A referendum will take place with results known in advance, the stances of the UK and Argentina’s governments are clear, the exchange of statements and demonstrative actions is in full swing. The Falklands become a hotbed again.
Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 480 kilometers (298 miles) from South America, the Falkland Islands is a British overseas territory since 1833 known as a strategic shipping stopover and potential wellspring of natural resources. It is self-ruled but relies on the United Kingdom for defense and foreign policy. Argentina claims sovereignty over the islands, which it calls Las Malvinas. Historically the islands have change hands many times. In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a 10-week war over the disputed land.
The economic activities are limited by fishing, sheep farming and a small tourist industry. The seabed around the islands is thought to contain substantial oil reserves, but although there has been extensive exploration by oil companies, exploitation of the reserves has not yet begun. The renewed sovereignty frenzy over the Falkland Islands started in 2011 in the wake of a discovery of 1.4 billion barrels of oil in the North Falkland Basin, in Rockhopper Exploration’s Sea Lion field. Overnight, the Falklands was billed as the next big energy hub, the second Persian Gulf, as well as a staging ground for a territorial war. Argentina has threatened legal action against energy firms working in the Falkland Islands who are "stealing the natural resources of Argentina". Exploration continues, Rockhopper Exploration has signed a $1 billion partnership deal with Premier Oil to pump from Sea Lion. No oil is produced as yet-only gas and condensate. Up to 8.3 billion barrels of undersea oil reserves are reported in the Falklands economic zone – a radius of 320-kilometers around the islands. The figures are backed by claims from small oil ventures, including Rockhopper and Borders & Southern Petroleum, they say oil will be produced in 2017.
Rise of tensions
On March 10 and 11 roughly 2,500 Falklanders go to vote on whether or not they wish to remain under British rule. It is expected there will be a 100 per cent 'yes' vote. The referendum occurs at a time when the relations between the United Kingdom and Argentina have reached a low-point. After the war they improved during the late 1990s to abruptly deteriorate during the last couple of years. The events such as the 30-year anniversary of the Falklands War in April 2012 and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, prompted nationalistic statements. In 2012, the Royal Navy deployed the destroyer HMS Dauntless, a modern warship, to the Falklands. It was considered an aggressive move by the Argentine government.
Argentina argues that the referendum is invalid as the islanders are colonizers and are not an indigenous population of the islands. On January 3 Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner sent an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron once again calling on the UK to hand back the Falkland Islands. She accused the UK of colonialism… The letter was copied to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, it quotes a 1965 U.N. resolution inviting the two countries to negotiate a solution to the sovereignty dispute and calls on the British to abide by the resolution. More recently, Argentina’s Foreign Affairs Minister Timerman refused to include the representatives of the Falkland Islands government in his meeting with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague during his visit to London. The UK government rejects the idea of negotiations, saying the Falkland Islanders have chosen to be British. The possibilities include the harassment by the Argentine Navy of the Falklands’ fishing fleet and the disruption of British oil and gas exploration.
Extra British troops, another warship and an additional RAF Typhoon fighter jet could be deployed or high-profile military exercises carried out in the South Atlantic as a deterrent while tensions over the islands' future rise. The measures may also include the deployment of the Royal Navy’s Response Task Force Group, a flotilla comprising destroyers, a frigate, a submarine and commandos. Defence chiefs could also dispatch elements of the Army’s 16 Air Assault Brigade. A Royal Navy destroyer, currently HMS Edinburgh, is always on duty in the South Atlantic, working alongside the patrol ship HMS Clyde, the fleet tanker HMS Gold and the ice patrol ship HMS Protector. One of the Royal Navy’s nuclear powered submarines is always on notice to move to the region if the diplomatic situation deteriorates.
Just a few days ago Mr. Cameron insisted that Britain would not shirk from defending the islands if Argentina attempted another invasion. Referring to a recent briefing on the Falklands at a National Security Council meeting, the Prime Minister said: “I get regular reports on this entire issue because I want to know that our defences are strong, our resolve is extremely strong”. He added, “We have strong defences in place on the Falkland Islands, that is absolutely key, that we have fast jets stationed there, we have troops stationed on the Falklands.” A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said, “The Ministry of Defence has always had contingency plans in place to increase the military footprint in the South Atlantic if required.”
On February 25 US State Secretary John Kerry talked the burning issues while on a visit to Great Britain. He declined to comment on the forthcoming referendum of islanders on whether they wish to remain a UK overseas territory. Mr. Kerry said Washington's position on the Falklands had not changed, adding: "We continue to urge a peaceful resolution of this critical issue." Asked if the democratic will of the Falkland islanders should be respected once a national poll has been held, Mr. Kerry said: "The United States recognizes de facto UK administration of the islands but takes no position on the question of parties' sovereignty claims thereto». So the US ducks the question.
Assessment: military balance, conflict prospects
In 1982 the Argentina’s military junta headed by General Leopoldo Galtieri led the country to economic collapse and decided to save itself with the help of a small-scale victorious military adventure. On April 2 1982 Argentinian troops captured the islands and the island of South Georgia, Galtieri hoped an agreement with the US and economic difficulties Great Britain was going through would prevent response. It all turned out differently. Being formally neutral, the US tacitly supported the strategic ally. Margaret Thatcher was an iron lady. The British were able to assemble a formidable flotilla on short notice able to project power thousands of miles away from the homeport country. British naval forces were dispatched after Argentinian President Leopoldo Galtieri's military dictatorship put troops on the Falklands. Soldiers fought land battles on the islands, aircraft were shot down and ships were attacked with significant losses of life – most notably the Argentinian General Belgrano and Britain's HMS Sheffield, HMS Antelope and RFA Sir Galahad. In June the islands were British again.
