The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has confirmed that a £280m investment plan is to be instigated on the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic to guarantee the sovereignty of the islands in the face of present and future threats. Included in the plan were the deployment of up to two Chinook heavylift helicopters and a replacement for the Rapier surface-to-air missile (SAM) when it goes out of service later this decade. The Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Clyde will also remain on station being backed up by regular visits from destroyers and submarines.
The news comes as reports resurface of an Argentine deal with Russia over Sukhoi Su-24 strike aircraft. Speaking in relation to this story Mr Fallon said that the deal had not yet been confirmed but the investment in defending the islands was necessary to keep the garrison based there credible against any threat that may emerge including any new Argentine aircraft acquisition. The possibility of a deal between Buenos Aires and Moscow does look increasingly likely as in the last few days Russian officials have raised questions over the legality of Britain’s claim to the islands. It is likely however that this is merely an extension of the war of words between east and west regarding the Ukraine crisis.
The news no doubt comes as a welcome relief to the islanders themselves as Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government shows no sign of relaxing their policy of continuing to stir up a near obsessive frenzy amongst their people over the islands. The extremely public expulsion of the BBC’s Top Gear program from the country in 2014 only worsened the situation despite the fact that Argentine television crews frequently report from the “Islas Malvinas” on the so-called occupation.
As for Argentine military aspirations for the islands most experts agree that Argentina is in no condition to mount a military operation like that of the 1982 operation. The Argentine Navy is almost entirely non-operational with the exception of a few patrol boats operated by the Coast Guard and the Argentine air force has no new combat aircraft yet. Even if the deal with Russia goes ahead the question remains of how effective they will be against the RAF’s Typhoon force based on the islands. The Su-24s are relatively old aircraft conceived for the low level strike role in the 1970s. The RAF has been preparing to fight these very aircraft for over 30 years whereas the Argentinians have very little experience of operating them. Additionally, given the fact that if the deal is going ahead then the Argentinians will pay in meat then one wonders if the Argentinians can even afford to fly them.
What the British garrison should be worried about however is if in the current climate of obsessive-patriotism regarding the islands that a group of Argentinian air force officers don’t take it upon themselves to launch an unauthorised attack on the islands in the hope of inspiring their fellow countrymen to join in. It has happened once before when in 1966 a group of Argentinians “invaded” the islands aboard a hijacked airliner. These men are now seen as heroes in Argentina by the current administration despite the fact they took ordinary Argentinians on the aircraft hostage at gunpoint.
With Argentina also negotiating for Chinese fighters and to build a version of the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen jointly with Brazil then it is clear that Britain does need to think carefully about the security of the islands in the air. However, until Argentina’s economic situation improves the threat level remains relatively low despite what some sensationalist newspapers in both Argentina and the UK might try to say to the contrary. Any large military operation against the islands would likely break the Argentinian economy even if the operation was a success.