital of Port Stanley barely 10 weeks after the invasion.
The revival of the Falklands question comes just six weeks ahead of a U.K. general election in which defense spending has latterly emerged as a campaign issue.
Fallon’s Conservative Party is traditionally viewed as soundest on defense. However, indications that the government’s austerity policies may soon start to gnaw into the hallowed defense budget have alarmed domestic military chiefs and Britain’s key ally, the United States.
General Raymond Odierno, the U.S. Chief of Staff, said this month that he was “very concerned” about falling U.K. defense spending amid fears it could drop below a Nato target of two percent of national income.
Just this week, Fallon tried to reassure the Americans when he wrote in a newspaper article: “When the chips are down, the U.K. will always be at their side. Our American friends know that the U.K. is not about to let down its guard.
The latest warning on the Falklands may in part be a reminder to voters that the Conservatives can continue to be trusted on defense.
That is not to say that the government has invented the Argentine threat. The cash-strapped government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has announced a boost in military spending for 2015.
Argentina has also been scouting around to upgrade its ageing fleet of military jets, focusing on Israel, China and Russia among potential suppliers. Just last week, Russian and Argentine officials agreed to upgrade military cooperation at a meeting in Moscow.
That came amid unconfirmed reports that Russia is offering to lease long-range bombers in exchange for Argentine beef. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President was in Buenos Aires last year as part of policy of strengthening ties in Latin America at a time when Moscow faced Western sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and its stance on Ukraine.
Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, linked the Ukraine and Falklands issues when he posted on Twitter at the weekend: “Attention London: Crimea has far more reason to be in Russia than the Falklands have to be part of Great Britain.”
Aligning with Argentina over the Falklands would be one way for Moscow to retaliate for Britain’s support of sanctions.
In Argentina, the sovereignty question is one that is guaranteed to unite public opinion. Successive governments have opted to press the Malvinas button as a way of diverting attention from more divisive domestic issues. Among the headaches currently confronting President Fernández de Kirchner is the continuing fallout from the mysterious fatal shooting of Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman in January.
The ruling Argentine junta that ordered the 1982 invasion was at the time floundering economically and facing growing civilian opposition to six years of military rule. Seizing the islands was hugely popular and temporarily quelled the internal unrest.
The generals were spurred to their military adventure by their assessment that Britain had lost interest in the islands and would not act to recover them.
It turned out to be a bad bet. The junta’s confidence stemmed in part from defence cuts by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government that included suspending periodic submarine patrols of South Atlantic waters. These were never publicised but London always made sure the Argentines knew about them.
When the islands were seized, however, Thatcher responded by dispatching a task force of more than 120 warships and merchant vessels and thousands of soldiers and special forces. U.S. President Ronald Reagan risked alienating his Latin American partners by giving back-up support to his British ally.
The two sides lost more than 900 men between them in a 74-day conflict that saw ships sunk on both sides.
The war spelled the end of the junta, soon to be replaced by a democratic government, and sealed Thatcher’s domestic popularity as “the Iron Lady”.
Britain and the junta’s successors agreed that the issue would not be resolved by force. However, diplomatic efforts to resolve it have come to nothing, particularly after all but three Falklands voters opted to retain the link with Britain in a 2013 referendum.
Recently, however, Argentine leaders have ramped up the rhetoric. President Fernández de Kirchner has referred to the islanders as “squatters”, while according to her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, they are “non-people”.
Britain has also been accused of maintaining its control of the islands in order to exploit disputed oil reserves and extend its strategic hold on the South Atlantic and Antartica.
What remains an open question is whether Argentina would actually be tempted to mount a second invasion and how Britain would respond.
If Argentina managed to upgrade its air force, with help from the Russians or others, it would have a theoretical window of opportunity to strike before a new British carrier force enters operation in 2020. In the meantime, Britain is relying on improved missile and air defences to deter any aggression.
Lawrence Freedman, a war studies professor and Britain’s official historian of the Falklands War, doubts Argentina’s ability to mount a new invasion. “President Kirchner plays the nationalist card, but basically the country is broke,” he says.
Any Russian bombers that the Argentines acquired could in theory be used to bomb the runway at the Mount Pleasant military base south of Port Stanley. “The only way to neutralize that would be a surprise attack. It’s not easy and you’d need a skilled operation.” says Freedman.
If, against the odds, Argentina managed to follow up with a troop invasion, “then there would be a problem.” But he believed the modern air defences available would deter any such aggression “It would be quite a gamble for Argentina and their forces have not been particularly updated over the years.”
Military rhetoric aside, it appears neither side has an interest in a re-run of 1982 and diplomacy remains the preferred option to settle the long-running dispute for good.
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