Staggering to War in the Falklands?

By Captain William Dempsey, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired)

In land mass, the islands are slightly smaller than Connecticut, and the population is 3,000. Britain claims sovereignty from a previous agreement with Spain in 1771, while Argentina claims that in 1833 Great Britain stole these islands by forcibly removing the officer-in-charge and reasserting sovereignty. In any case, by 1840 Britain had begun a formal colonization program by bringing in British settlers. Today, the residents are almost entirely of British descent, and everything about the place has the air of a village in Wales. They speak in clipped English, drive their Land Rovers on the left side of the road, and eat beans and bangers for breakfast.

For decades, Argentina has lobbied the world to get the islands back and during the 1970s was in negotiations with Britain to do just that. Britain, experiencing an economic downturn, was more than willing to transfer sovereignty to Argentina, provided the islanders would agree to it. After all, it was costing Britain money to provide the islanders with a government, an infrastructure, and a military. Britain went along with the idea that Argentina would woo the islanders into accepting a transfer in governance.

Argentina Builds an Airstrip

The entreaty began in 1971, when Argentina established the first air link to the islands with amphibious flights from Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, to Port Stanley, Falklands, about 450 miles away and only 50 minutes by plane. The following year, Argentina built an airstrip at Port Stanley, opening a new world for the islanders. In spite of this, residents were still adamant about their desire to remain a British territory. Certainly, one consideration was Argentina’s checkered history in terms of democratic governments and human rights.

By 1981 Argentina was ruled by a military junta under General Leopoldo Galtieri, who had decided the time was right to take the Falklands by force. Galtieri did not anticipate any U.S. interference. He had developed a strong working relationship with the Reagan administration fighting terrorism in Central America, and he was offering the United States military bases in Patagonia. 1 Nor did he think the British, waning in power, would put up much of a fuss over a bunch of rocks that, if anything, was an economic albatross. This would be an easy war, popular with the people and sure to bolster the junta’s sinking support in light of a currency devaluation and a weakening economy.

The Argentine plan was to launch the invasion in the July-October 1982 time frame, but that changed overnight in March, when an Argentine scrap-metal team hoisted its flag over one of the Falklands’ outer islands, South Georgia, and refused to follow agreed-on protocol for coming ashore. Britain responded by sending a detachment of Royal Marines on board HMS Endurance to remove the errant Argentineans. Thinking the British were beginning to harden their defenses, the junta countered by ordering the invasion to commence immediately, which opened a Pandora’s box. Ironically, if the junta had waited a few months it might have had its victory. Britain’s only two aircraft carriers were scheduled to disappear—HMS Hermes to the scrap yard and HMS Invincible to Australia.

The Invasion

The Argentine amphibious invasion of the Falklands took everyone by surprise—not least of all the British. Faced with overwhelming odds, British Falklands Governor Rex Hunt surrendered. Wild jubilation filled the streets of Buenos Aires. Finally, after 150 years the lost sister Islas Malvinas had been restored to their rightful sovereign. The junta didn’t expect any more bloodshed (only one Argentine officer had been killed) and in fact had gone out of its way in the invasion orders to prevent needless casualties. It believed the military phase was over and was ready to usher in the next phase, negotiations. And that seemed to be a reasonable bet.

Meanwhile, a heated debate ensued in London about what to do. Had it not been for one man, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, Argentina might well have triumphed. It was he who reminded Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that if subjects of the Crown ever found themselves in peril, it was both the duty and the privilege of Britain to come to their aid. Leach, a World War II veteran, reasoned that to do otherwise would be tantamount to undermining all that England stands for, and urged Thatcher to immediately dispatch a naval task force.

Even as the force began sailing 8,000 miles south to the Falklands, no one believed there would be an actual war. Someone would blink. But the hounds of hell had been unleashed and there was no turning them back. When the battle was joined, it raged for 47 days with the result being that 10 ships were sunk, 91 aircraft were destroyed, and 1,001 men were killed. The engagement contained all the classics of war—amphibious landings, fixed-bayonet hand-to-hand foxhole-to-foxhole combat, air-to-air combat, submarine torpedo attack, and air-to-surface attack. Both sides fought courageously, and victory could have gone either way. Had Argentina a bit more firepower or just better luck, it might have buckled Britain’s resolve. But ultimately, victory went to the Crown. On 14 June 1982, Argentine General Mario Menendez was forced to surrender to British General Jeremy Moore at Port Stanley.

