Britain to Boost Falklands Defenses, Argentina Eyes Russia

HMS Clyde patrols in waters around the  Falkland Islands, December 5, 2014
HMS Clyde patrols in waters around the Falkland Islands, December 5, 2014 (MoD/Jay Allen)

Britain will boost its defenses in the Falkland Islands, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said on Tuesday, as Argentina was reportedly considering to lease bomber planes from Russia in return for beef exports.

Argentina still poses a “very live threat” to the British-ruled islands, Fallon said.

“The principle threat to the islands remains,” he told lawmakers in London. “I am confident that, following this review, we have the right deployment.”

Fallon told Parliament the government would spend £180 million over the next decade to boost the security of the islands. Personnel involved in their defense would remain at around 1,200.

The minister earlier told the BBC, “We do need to modernize our defences there to make sure we have sufficient troops and the islands are sufficiently defended.”

Four Typhoon combat aircraft are currently deployed to the islands as are a large Royal Navy warship and a small patrol ship.

The United Kingdom operates three helicopter carriers but no aircraft carriers which were instrumental in retaking the islands from Argentina after it invaded in 1982. The first of two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers is due to enter service in 2017.

Argentina has stepped up its claims since 2010 when oil was found in a field north of the archipelago.

Last week, Argentinian and Russian officials agreed in Moscow to expand military cooperation between their nations. Unconfirmed reports on Tuesday said Russia had offered to lease twelve long-range bombers to the Latin American state.

Supporting Argentina’s claims in the Falklands could be a way for Russia to retaliate against Western sanctions. Britain was among the most forceful in calling for punitive measures after Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year.

Britain has ruled the Falklands for almost two centuries and the overwhelming majority of its roughly 3,000 inhabitants are of British descent.

In a 2013 referendum, all but three of the island’s voters said they wanted the Falklands to remain an overseas British territory.

The islands are situated some five hundred kilometers off the Patagonian coast.

Falklanders Defy Argentina, Vote to Remain British

Government House in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, January 13, 2011
Government House in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, January 13, 2011 (Liam Quinn)

Residents of the Falkland Islands voted overwhelmingly to remain an overseas dependency of the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sunday and Monday, defying increasingly aggressive Argentinian claims of sovereignty over the islands which are situated some five hundred kilometers off the Patagonian coast.

The vast majority of Falkland Islanders, numbering less than 3,000, is of British descent and content with their present political status which gives them a high degree of autonomy while remaining nominally part of the United Kingdom.

Neighboring Argentina has long claimed possession of the islands. While it failed to take them by force in 1982, the country, coping with lackluster economic growth, rampant public spending and high inflation, insists that the Malvinas, as the islands are known in Spanish, are Argentinian territory.

“Malvinas is not an Argentine cause, it is a global cause, because in the Malvinas they are taking our oil and fishing resources,” President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner told a summit of Latin American leaders in Montevideo in late 2011. Earlier, she had called Britain a “crude colonial power in decline” and vowed to “reclaim” the Falklands.

An opinion poll conducted by YouGov for Sky News found that only 15 percent of Argentinians believe that the Falklanders ought to have a say in their own future. The government in Buenos Aires has dismissed the referendum as “irrelevant.”

An opinion poll in Britain, by contrast, found that 77 percent of voters there agree that the future of the Falklands should be decided by its inhabitants.

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron told lawmakers in July 2011, “As long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory. Full stop, end of story.”

Roger Edwards, a former Royal Marine who served in the Falklands War and is now a member of the islands’ Legislative Assembly, told news media before the vote that he hoped the referendum would send “a very clear message to the world that the Falkland Islanders wish to remain as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom with the right to determine their own future.” He added, “We were settled here before Argentina was even a state.”

Argentina’s Claim to Falklands a Travesty

Flag of Argentina
Flag of Argentina (Noel Hidalgo)

Of late, the Argentinian government has objected to continued Royal Naval deployments to the British overseas territory of the Falkland Islands which are situated some three hundred miles from Argentina’s coast in the South Atlantic.

Buenos Aires under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has since the end of last year made demands and claims over the islands, seeking to take Britain to international arbitration in hopes of gaining support for its case.

It has, from celebrities including musician Morrissey and the American actor Sean Penn. They have made statements supporting Kirchner’s policy and damning Britain’s possession of the islands as an anachronism.

