On the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, renewed tension with Argentina should make Britain wary of proposed cuts to its defense budget.
In April 1982, Argentina invaded the British-owned, but weakly defended, Falkland Islands. Britain managed to reclaim the islands by sending a military task force to the Falklands and taking the islands back by force. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, tensions are again high in the South Atlantic, as Argentina renews its calls for Britain to recognize Argentina’s legitimate ownership of the islands. However, renewed tensions extend beyond the anniversary of the conflict to the huge deposits of oil suspected to be around the islands’ territorial, perhaps as much as 60 billion barrels. With that in mind, the British have deployed military units to the area to again demonstrate their interest in the islands and dissuade Argentina from taking any action. Given the importance of military strength in sending this message, the British government should re-think proposed cuts to its defense budget.
Britain has already declared its intention to retain sovereignty over the islands, with Prime Minister David Cameron somewhat ironically declaring that Argentina’s behavior was “far more like colonialism” than Britain’s. Defense of the islands has already been discussed in Britain’s National Security Council. To back up Britain’s claim to the islands and their surrounding waters, the Royal Air Force sent Prince William, who works as a search and rescue pilot, to the island on a six-week deployment. Although British Foreign Minister William Hague downplayed the deployment, calling it routine, there is no doubt that the deployment makes clear Britain’s view that the Falklands are part of its sovereign territory.
In addition to sending Prince William, the Royal Navy will also be deploying the new £1 billion Type 45 destroyer, HMS Dauntless. This ship has an advanced anti-air capability; in the words of former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West, “should there be any foolish nonsense from Argentina, Dauntless can sit just off the airfield and take down any aircraft coming in.” The capabilities of Dauntless, he claims, are “game-changing,” and, along with a small contingent of Typhoon fighter jets, should be more than enough to dissuade Argentina from any rash action regarding the islands’ sovereignty. If tensions escalate further in the coming months, Britain also has the option to threaten deployment of submarines to the South Atlantic. Britain therefore has a small but technologically advanced garrison available to ensure the islands’ defense.
Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, will no doubt put as much political pressure as she can on Britain over the islands, but she is unlikely to risk an open military conflict. In 1982 the islands were poorly garrisoned and ripe for the taking. Today, with the possibility of large oil deposits, Britain is not going to make the same mistake of leaving the islands unguarded. There will be little enthusiasm for a conflict within Argentina’s government knowing the forces they would be facing, and tensions over the islands are likely to remain a political war of words. However, each new discovery of oil deposits will escalate the conflict, and the tensions are unlikely to disappear.
If Britain wants to retain its ability to project power and protect its assets it may well have to rethink recent proposals to cut its defense budget. Britain was recently able to deploy forces to be used in the Libyan campaign against Gaddafi, but such deployments are not cheap. While the Falklands will no doubt ensure future oil revenues, Britain will also need to guarantee it can project power to multiple regions. It is not hard to imagine a crisis scenario of two security operations like Libya and the defense of the Falklands happening simultaneously. Britain cannot cut its defense budget and still expect to be able to achieve all of its political objectives.
Given the high price of oil, nations will increasingly compete for access to resources, especially as ever-growing populations create demand for them. The tension in the Falklands is only the first incidence of many likely to be repeated elsewhere around the world. Britain will need to ensure that it continues to have the military capability needed to meet such threats.
Photo courtesy of wallygrom via Flickr.