The Argentine Noose Tightens

Fast-forward to 2010. The drive for Argentina to make good on its claim of entitlement to the contested islands has taken on a new urgency. Recent hydrocarbon seismic tests off the Falklands’ shores indicate the possibility of as much as 60 billion barrels of oil beneath the ocean floor. To grasp the magnitude of this discovery, consider the fact that Britain currently has 3.4 billion barrels in reserve, and Argentina 2.2 billion.

The Falkland Islands’ government has issued exploration licenses to five oil companies to drill wells. This exploratory phase will last several years, but preliminary drilling with the semi-submersible Ocean Guardian offshore platform has already confirmed a high-quality reservoir at the Sea Lion prospect in the North Falkland Basin. Unsurprisingly, Argentina insists that all mineral resources in the Falklands, including oil, belong to it.

The question for Argentina is how to wrest control of the islands from the British. The Argentine government appears to have adopted a three-pronged strategy:

Implementing Diplomacy. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner said in March 2010: “The battle is going to be eternal, but it is not going to be like the past, ‘with force.’ We’re going to put up a cultural, political, and diplomatic fight on all fronts and in all forums in defense of our heritage, which is not just heritage, but also management of our resources.” 2 At both the United Nations and the Organization of American States, Argentina has worked at building a consensus that it has a legitimate claim of sovereignty over the Falklands.

On 1 March 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a press conference with President Kirchner in Buenos Aires. When Kirchner asked her if it weren’t reasonable for Argentina and Britain to commence negotiations in accordance with the U.N. resolution on decolonization, she replied: “And we agree. We would like to see Argentina and the United Kingdom sit down and resolve issues between them across the table in a peaceful, productive way.” 3 On 24 June 2010 the U.N.’s Decolonization Committee unanimously approved a resolution calling on Argentina and Britain to resume negotiations for a peaceful solution to the Falklands/Malvinas question. Chile sponsored the resolution, and when it was approved, Venezuela, Uruguay, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Brazil lent it strong statements of support. No independent country in Latin America and the Caribbean supports Britain’s position that the islanders should have the right of self-determination in how they are governed.

When British Prime Minister David Cameron was subsequently asked about Clinton’s comment and the U.S. support for sovereignty negotiations, he said, “I would want to make the point very strongly to them that if you believe in self-determination as a key part of the U.N. charter, then there’s the strongest possible case that the Falkland Islands should maintain under the sovereignty of Britain, because that is what the people who live there want. That’s what we went to war over. The population of the Falkland Islands wants to be British. So I think that it was disappointing, frankly.” 4

Imposing Economic Sanctions. Argentina has put into place a program of economic sanctions designed to put pressure on the people who live in the Falklands. It has abrogated a 1995 agreement with the Falklands that would have permitted collaboration in the search for oil and natural gas. The same can be said for a 1999 agreement to conserve fishing stocks in the southwest Atlantic.

A ban on charter flights crossing over Argentine airspace to the Falklands has hurt the island’s tourist business. Currently, the only direct flight from Argentina to the Falklands leaves from Rio Gallegos on the second Saturday of the month and returns on the third Saturday. Argentina permits this single monthly exception to policy on behalf of families who wish to visit the Argentine Cemetery north of Darwin, which holds the remains of 237 Argentine combatants from the ’82 war, although other private travelers are allowed to join the flight.

As of February 2010, Argentina’s Decree 256 requires authorization permits for all ships passing through Argentine waters to the Falklands. On 15 July 2010, it was reported that an Argentine navy ship operating in shared Uruguayan-Argentine waters forced a small merchant vessel linked to the Falklands to identify itself and provide all the information related to cargo and destination. 5 Even aside from the intimidation, it remains costly and time-consuming for merchant shipping and cruise lines to obtain proper authorization from the Argentine authorities. Consequently, fewer cruise ships have been stopping in the Falklands.

An Argentine bill about to become law contemplates sanctions against international companies that operate in Argentina and either intend to participate or are involved in oil-related activities in the Falklands. In the meantime, Britain has protested to Argentina and has firmly rejected the legitimacy of Decree 256. Britain considers the decree a violation of international law and, more specifically, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Falklands Chamber of Commerce claims that Argentina has imposed a full-fledged sea blockade on the Falklands population.

Increasing Military Strength. Though Argentina recognizes that it is no match for the British military, this hasn’t stopped it from augmenting its forces and taking provocative action. In February 2010 the Argentine warship ARA Drummond , a French-built corvette, was ten miles inside the disputed “oil zone” and 65 miles off the islands. The British destroyer HMS York had been monitoring this incursion and radioed her to change course, which she finally did. Argentine sources said Drummond made an “innocent navigational blunder.” 6

On 29 May 2010, Argentine Defense Minister Nilda Garré announced that four navy patrol vessels are under construction in a joint venture with Chile and will be sent to the South Atlantic to demonstrate the willingness of Argentina to exercise sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. 7 These stealth-designed ships are 240 feet in length with a 50-foot beam, 21 knot speed, a thirty-man crew, a helipad, and the ability to be configured with various combat systems.