Accusations have been made of Britain “militarizing” the issue via deploying “more” naval forces and prominent people, though how the dispatching of the Duke of Cambridge to the islands to learn air-sea rescue methods, or rotating a T45 destroyer through the Falklands station simply because it was its turn, is “militarizing the issue” does not make sense to anyone aware of the concept of training deployments.

Indeed, it seems more like an excuse from the Argentinians to raise the issue. Héctor Timerman, the country’s foreign minister, even claimed that his government had information that, within the framework of the recent British deployment in the Falklands, a nuclear submarine with the capacity to transport atomic weapons to the South Atlantic, was dispatched.

This is most odd, considering it is British policy to not reveal the presence of Royal Navy subs. So is Timerman lying? Or has he been spying?

It is quite likely that a British nuclear submarine passes through the area on a regular basis, owing to the method of British deterrence — to have the boats out at sea constantly moving. So this seems another excuse to cry foul when no foul has been committed.

It also ignores the fact that, should it be deemed necessary, a nuclear weapon fired from a British vessel could hit Buenos Aires with equal damage and accuracy regardless of being launched from Port Stanley in the Falklands or Port Ellen in Scotland.

The official British stance has been fairly solid since the end of the 1982 conflict. The islanders, it is believed via public demonstration of the Falklands inhabitants and their observable content, wish to retain their British citizenship and their homes on the islands. As the only inhabitants since settlement in 1840 other than penguins (the previous human settlement being in turn a naval station and an Argentinian penal colony lost in a mutiny), it could not be considered too brazen that it should be the current inhabitants and their wishes which should be the deciding will over the issue.

The islanders, who number British, with some French, Chilean, Scandinavian and Gibraltan stock, have raised multiple generations on the isles and received British citizenship in 1983.

What is more, their interests should be safeguarded by international convention. The United Nations Charter states clearly that the purpose of the organization is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” Not, as Argentina would will it, the defiance of such respectable convention and the wishes of the people who have lived on the Falklands for generations.

That the question of the islanders’ right to live there and their wishes should be questioned by Argentina, a state mostly made up of Spanish settlers which is barely older than the British claim over the islands, is downright absurd.

With the prospecting of fossil fuels in the waters surrounding the islands, it is likely that an ever desperate Argentina, whose economic affairs are in poor shape, will continue demands and claims but what is worse, under the false flag of justice, it may win the day while the rights and wishes of the people who have lived on the islands as their great grandparents did, will be swept aside to conform with some calculated misunderstanding and misrepresentation of “innocent” Argentina and the false allegations of imperial conquest propagated by whining celebrities.

The only conquerors in this tableau were the Argentinian forces in 1982, which incidentally was probably the longest period of Argentine presence on the island since human settlement began there.

The only just course of action for Her Majesty’s Government is to continue the wall of silence to all comers, Argentine or the inevitable United Nations committee they wrangle, until the rights of the inhabitants are to be respected and then there will be no need for talks.

Perhaps when the majority of Argentina’s population returns to Spain, the Falkland Islands can be given back to the penguins?

Peru Displays “Latin American Solidarity,” Britain Shrugs

In what was explained as a display of “Latin American support for Argentina’s legitimate rights,” Peru on Monday disallowed a British frigate to dock in one of its ports.

According to Peru’s foreign minister, “This decision has been made to honor our commitment with the UNASUR” — an interregional body that includes all South American nations except French Guyana — and in recognition of “Argentina’s legitimate rights regarding the Malvinas, South Georgia and South Sandwich islands and their surrounding maritime territories.”

The “Malvinas” are the Falkland Islands, situated nearly three hundred miles off the southeastern coast of Argentina.

HMS Montrose, on routine deployment in the South Atlantic, was set to dock in Lima’s port of Callao on Thursday for a friendly visit.

At a UNASUR summit in Asunción in November however, Peru endorsed Argentina’s claim to the Falklands and condemned the British military presence in the area.

Argentinean president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had earlier declared the island dispute “not an Argentine cause” but “a global cause, because in the Malvinas they are taking our oil and fishing resources.” She has also labeled Britain a “crude colonial power in decline” and vowed to “reclaim” the Falklands.

Britain has enjoyed sovereignty over the Falklands since the eighteenth century and asserted its control over the archipelago in 1833 and 1982. On both occasions, it was unsuccessfully challenged by the Argentinians.

