The parallels with 1982 are all to worrying. An aggressively-sounding Government in Buenos Aries (even though technically Democratic), a newly elected but unpopular Conservative Government seeking to slash public expenditure, and economic problems in both countries.
In 1982 the Secretary of State for Defence had just implemented a Defence Review the previous year. It was conducted in the context of economic problems, a Thatcher-led desire to slash budgets, and a Soviet build-up during the era of ‘reaganomics’. Nott’s solution was to concentrate almost solely on Britain’s role in NATO. The purchase of Trident was confirmed. The British Army of the Rhine, although the centrepiece of British defence within NATO, was to be limited to 55,000 men. The Royal Navy was to lose one fifth of its 60 Destroyers and Frigates. Aircraft Carriers were to be phased out, with the sale of HMS Hermes and the newly-built ‘through deck cruiser‘ HMS Invincible. Amphibious ships were to be scrapped too, meaning the end of HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless. Essentially, the Navy was to become an anti-submarine force to operate in the North Sea, North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. The ability to act independently out of the NATO area was effectively being given up. And amongst other things, the Royal Navy Dockyards were to be drastically wound down and privatised, meaning thousands of redundancies. One of the lesser-known items in the review was the withdrawal of the antartic patrol ship, HMS Endurance.
These proposals were underway when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982. The kind of crisis that the Nott review hard ruled out had happened. Reportedly MOD Civil Servants were most upset that the Falklands War had scuppered their beautiful review. When the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, obtained permission from Margaret Thatcher to assemble a Task Force, apparently John Nott went as white as a sheet. He knew that his career was finished. Somehow I cant help feeling that for a lot of people their careers were more important than the fate of British Citizens in the South Atlantic, and the fate of the men sent to fight for them.
The upshot of the Falklands War was that almost everything that had been offered up as savings was rescued at the eleventh hour. Hermes was sold, but the three Invincible Class Carriers -as we are allowed to call them now – were retained. Fearless and Intrepid were reprieved, and replaced with HMS Albion and Bulwark recently. HMS Ocean has also added to the Royal Navy’s expeditionary capability. Endurance was also reprieved, and replaced in the early 1990’s with a modern vessel. The Destroyer and Frigate fleet was pegged – in the short term – at 55 ships.
The cost of the Falklands War – financial, human, and material – has been far in excess of the relatively meagre savings sought by Nott. The hundreds of lives lost in 1982. The ships sunk, aircraft lost, ammunition expended. The cost of a sizeable garrison, and building a military base at Mount Pleasant. The Falklands Island has had a patrol ship, a Frigate or Destroyer on guard, and auxiliary vessels since the war. The running cost – to this day, and still rising – must be incredible. All inspired to save a few quid. Evidence, if any is needed, that Defence cuts can be shortsighted and a false economy. Argentinian sources suggest that the decision to invade, although largely spurred on by domestic unrest, was further emboldened by the Nott cuts. The Junta’s reasoning was that if the British were cutting their forces – and the ice patrol ship in particular – not only would they be unable to respond to an invasion, but they obviously did not care about their overseas posessions enough to defend them in the first place.
Fortunately, British resolve was restored by the war. Although it is tragic that in the modern world we even need to resort to force, had Britain capitulated in 1982 we would, in Henry Leach’s words, have been living in a very different country were words counted for little. Britain’s role as a force on the world state was maintained, a brutal military dictatorship fell, and the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact received a timely reminder of the quality of NATO standard troops. But all by the skin of our teeth, and if Nott’s cuts had been fully implemented, we would have not been able to act.
Whilst Mrs Thatcher received plaudits for her handling of the Falklands War, more searching inquiries suggest that the war needn’t have happened in the first place. If only the Foreign Office under Lord Carrington had not been so clueless, the Defence Secretary not so subservient, and if Thatcher had not been so single minded and ideological in wishing to strip public spending. Worryingly, the upcoming Defence Review may once again remove Britain’s ability to react adequately to any crisis in the world, particularly in the South Atlantic. This cannot have been lost on the Argentinians. Do we really trust David Cameron and ‘Boy’ George Osborne to sort things out for us if their cuts go badly wrong?