Where's the Beef in the Falklands Defence Review?

Posted on Thursday 16th April 2015

London has soberly reassessed the military situation in the Falklands and, as a result, will be modestly enhancing the Falklands’ deterrent (or, if you’re reading this in Buenos Aires, embarking on further massive militarisation of the southern hemisphere). This news competed heroically for headline space here in the UK, especially considering that the announcement by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was rather less than blood curdling.
There have been plenty of other events of high news calibre going on in Britain and Europe, among them, of course, an impending general election. Then there is an increasingly bolshie Russia, which has warned Nat that it would be prepared to use nuclear weapons if the alliance defends the Baltic states, which Moscow considers its zone of interest. And there was the appalling deliberate German Wings crash in the Alps, Iranian nuclear talks and the on-going battle against the creatures that call themselves ISIS.
Given the richness of this media soup, it was surprising that a story linked to a conflict 32 years back in history was able to struggle to the surface and tread water for a day or two.
It surprised me, even though I’d been hoping for an announcement of this kind ever since I interviewed a former Commander British Forces Falklands for my book, Fortress Falklands – Life Under Siege in Britain's Last Outpost. He told me that he believed the MOD had been enjoying a false sense of security about the Falklands for a decade or more, allowing them to withdraw Falklands kit to ease the effect of defence cuts, or redeploy assets, such as Chinook helicopters, to Iraq and Afghanistan. This weakening was not exactly a signal that Fortress Falklands was weak, but it did nothing to discourage Buenos Aires from raising the temperature of its rhetoric.

Ground forces are to be enhanced by the return of two Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, as shown above.

I felt, however, that Michael Fallon’s announcement was neither strong enough in tone (he could have taken a lesson from the Russians) or in content to send a serious signal. A promise of £280m spending over a number of years, including improvements to the school at Mt Pleasant hardly chills the blood. Yes, he did announce that the mobility of ground forces would be enhanced by the return of two Chinook heavy-lift choppers. And ground-to-air defences would be modernised when the Rapier system is eventually replaced with a new missile. But the Chinooks never should have left the Falklands, and now they are back from Afghanistan, they have to be based somewhere, so why not the Falklands. The missiles? Well, it stands to reason that when the Rapier is too old for further use, it must be replaced by something.
The whole announcement seemed tepid. Unless I’m very much mistaken the notoriously cautious Foreign Office suits and the shadowy special advisors from MOD and Number 10 wielded their red pens over Michael Fallon’s script, making him sound and even look a little like John Le Mesurier’s gentle Sergeant Wilson. However there was enough in this cautious announcement for the news analysts to get their teeth into. The Argentine commentators, predictably enough, tended to say that the British had it all wrong: Argentina simply is not interested in raising the military tension around the Falklands. And anyway, they don’t have the wherewithal even to take and sustain one of the outlying western islands, so there is no need for a deterrent at all. British pundits said something similar: even with the Russian attack aircraft that Putin may lend, lease or flog to the Fuerza Aerea Argentina, Buenos Aires does not have the money, the men, the ships or the bullets to mount a re-run of 1982.

The Falkland Islands Defence Force on patrol.

The analysts on both sides missed the point. We are no longer in the world of 1982. No one, not even the most hawkish Argentine officer, is considering a second invasion. However, if – as seems likely – Buenos Aires acquires Russian Sukhoi Su 24 attack jets with an operational range of some 2,750 kms, it will change the balance of power in the area. Britain will have to increase its air and naval deterrent very significantly and – crucially – very expensively. Then those suits in Whitehall might well start asking whether it is all worth it. 'Should not some diplomatic feelers be extended?'
Factor-in the new offshore oil industry which promises great wealth for the Islands as well as spin-offs for the UK (a second important field has just been identified), and the unspoken threat from a new air force becomes far more chilling. Rigs and platforms could become notional targets for Putin’s lend-lease Su 24s. If Buenos Aires were to voice such a threat, it would be outrageous, but the rubric is already in place. It is but a short rhetorical step from stating that 'Oil companies active in the Falklands will face legal charges,' to 'We cannot guarantee the security of such oil companies’ assets in the seas around the Falklands.' Such a threat would have oil companies and their insurance companies thinking very carefully about their commitment.
This is a febrile time. A new Cold War is upon us and Vladimir Putin would quite like to see a proxy conflict against Britain. So such a scenario is feasible. That is why the British Government is absolutely correct to reassess the Islands' defences and to beef them up. The problem is that the conclusions, as expressed by Michael Fallon, go nowhere near far enough to address the threat and present an unequivocal message to Buenos Aires. At some point he will be required to make another statement. Let’s hope that it is one that carries a good deal more punch.
HMS Dragon, one of the Royal Navy's most modern destroyers,

SPecial offer:
About the author
Graham Bound was born in the Falkland Islands, where he was the founding editor of the local newspaper, Penguin News. Although now living in London, he still contributes a regular column to the paper. He was living in the Falklands at the time of the 1982 invasion, and that experience led to his first book for Pen and Sword, Falkland Islanders at War. Based on over 100 interviews with Islanders and combatants from both sides, the book tells the story of the invasion, occupation and conflict from the point of view of the local population. The book was subsequently updated considerably, and republished by Pen and Sword as Invasion 1982.
Graham moved to the UK in 1992, where he worked as a broadcaster with BBC World Service Radio and as a freelance writer. He was an assistant editor on Soldier Magazine, and reported from operational areas around the world, including Iraq and Kosovo. He later became a senior information officer at the MOD, where he was Editor of the MOD publication Defence Focus. His last MOD post was to the Cross Departmental Afghanistan Communications Team, which coordinated communications strategy around Afghanistan for Number 10 Downing Street. He has now returned to private freelance work, and recently went home to the Falklands to research and write Fortress Falklands – Life Under Siege in Britain's Last Outpost. This is a frank assessment of the threat still posed by Argentina and the remarkable changes that have taken place in the islands – not least the discovery of oil – since 1982. In his spare time, Graham spends time at his remote cabin in the Falklands, sailing in warmer seas than the Falklands can offer, and walking his cockapoo dog Booboo.

Falklands farmer Neil Watson holds the rusting helmet of an Argentine soldier who occupied his land in 1982.

Further Reading

Fortress Falklands
(Paperback - 232 pages)
ISBN: 9781848847453

by Graham Bound
Only £19.99

Since the war of 1982, the 3,000 people who live in the remote Falkland Islands have replaced traditional colonial rule with their own autonomous government, and become wealthy from the sale of fishing licences. Now oil has been discovered, and it promises almost unimaginable wealth. Money has already transformed this tiny society – not always for the better. But home-grown challenges are as nothing compared to the threat from their neighbour, Argentina.

The oil discoveries have fuelled Argentina's ambitions to take the Islands that they believe were…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...