The dispute has escalated in recent years after British companies began exploring for oil in waters surrounding the islands.

There appears to be little chance of Argentina staging another invasion attempt. Its naval capacity, for one thing, has barely improved since the 1980s when the South American country most recently tried to conquer the islands.

The United Kingdom, for its part, shrugged off the Peruvian decision as little more than regrettable. For good measure, the British embassy in Lima added in a statement that the government in London “remains fully committed to the Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination. This position will not change.”

“Nuclear Submarine Should Be Sent to Falklands”

A British Trident submarine departs Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, Scotland, August 15, 2007
A British Trident submarine departs Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, Scotland, August 15, 2007 (JohnED76)

The British government on Wednesday warned that there should be no doubt about its commitment to supporting the Falklands Islands after Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay banned ships that fly the islands’ “illegal” flag from their ports.

Admiral Alan William John West, a former Royal Navy chief and security minister in the last cabinet, suggested that Britain dispatch a nuclear submarine to the South Atlantic and stage military exercises there to express its displeasure at the “outrageous behavior” of Argentina and its neighbors.

“Far from trying to settle in a grownup way and having better and better relationships with the Falkland islanders, they are upping the ante and becoming very confrontational,” he told the London Evening Standard.

Britain has claimed sovereignty over the Falklands since the eighteenth century and asserted its control over the archipelago in 1833 and 1982. On both occasions, it was challenged by the Argentinians. Admiral West commanded a frigate that was sunk by Argentine forces during the latter conflict. Twenty-two of his crew died in the attack.

The island dispute has escalated in recent years after British companies began exploring for oil in waters surrounding the Falklands which lie four hundred nautical miles off the Argentine coast. President Cristina Kirchner accused Britain of plundering her country’s resources this week.

“Malvinas is not an Argentine cause, it is a global cause, because in the Malvinas they are taking our oil and fishing resources,” she told a summit of Latin American leaders in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. She’s previously labeled Britain a “crude colonial power in decline” and vowed to “reclaim” the Falklands.

There appears to be little chance of Argentina staging another invasion attempt however. Its naval capacity, for one thing, has barely improved since the 1980s when the South American country most recently tried to conquer the islands. Fearful of a military coup, Argentina’s civilian government has consistently underfunded the armed forces.

The country is gathering international support to open the issue up to negotiation, not just from its neighbors but from the Americans as well.

This summer, the United States voted in favor of a “draft declaration on the question of the Malvinas Islands” that was subsequently adopted by the Organization of American States by unanimous consent. Rather than siding with its Atlantic ally, the Obama Administration implicitly legitimized efforts to Argentinize the islands, urging the United Kingdom to enter into negotiations with Buenos Aires.

Prime Minister David Cameron rejected calls to negotiate, telling parliament this summer, “as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory. Full stop, end of story.”

No matter Argentine pretensions, the Falklanders appear to have no desire to be part of their eastern neighbor, rather they are steadfast in their willingness to remain subjects of the British Crown. Of the 3,000 islanders, some 20 percent are British.

Obama Undermines British Claims in Falklands

A Royal Marine statue commemorating the Falklands War in Portsmouth, England, February 25, 2007
A Royal Marine statue commemorating the Falklands War in Portsmouth, England, February 25, 2007 (Des Morris)

President Barack Obama claims to be a staunch proponent of his country’s “special relationship” with the United Kingdom but when it comes to the sensitive Falklands issue, his administration insists on stabbing a longtime ally in the back.

Last week, the United States supported a “draft declaration on the question of the Malvinas Islands” adopted by the Organization of American States by unanimous consent. Referring to the islands by their Argentine name, the resolution calls upon Argentina and Britain to enter into negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falklands.

The resolution comes in the wake of mounting pressure from the Argentinians over the issue, including threats to blockade British shipping in the South Atlantic. In endorsing the resolution, the United States sided not only with Argentina but blatantly anti-American regimes in the region, including Hugo Chávez’ Venezuela and Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, as well.

Washington backed a similar resolution last year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear in a joint press conference with President Cristina Kirchner in Buenos Aires in March 2010 that the Obama Administration supported Argentina’s call for negotiations over the islands.

