Fortress Falklands and a Shrinking Defence Budget: Where do we go from here?

Foreign Affairs & Security
Monday, November 11, 2013
Christopher Williams

Britain’s presence in the South Atlantic, particularly on the Falkland Islands, continues to generate emotion and controversy.

As most Britons celebrated the 30th Anniversary of what is probably our most recent decisive victory and commemorate those who were killed, and the Falkland Islanders celebrated their freedom from fascist rule, Cristina Kirchner seized on the opportunity to unite her Argentine electorate behind her in the midst of economic disaster – not dissimilar to Galtieri’s use of the issue in 1982 (short of invasion).  Despite current patriotism in Britain, such feelings rarely last forever, and it is time for a real discussion on the importance of our place in the South Atlantic.

The Strategic Situation

The centre of gravity on the Falkland Islands is undoubtedly the Mount Pleasant Airbase which has two runways capable of taking all types of aircraft.  It currently has four RAF Typhoons (the main strategic defence) and is defended by an infantry company with Rapier air defence. We are told there is a hunter-killer submarine patrolling the South Atlantic, a Royal Navy frigate or destroyer visits occasionally (other naval assets are within a few days’ sailing), and HMS Protector is active in the region 330 days per year. Militarily Britain spent £75 million in 2010-11. Whoever controls Mount Pleasant controls the Falklands.

The islands are clearly better defended than in April 1982 and with a much greater intelligence effort to discern Argentine intentions.  However Major General Julian Thompson (who commanded 3 Commando Brigade during the war), Captain Michael Clapp (Commodore of the amphibious task group), Air Commodore Andrew Lambert, and historian Andrew Roberts have expressed strong concern.

Although Britain could get reinforcements to the islands in 16-24 hours, our limited logistical assets would make the initial reinforcement very small.  At the most we could only get two fighter aircraft over per 24 hours (due to air-to-air refuelling), and only a few long-range transport aircraft could make the long trip with small infantry reinforcements. They would then have to hold out for at least a week (probably longer) whilst our reduced amphibious capability transported a Commando-sized force. If that force arrived to find the Argentines had taken Mount Pleasant and deployed land-based aircraft, a British force would find it impossible to recapture the islands without jet carriers and extremely difficult with them.

The good news, argues Michael Clarke of Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), is that in her precarious democratic position Christina Kirchner would probably not risk a war unless she were assured of definite victory.  She may have a lot of (aged) assets to throw at the Falklands, but victory would be difficult to promise.

Our Interests

The Falkland Islanders are citizens of a British Overseas Territory (BOT) with their own democratic assembly, so it is naturally in Britain’s interests to ensure their security, their right to determine their own future and to uphold the values of democracy and referenda against foreign military force. It has long been the British government’s aim to transfer more of the financial contribution to BOT security onto the Territories themselves, but this does not remove the responsibility to ensure that sufficient security is in place.

Energy and Minerals

The potential for a large amount of oil and possibly gas in the Continental Shelf surrounding the Falklands and Britain’s Antarctic region is now well known. Both it and Argentina’s claim on the oil have helped to define the 30th Anniversary dispute. The two countries agreed a ‘Special Area’ in 1995 for joint hydrocarbon exploration, but in 2007 Argentina unilaterally terminated the programme.

In 2011 the British oil group Rockhopper Exploration and Premier Oil unveiled their plans for extraction (of initially 320 million barrels) in the Sea Lion exploration zone North East of the Islands. Argentina initiated legal action against four companies (not yet including Premier or Rockhopper) for exploration projects in waters they deem to be their own. Argentina has more than just sovereignty at stake: her small wells are drying up, meaning oil has to be imported at an economically unstable time.

So far the UN advisory Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has rejected Britain’s proposal to administer the 200nm area around the Falklands and British Antarctica, advising neither side to take action. The Argentine Government (particularly Kirchner) is opposed to a compromise since she gains a lot of political capital out of demanding total sovereignty over the Islands and their bounty. To accept a compromise would accept that the Islands are a British Overseas Territory democratically run by the Islanders.

The potential for oil in Antarctica, despite the international agreement, also makes projecting power into the region a vital requirement.

Access to the South Pacific

Whilst many nautical routes from the West to the Pacific Ocean would utilise the Suez or Panama Canals, a separate route to the South Pacific – an area expected to be a strong focus of potential conflict in the next few decades – would be a strategic asset, avoiding the uncertainty of such ‘choke points’ being physically or diplomatically cut off.

The Way Forward

If the true aim of war and strategy is to create a lasting situation with which the victor will benefit and which the vanquished will tolerate, more must be done – particularly with the British defence budget continually reducing.  Hard power will only achieve so much, particularly given that Britain wishes to engage more deeply with Latin American countries on defence and trade issues. An agreement on oil would undoubtedly be important here.

Cristina Kirchner’s Victory Front Coalition may not last much longer.  In August they won only 30 percent of the vote in the first round. Her personal approval ratings plummeted from 70 percent to barely 35 percent, and the recent midterm elections saw Sergio Massa’s Renovation Front make huge gains. After years of overspending from the revenues of a boom, the economy is in real trouble. Food prices are rocketing, losing Kirchner the support of the Argentine poor who once delighted in her extravagant welfare programmes and subsidy and nationalisation of businesses. Inflation appears to be much higher than the government admitted.

Whether a new government will accept negotiations with the Falkland Islanders will depend on many things, including our ability to sell the advantages of Anglo-Argentine cooperation – particularly regarding trade. In 2011 this was worth $1.4bn (Argentine exports to the UK totalled $805m, imports reached $655m dollars) and provided a $150m surplus for Argentina.

The next few years could well be critical for Britain’s South Atlantic policy.

Christopher Williams is a research fellow for the Bow Group