THE SEARCH for oil in the South Atlantic has briefly caused the eyes of the nation to divert its gaze from Afghanistan to the Falkland Islands. The Government of Argentina has seen fit to voice its concerns over the potential untapped mineral wealth under the ocean and is clearly unhappy about the UK getting all the benefits it would bring.
The present rumblings in Buenos Aeries, therefore, are more down economic desires rather than some grandiose nationalist intent. In essence, Argentina would like a seat at the table and a large slice of the pie. However, seeing as your average British senior civil servant would rather cut his own throat with a rusty carving knife before considering a mutually beneficial agreement to share oil wealth, albeit in the name of peace and international relations, then the potential exists for conflict. Unfortunately, oil is one of the greatest catalysts for conflict known to man.
To those concerned with defence the opportunity arises to evaluate the conventional forces we have to hand, given that much of our present armed services are deeply entrenched in a counter-insurgency conflict.
Although we could not mount a task force to recapture the Falkland Islands, we should not need to. But the question needs to be asked, are the forces and capabilities we have at present adequate to repel an invasion or at least handle a heavy-duty stand-off?
Before we ask this, we should also ask, does Argentina have the political and military capacity for an invasion?
The answer to that is probably not, as they no longer have an aircraft carrier and their only dedicated landing ship has been scrapped. The only ships they have that could land troops and equipment are a small number of LSL types. However, they still maintain a credible submarine capability as well as four destroyers and around ten corvettes.
In addition to this, the Argentine Air Force still has around 50 A-4 Skyhawk and Mirage sub-types, as well as nine Exocet armed Super Etendard’s. These aircraft may be old in comparison to the RAF Eurofighter Typhoons based on the Island’s, but they still pose a significant threat to shipping, as do the handful of P-3B Orion’s they operate. So, although there equipment is far from being state of the art, it has the potential to a painful, if not deadly, thorn in the side.
The threat to the Falkland Island’s, therefore, does not come from invasion, but from Argentina attempting to implement an air and naval blockade. The oil rig currently being positioned could be taken out with a torpedo or an Exocet missile at any time, as could HMS York, the current Type 42 destroyer on patrol in the area. The other ships in the Royal Navy flotilla could do very little as they consist of an RFA tanker, a hydrographic survey ship and a fisheries patrol boat armed with a 30 mm cannon. The Admiralty could have a nuclear submarine in the area, but if they have, they are keeping tight-lipped about it. As the Argentine navy can muster three submarines, the RN would need to send more than one should things heat up.
The five Eurofighter Typhoons based at Mount Pleasant provide an adequate deterrent from an assault on the Island’s themselves, but cannot provide a watertight defence of the whole exclusion zone alone.
One significant deterrent the Typhoon could provide, if it was integrated, would be the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile. This, and a robust submarine force would seriously curtail any Argentine designs on the Malvinas and the surrounding ocean. Unfortunately, and herein lies the crux, the only aircraft in the RAF inventory able to carry the Harpoon is the Nimrod. The powers that be have announced that the MR.2 variant will be withdrawn this year as a cost-saving measure, and its replacement, the MRA.4, will not be operational until around 2012.
It should be remembered that it was the proposed withdrawal of HMS Endurance that triggered the invasion in 1982, a decision which Argentina viewed as a sign of weakness. What we need to consider is this, if we withdrew the Nimrod and its long-range, anti-ship/submarine capability without a credible alternative, would they view this in the same way?
As we begin to make stringent cuts and changes to our armed forces we should clearly understand that we could not fight another Falkland’s style conflict. What we should be doing, therefore, is ensuring that the forces we have stationed there have a sufficient deterrent capability so we don’t have to.