The British have claimed the Falklands since the eighteenth century and asserted their control over the archipelago in 1833 and 1982 when it was challenged by the Argentinians. The latter conflict is remembered as the Falklands War when Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government successfully regained the islands after an Argentine invasion. The United States under Ronald Reagan clearly and explicitly supported the British war effort at the time.

No matter Argentine pretensions, the Falklanders have no desire to be part of their eastern neighbor and remain steadfast in their willingness to remain subjects of the British Crown. Yet the Obama Administration insists that Britain “negotiate” over the fate of the 3,000 islanders, some 20 percent of whom are British, as though there’s any legitimacy to Argentina’s claim after it failed to take the islands by force.

As Prime Minister Thatcher reminded the world in an address to the House of Commons after the Argentine invasion in April 1982, the Falklands are, and always will be, British.

The people of the Falkland Islands, like the people of the United Kingdom, are an island race. Their way of life is British; their allegiance is to the Crown. They are few in number, but they have the right to live in peace, to choose their own way of life and to determine their own allegiance. It is the wish of the British people and the duty of Her Majesty’s Government to do everything that we can to uphold that right.

During his recent visit to the United Kingdom, President Obama agreed that the Anglo-American relationship remains “essential” and he praised both nations as “indispensable in this moment in history” as the values shared by Americans and Britons are resonating powerfully across the world. One such value is the right of self-determination which the Falklanders deserve as much as the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square whom the president so professed to admire. Another is loyalty among allies.

The Current Problem in the Falklands

Johnson's Harbor on East Falkland Island, March 20, 2007
Johnson’s Harbor on East Falkland Island, March 20, 2007 (Ben Tubby)

In 1982 the Buenos Aires government under General Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands off the south coast of Argentina with a force of several thousand soldiers, overwhelming the garrison of Royal Marines stationed on the island. On the same day the Royal Navy was ordered to assemble a task force to reclaim the Falklands by force. The history of the conflict can be found in many books but despite a British victory exacting over six hundred Argentine lives the causes of the war persist to this day, at least in Argentina.

The claim to the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas as they are known to Argentinians) is one of proximity and historical claim; i.e., that they are much nearer to the Argentina than they are to Britain. Secondly Argentina, after gaining independence from Spain, sent a ship to use the islands as a penal colony. This was never accomplished due to a mutiny aboard the vessel. In 1833 a British force arrived and claimed the desolate islands. They have since seen the establishment of settlements, from which grew the current population of Falkland islanders. In the minds of Argentinians however, the islands are “rightfully” theirs.

To the cynic, the only thing that matters is the probability of oil resources under the waters surrounding the islands. Argentina as a developing state would understandably wish to tap this ever scarce resource and Britain is understandably no different. A burgeoning hydrocarbon resource would be a huge boon to any state in the current economic conditions and this conflict easily stands out as one of a new type we are likely to see more of in the coming decades; resource related disputes. Once upon a time these base causes for war were the alpha and omega of conflict but have been considered “unjust” in more recent terms. Land, oil, water are things that people find distasteful to fight for in the modern era.

What is more the population of the Islands; the Falklanders who have been there since the 1830s, remain steadfast in their willingness to remain subjects of the British Crown. It is this reason which mostly takes the priority at the Foreign Office and when questioned, it refers to Chapter 1, Article 1, Part 2 of the United Nations Charter which states that the purpose of the organization is, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” The claims and cause of conflict of the islands therefore come down to the following:

Argentinian claim

  • Proximity to Argentina
  • Economic interest: Oil resources exist outside Argentine waters but on “Argentine continental region”
  • Historical claim: The Buenos Aires government in its infancy had “intent” to use the island before the establishment of British control but this never achieved fruition
  • The belief that the islands are “morally” Argentinian due to the “evil” ways of European imperial powers

British claim

  • Legal claim: Right to self-determination of the Falkland islanders under international law
  • Economic interest: Oil resources exist within Falklands waters
  • Historical claim: Have been a British territory since 1833
  • Won the 1982 conflict
  • Geostrategic position provides a friendly port of call for Western vessels navigating the Caoe

Current Argentine head of state President Cristina Kirchner has insisted that her approach will be one of peace in her ongoing presidential pledge to reclaim the islands for Argentina. In the recent Rio conference she acquired considerable support among her fellow South American leaders, particularly from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez who directly challenged Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in a strange tirade. “Queen of England, I’m talking to you,” said Chávez. “The time for empires is over, haven’t you noticed? Return the Malvinas to the Argentine people.”