Britain declared an end to fighting after 74 days and following the surrender of Argentinian troops. Argentina put its death toll at 645. Britain's civil and military losses amounted to 255. The British technological edge was a decisive factor. Soon the Galtieri regime fell.
Those days the British had 33 Harrier aircraft, 28 of them ship-based, 15 based on ground. Today they have no Harriers; the only light aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious has no planes on deck. The last of 76 Harriers left the navy inventory in 2001 to be sold to the US for spare parts. The British Navy prospects are murky to put it mildly. Two “big” Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are being built (the first is scheduled to join the service in 2016) but there is no decision on the composition of the air groups (F-35B, F-35C or the both). Back in 1982 two aircraft carriers with Harriers led the operation. In 1982 five out of 12 nuclear attack and one out of 16 conventional submarines went to the Falklands. Now there are only six (one new Astute and Trafalgar class) nuclear attack boats in the inventory, it’s a long time the Navy has no conventional subs. This number will stay. While putting the Astute class boats into service, the Trafalgar class will be written off. It means no more than 2-4 nuclear attack submarines could go to the islands today if need be. 31 year ago the Conqueror attack submarine sank the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano and actually paralyzed the Argentinian Navy. The submarines had a great role to play.
The surface ships carried out the brunt of work. In 1982 nine out of 15 destroyers and 17 out of 46 frigates made part of the flotilla. Nowadays the Royal Navy has only five destroyers (four Daring 45 class, the newest ones, and one obsolete Sheffield class). There will be two more Darings built and the last Sheffield is to leave the service). There are 13 Norfolk class frigates to be substituted by 26 class in some undefined future. So, the Royal Navy can operate 12 frigate-destroyer type surface ships at most in case of hostilities, or two and a half times less than in 1982. And the ships will have no air cover.
All eight amphibious ships went to the islands in 1982. Two Fearless Landing Platform Dock (LPD) class ships were real big and capable platforms. Now the Royal Navy has six amphibious ships, including HMS Ocean, an amphibious assault ship (or landing platform helicopter), the sole member of the class. The ship is designed to support amphibious landing operations and to support the staff of Commander UK Amphibious Force and Commander UK Landing Force. So the number of ships has dwindled but they have a slightly larger overall capacity. The landing forces will lack artillery and air support, the Marine Corps has become a smaller force and it is destitute of its Scorpion light tanks.
The conclusion is obvious. The British have no capability to repeat what they did in 1982. The US was not involved in 1982; no way will it be now, when the percentage of Latinos in the composition of population and the number of military personnel with Hispanic origin has grown. The only thing the US could do is to return the Harriers if they will not be taken into spare parts by the time. Of course, it can come up with intelligence gathering support as it did those days.
Still, the British have nothing to fear. The plight of Argentinian armed forces testifies to the fact. The country was a shining example of prosperity at the beginning of the XX century, now it faces bad times that affect the military. The armed forces have been degrading ever since the Falkland war. One German built 209 class conventional submarine and three small Drummond corvettes make up the combat nucleus of the Argentinian Navy today. The force is not only small in numbers, there is a qualitative gap in favor of the UK. Argentina has no capability to conduct landing operations (one old Sheffield class frigate converted into a trooper and a troop transport ship, the both have no equipment to land troops on land).
So, the UK has nothing to defend the islands with, while the Argentinians have no offensive capability. At that, the Argentinian Navy is better off in comparison with other services. At least it has the equipment of the 1980s, unlike boot soldiers and fliers. Ground forces are equipped with 1950-1970s stuff that cannot be landed anywhere; there is no aid defense capability, while the British have no air support. In 1982 the Argentinians had Super Etendard planes with missiles, some aircraft were obsolete, but it was a force to reckon with and it inflicted serious damage on the British. HMS Sheffield and HMS Atlantic Conveyer went down as a result of Argentinian air attacks. The same aircraft fill the inventory now, after so many years, the only thing their number has gone down from 200 in 1982 to 115 today (87 in service, 28 – in storage). The Air Force is so obsolete; it even has no 3th generation planes. The newest Super Etendard is 29 years old. The majority of birds serve more than 40 and 50 years. The British need no Harriers, the Aster air defense systems on board of the Daring destroyers (48 missiles per ship) would be enough to deal with the air threat. If some aircraft stay in air, the Norfolk frigates based Sea Dart air defense systems would finish the job. All the air defense missiles are launched by vertical launch systems. Even a half of these ships (two Darings and seven Horfolks) could launch 320 missiles ready to strike at the same time, twice as many as the number of Argentinian warplanes.
So, Argentina has no means for use of force. As a rule, the claims not backed up by military might are not taken seriously. The islands will remain British for the foreseeable future.
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Politicians are using British – Argentinian tensions to court votes and divert people from economic woes at home – there is little appetite for conflict on either side. A heavily depleted force, Argentina’s armed forces are no match even for Britain's reduced military. Still rhetoric is on the rise, economic interest is great, there are a lot of examples in history when wars that nobody wanted sparked just because tensions were high. While the world attention is focused on the Middle East, a new potential flashpoint appeared on the map.