Click on the graphic below to make it readable:
Things are hotting up again in the South Atlantic between Britain and Argentina. That’s right, the Falkland Islands are back. The long-standing tensions between the two countries flared up again earlier this month when Britain announced plans to begin offshore exploration drilling near the remote islands. The problem is that Argentina still claims sovereignty (sovereignty over the Falklands is even written in to the Argentine Constitution) over the archipelago nearly three decades after the end of the Falklands War in which more than 1,000 people died (including 649 Argentine and 255 British service personnel).
Last year Argentina submitted a claim to the United Nations for a vast expanse of ocean that overlaps the Falklands and Britain’s exclusion zone. The Argentinians are claiming rights over the area based on research into the extent of the continental shelf, stretching to the Antarctic and including the Falklands.
The history of the Falklands is complex. The British had a small settlement there from 1766. When it was abandoned in 1774, the territory became part of Argentina. Then, in 1883, the British seized the islands by force. The Argentinians briefly recaptured the islands during the 1982 war, but Britain reclaimed them after just 74 days.
Despite this, Argentina has always maintained sovereignty over the islands, which it calls Islas Malvinas. It has previously threatened any company exploring for oil and gas in the waters around the territory.
Why now and what’s at stake? Geologists estimate there are up to 60 billions of barrels of oil and many, many trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in the seabed near the Falklands and Desire Petroleum (a British company) is due to begin drilling 100 miles north of the islands before the end of this month.
Below is a picture of the massive oil drilling platform, Ocean Guardian, which has now arrived in the Falkland Islands:
Sixty billion barrels is a lot of oil. That’s 60,000,000,000 barrels of oil. Wars have been started for a lot less and Britain is stretched awfully thin right now. As I always say – Weakness, or the perception thereof, is provocative…
So, suppose Argentina decided to invade the Falkland Islands again. Does the United Kingdom of 2010 have what it would take to wrest the islands back again from Argentina?
Britain has 1,076 “service personnel” from all three forces on the Falklands, but the territory has a total population of only 3,000. So, even if some of the 3,000 inhabitants chose to help defend the Falkland Islands along with the British service personnel from Argentine invasion forces, this is clearly not a sufficient force to resist a determined invasion.
Consider these comments from Captain Michael Clapp who participated in the 1982 conflict:
We approached the Falklands in almost perfect conditions. The thick fog hid us from the prowling Argentine bombers. Unfortunately, our luck didn’t last. The following morning, the clouds lifted, the sun came out – and we became sitting ducks.
As Commander of the Amphibious Task Group, I had 5,000 troops and huge quantities of arms, ammunition and supplies to disembark in San Carlos Bay, an area that soon became known as ‘Bomb Alley’.
It didn’t take long for the first Argentine jets to arrive. Hidden by the high ground until the very last minute, they screamed overhead, dropping their bombs on anything they saw.
Thank goodness our two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, were stationed well offshore, near enough for their Sea Harrier fighters to give our Argentine attackers something else to think about, but far enough away to be largely out of danger. For make no mistake, had one of our carriers been sunk, we would have lost the war.
Many other ships, however, couldn’t be kept out of harm’s way. We lost ships in San Carlos Bay: the frigates Ardent and Antelope – the latter to a heroically brave but unsuccessful attempt to defuse an unexploded bomb. No one can forget the later attack on the Sir Galahad, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary landing vessel on which so many brave Welsh Guards lost their lives in an appalling inferno.
Those losses stay with me now. But those men died doing what they were trained to do and in the execution of one of the most ambitious and daring sea-borne invasions in British naval history. At times, it was undoubtedly a close run thing – but the objective of reclaiming the Falklands for Great Britain was achieved magnificently.
So as as the sound of political sabre rattling returns to the South Atlantic, could we repeat that success today? I’m not doubting the resolve of our armed forces – our soldiers, sailors and airmen have a long and proud track record of plucking success from adversity – but I’m sorry to say that we no longer have the ships and equipment to launch a sea-borne attack on an enemy on the other side of the world.
When I was helicoptered on to the decks of HMS Fearless on April 6, 1982, in filthy weather and in the middle of the English Channel, I was joining a task force that would eventually number 111 ships. Today – after spending cuts that have seen defence budgets slashed from 5 to 2.5 per cent of GDP – the once formidable Royal Navy now numbers barely 40 major ships and submarines.
True, not all of the 1982 Task Force ships were Royal Navy vessels – there were civilians ships, too. Twenty-two belonged to the Royal Fleet Auxilary, and the Merchant Navy came up with 42 of their own, such as the Canberra, the Atlantic Conveyor and even, of course, the QE2, the Cunard liner that transported the Army’s 5th Brigade the length of the Atlantic.
Those commercial ships provided vital support then – but we certainly can’t take any comfort from that now. If the Royal Naval fleet has shrunk spectacularly since 1982 – it had 55 frigates and destroyers then; today it has 24 – then the British merchant fleet has all but disappeared. Who knows where we’d get the ships to support a war in the South Atlantic from now.
Fewer ships doesn’t always mean a less effective fighting force, of course. The vast and almost brand new amphibious landing vessels, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, are a vast improvement on Fearless, which was nearly 20 years old when we sailed for the Falklands. Even so, they were beset with problems while they were being built and there are certainly doubts about their effectiveness in a combat environment.
We are also down to one effective aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious. Unfortunately, its pilots and Harrier GR9 bombers are now stationed almost permanently in Afghanistan. The Sea Harriers that proved so useful in the Falklands have long since gone to the scrapheap.
In fact, the Navy has so few available planes that they had to ask the U.S. Marine Corps for some of theirs, just to provide Illustrious’s crew with a bit of practice.
But the figures are grim wherever you look. We had 320,000 armed forces personnel in 1982; now we have 188,000. And with so many serving in theatres around the world, where would we now muster the thousands of elite troops it took to win the 1982 conflict?
And so it goes on. In 1982, we had 17 destroyers and sent eight to the Falklands. Now we have only seven – and many of them are engaged in policing waters elsewhere.
Worryingly, we no longer have enough ships to adopt the ‘chuck it all in and we’ll sort it out on the way’ approach that worked – just – in the Falklands. As Major General Julian Thompson, who commanded 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines during the Falklands conflict, said: ‘We still have some excellent soldiers. The problem is getting them there.’
So what should we do? Well, in honour of the 258 brave men who gave their lives in 1982 and to support the proudly British Falkland Islanders, it is essential that we do something.
What we’re seeing may just be a bit of sabre-rattling, an attempt by Argentine President de Kirchner to distract the electorate from her own problems, but sabre-rattling quickly becomes something more when you can scent weakness in your enemy.
After all, we must remember that one of the events that prompted the last Argentine invasion was the announcement of plans to withdraw the Antarctic patrol ship, HMS Endurance. That was just one ship; now it’s the woefully depleted state of our entire fleet that could be sending a similar message.
The continuing uncertainty surrounding the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, due to enter service towards the end of this decade at a cost of billions, needs to be resolved as soon as possible after the forthcoming General Election.
The Falklands campaign was a triumph for Britain’s armed forces, one that from a naval point of view required flexibility, ingenuity and an awful lot of ships. The simple truth is that we don’t have that capacity any more.
The Sea Harriers that proved so valuable in the Falklands have since been retired: