Before we embark on a look at whether a Falklands War could be fought in 2012, I want to add the caveat that here, we are not merely attempting to fight the last war. The Falklands is just a convenient yardstick for judging a fundamental responsibility of Government, our national ability to defend ourselves and our interests. It is, unless the French invade the Channel Islands any time soon, probably the only case in which Britain might have to act unilateraly on the world stage. What we are doing is assessing change over time, comparing 1982 to 2012. In many ways the world has moved on since 1982, so it would inevitably be a very different conflict, much the same as there is hardly likely to be another Battle of Britain any time in the forseeable future.
Any operation at such a distance is inevitably going to be a joint, ‘purple’ operation. In our discussions, I don’t want us to become too centric on any particular Arm or asset. I have no time for single-service narrowmindedness; at some point people need to grow up and consign the spectre of services attempting to out-maneouvre each other to the history books. When armed forces squabble there is only ever one winner – the Treasury.
One aspect that I neglected in my 2009 review, was that of politics – both domestic, regional and international. As Clauszwitz said, war is the pursuit of politics through other means, and this is particularly true of international crises that require military intervention. Very rarely in history have wars been fought for wars sake alone; invariably they are motivated by some kind of politics. Witness the 1982 invasion by Argentina. As this broad spectrum of politics would determine if, when and how a war might be fought, and its potential outcome, it seems only sensible to consider these important factors.
In 1982 Argentina was ruled by a military junta. Fighting a brutal internal war and locked in territorial disputes with neighbours, the Malvinas provided a suitable release valve for serious internal problems. Ostensibly, much has changed since then. But has it? Argentina is led by a person whose chief virtue is that they are the widow of the last President (Democracy, love it). Not only that, but Christina Fernandez-Kirchner has developed a reputation not only for tasteless flirting at international summits, but also coming out with some inflamatory remarks in recent years. Althought it is tempting to think that whilst Argentina is a democracy military action is unlikely, this underestimates the importance of the Malvinas issue to the Argentine psyche – it has the ability to reduce perfectly sane people into a blithering mess. With the global economy in the situation that it is, and with the potential for social and economic unrest, the Malvina’s option is never going to be completely off the table for Buenos Aires.
In 1982 Argentina was pretty much isolated, as military dictatorships invariably tend to be. Locked in territorial disputes with neighbours, she had to retain most of her best troops to stave off a threat from Chile. In 2o12, the scene is quiet different. As a democracy Argentina is very much in from the cold, and recent years have seen something of a South American love in, with characters such as Lula and Chavez supporting Fernandez-Kirchner’s rantings. Whilst much of this is motivated by the popularity of anti-imperialist rhetoric, there have been several cases of latin american countries denying British ships access to facilities, ostensibly at the behest of Buenos Aires. This regional support would extremely unlikely to deter Argentina.
Yet, if Argentina were to unexpectedly invade the Falklands, as an agressive act without provocation, we might see support from South American countries fall away. Britain has defence links with Brazil, and whilst Chile and Argentina are getting on a lot better nowadays, again, Britain has strong links with Chile. The Argentines and Uruguayans also have underlying issues. Thus, whilst Argentina might not be as isolated as she was in 1982, an invasion would not win her any allies.
The current Government clearly believes that there is no threat in the South Atlantic. When posed questions in Parliament about the possiblity of another Falklands War, the Prime Minister simply replied, in a naive Rumsfeldian manner, that as Argentina is a democracy this would be unthinkable.
Putting aside the economic reasoning, the SDSR was, effectively, a 1920’s style 10 year gamble on the part of the Government. That for at least the next ten years, Britain would not have to act on her own militarily, without the aid of allies. Whilst in some respects that is true – invariably Britain acts as part of an alliance, whether it be EU, NATO or otherwise – all the time Britain has interests around the globe, you can never quite discount the need to intervene on your own. Whilst the British Empire is no more – indeed, empires have had their day – there are still Brits around the globe who want to be British, and who deserve our protection. The problem is, that defence cuts rarely deter threats. Quite the opposite.
Crises rarely tap you on the shoulder to give you fair warning just before they explode. Even when they do, you cannot always rely on your Foreign Office to deal with them properly (ahem, Carrington). That is exactly what I am trying to get across here- in an uncertain world, the only certain thing is that you can expect the unexpected. Who foresaw the Arab Spring, and Lybia in particular? No one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And what about the first Gulf War? The moral is very much that you cannot plan for international crises, but you can at least try to put yourself in a position to respond to most scenarios as best you can.
Any Government faced with an invasion of British territory – or any other gross affront to British interests – would be hard pressed to survive. The British public might not be quite the flag waving rabble of Charles and Di’s wedding, but I doubt very much whether any administration surrendering the Falklands would survive. Given the support for the armed forces in recent years, any pictures of being made to lie prostate on the ground would provoke outrage. In 1982 Thatcher was able to turn things around by hook and crook, but whether that would be possible in 2012 is another matter.
In 1982 the issue was very clear – the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were British, and wanted to remain British. In that sense, Britain was acting to defend their rights of self-determination, to live under the sovereignty of their choosing. Virtually all of the Falkland Islanders are of British descent, and whilst there are allegations of Imperialism, in many cases Falklands families have been living there longer than Spanish-descended Argentines have been living in South America. Any Government abandoning the Falkland Islanders to Argentina against their will could expect to be relegated to the opposition benches pretty sharpish, particularly given the place that the Falklands holds in British culture after 1982.
The issue of citizenship, sovereignty and self-determination still remains, yet since 2009 a huge new issue has arisen – that of black gold. Huge fossil fuel reserves have been discovered in the South Atlantic off the Falkland Islands, and ownership of the territorial waters brings with it the right to explore for gas and oil. It might be a coincidence, but Argentine bluff and bluster since the discovery has increased considerably.
Lucrative natural resources have had the ability to cause war more than any other factor in the past 25 or so years. And with the global economy in the doldrums, any means of making money is going to be sought after. Any businesses looking to drill for oil in the South Atlantic will exert considerable lobbying pressure on the UK Government, and indeed on other Governments. The Government might also be more inclined to act to support oil companies, more than it would for a few thousands kelpers. The same goes for fishing rights, albeit on not such a money-spinning level.
United Nations and global opinion
The policy of the United Nations – Security Council and General Assembly – has been unequivocal in its policy on the Falklands – Britain and Argentina should resume negotiations towards a peaceful settlement. Quite how these negotations should come about, what should be negotiated and what a peaceful settlement would comprise, has never been elaborated. Thus the UN, sadly as usual, is as intransigent as it could possibly be.
Any un-mitigated invasion of the Falklands would no doubt be brought before the Security Council. Of the 5 permanent members, the UK would of course vote for action, the US and France would probably be swayed towards the British cause, however China may prove more difficult. And with the current frosty state of relations between Britain and Russia, help from that direction can probably be discounted. The chance of any resolution going through without a veto from one of the permanent 5 members seems unlikely. When we consider the rest of the membership, it is also unlikely that all of them would vote for Britain – anti-colonialism is hot political currency these days, and the non-aligned movement has gained influence in the past few years.
As a key member of the EU and NATO, Britain could in theory call on support from these quarters. However, as in 1982, I would find it hard to believe that France would lend us Charles de Gaulle, or that the US would provide AWACS for us. The best we could probably hope for is sanctions to be placed on Argentina, covert assistance with supplies and basing, and help in covering for our standing patrols, such as in the Gulf or off the horn of Africa, in order to free up slack for a Task Force. We might find ourselves in need of more Tomahawks at some point, in which case we would have to go cap in hand to the US.