To the average Briton on the street this seems mad, in keeping with the general appreciation of Chavez’ personality. However, in South America, according to one Telegraph correspondent, Her Majesty is believed a potent element of British domestic and international government, despite having no seat in any international forum or either house of British Parliament.

The Argentinian foreign minister even approached Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, for discussion of the matter within the UN — with little result. The UN can do little however, as only those decisions made by the Security Council can be considered binding and this, at the moment, is no matter for that chamber of the United Nations.

The position of the Foreign Office in this has been quiet so far, merely reasserting that the stance of the British government is that the Falkland Islands are British, largely due to the rights of self-determination of the islanders.

In the British press, reactions have been mixed, much more so than in 1982 when there was a much greater level of unified thought that the islands were British. Perhaps much has changed since ’82 and people here now see the islands as an imperial throwback but, if this truly is the new world order of multilateralism and international law, surely it is up to the population of the Falkland Islands to decide, as is their right.

The position of Chile and the United States in the issue have also been of considerable debate. In 1982, Chile, under General Pinochet, was the sworn enemy of Argentina and assisted the British effort to reclaim the islands by launching a large offensive along the Chilean-Argentine border. America’s president at the time, Ronald Reagan, got on famously with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher whose decision it was to reclaim the islands. The same cannot be said of today’s American president nor of the British prime minister.

The United States’ official stance is one of studied neutrality, with an offer to mediate which has put a strain on the “special relationship.” In the Blair-Bush years this certainly would have been different and the current situation is certainly a symptom of the ongoing estrangement between the two formerly close allies due to personalities.

Obama is, we must accept, an anti-British president with a secretary of state barely worth that title. This is hardly surprising due to his family connection to Mau Mau terrorism in 1960s Kenya. It however serves as a harsh slap in the face to a British public who have seen considerable blood and treasure spent in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. While in the United States, the close alliance with Britain in the Blaire-Bush years may be seen as symptom of that friendship but among the British population it was certainly a willingness to support the American people and their forces in the post-9/11 security environment.

The differentiation is an important one to be considered by the Obama Administration which has so far gained a reputation of putting former adversaries above old friends. The impacts could be profound, with the United States no longer considered a credible security partner to anywhere near the same extent as it was just years ago.

Whatever the diplomatic conditions and movements at present, the military question remains. Royal Navy activity has increased in the area with deployments of warships and subsurface craft. Whether Britain could refight the Falklands War with its current capability is a bone of contention in many places. The current forces in the region are considerably larger than in 1982, with vessels already in place, a proper runway with a hand full of Eurofighter aircraft and 1,000 Royal Marines.

However, with the current British commitment to Afghanistan and residual forces in Iraq, it is questionable if much more could be mounted for a Falklands defense should Argentina choose a military option. Certainly they have the political support to do so within South America, perhaps even militarily from Venezuela.

If we presume that British territory is sovereign and more important than other commitments, as makes sense, then the withdrawal of some 6,000troops from Afghanistan and Royal Navy vessels from Afghan and Somali duties could be needed for a relief effort. (Contrary to popular belief, most aerial sorties in Afghanistan are conducted from American and British aircraft carriers.) The Royal Navy is currently much smaller than it was in 1982 and it has been the consideration of many in the know that now (being before the launch of the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier) would be a perfect time, militarily, for Argentine action. Conveniently, it also seems a politically opportune time with the appearance, if not concrete, of trans-South American support and a decisive neutrality stance from the United States.

The upshot is that things are very tense right now. That is not to say that they haven’t been like this since 1982; they have been but right now things seem to be headed more to some kind of conclusion, albeit perhaps a temporary one, than they have since 1982.

In the unlikely event that some level of conflict should arise, then it is highly questionable if Britain could meet the requirements for the defense of Falkland islanders and the British workers on board the hyrdocarbon platform in the region. The Obama Administration’s position has put a serious strain on Anglo-American relations, the severity of which may be small or, in time, large but only time will tell. What is certain is that, should the British government in any way “lose” the islands to Argentina, it would be a sad time for the right of self-determination which should be a prime concern in Buenos Aires, London and at the United Nations in New York. In Britain, with an election imminent, weakness for Gordon Brown over the Falklands will be jumped on by the Conservatives like hounds on a wounded stag, while strength could add a string to Brown’s bow.