On 4 June 2010 Defense Minister Garré announced that her country is seriously considering incorporating nuclear-powered vessels into its navy. 8 Argentina has constructed small nuclear reactors for their power-generation stations and has the capability to make good on its words. Garré went on to say, “We want to recover those scientific, technological and industrial capabilities Argentina once had; Argentina can’t be left out of the development of technology and the technological edge we had in the region.”

The most recent development was reported on 1 September 2010 after Garré announced, in a conference with political science students at Di Tella University, a 50 percent increase in the Argentine defense budget. It has shrunken over the years she said, as a result of the “defeat in the Falkland/Malvinas war, social incompatibility with the military institutions following the war, military dictatorship, and the 2001 collapse of the Argentine economy.” 9

By 2020 Brazil will have likely developed its own nuclear-powered attack submarine. I learned in my meeting with retired Argentine Navy Rear Admiral Pedro de la Fuente and former Fleet Commander-and-Chief that years ago Brazil had invited Argentina to join it in this venture. Argentina had declined. When Brazil completes this costly project it is unlikely to share it with its neighbor; however, it may be willing to provide Argentina with underwater surveillance in the event another military conflict occurs with Britain. Since Brazil supports Argentina’s claim to the Falklands, it may even be willing to provide military support, along with other South American countries. In February 2010 Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez said: “The English are still threatening Argentina. Things have changed. We are no longer in 1982. If conflict breaks out, be sure Argentina will not be alone like it was back then.” 10

The danger in the Argentine strategy is that the economic sanctions and saber-rattling don’t lead to compromise, but rather directly to a hot war.

The Island Bristles

What stands between the 41 million people of Argentina and the 3,000 Falkland Islanders? The British military. After the ’82 war, the British built a modern air facility and military base at Mount Pleasant, 50 miles west of Port Stanley, the territory’s capital. The base serves as the headquarters for Royal Navy Commodore Philip Thicknesse, Commander British Forces South Atlantic Islands. Should Argentina invade, it will be up against a veteran of the ’82 war. At that time he was a young lieutenant serving on board the assault ship HMS Fearless , and he knows well what it’s like to sweat out an attack by enemy aircraft without the benefit of air support. Besides being a Falklands veteran, the commodore was awarded a U.S. Bronze Star in 2006 for his superior command of the Coalition Naval Training Team that was rebuilding the Iraqi Navy at Umm Qasr Naval Base.

In our interview, he waxed enthusiastic over his newly arrived Typhoon squadron: “These advanced multi-role fighter aircraft provide us with the speed, flexibility, and warfighting capability to deter an aggressor and, if necessary, defeat him.” No sooner had he spoken these words than I glimpsed through his living room window a delta-winged Typhoon screaming down the runway and lifting off, emitting two balls of flame from the exhaust pipes of its 20,000-pound-thrust engines. The commodore explained that part of his mission in the South Atlantic is to deter military aggression by any other sovereign state in his area of responsibility. “I would like nothing better than to be doing joint exercises with the Argentine military.”

When asked what lessons he had learned from the war with Argentina, he replied:

Training. Practicing the fundamentals makes all the difference. Our soldiers had just come from military exercises in Norway. They were trained to fight in cold weather. That couldn’t be said for the Argentines. Also, leadership made a difference. We had brilliant leadership. Our officers ate, fought, and slept with their troops. With the Argentines, they had one set of rations for their officers and another for the enlisted. What I observed at the conclusion of hostilities was that their officers hadn’t cared for their men the way that our leadership had and as a consequence Argentine morale had suffered, and this poor morale contributed to their defeat. That’s one reason that this command continuously stresses training. Our ships are at sea, our aircraft are in the air, and our soldiers are out on maneuvers. The Falklands is a wonderful training ground for our men and women. They can walk the battlefields, can appreciate what our veterans had experienced. That war is a living one for them. In retrospect I learned what a difference strategy can make. Had the Argentine pilots, who had displayed extreme bravery, attacked our support ships, such as the Canberra , rather than our warships, they would have likely forced our withdrawal.

As an aside I asked the commodore what types and levels of cooperation he would like to see between the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy. He replied, “The two navies are nearly indistinguishable. We work together hand-in-glove. Curiously, it’s your Coast Guard with which we’d like to have a closer relationship. They’re absolutely nonpareil mariners.”

If Argentina, either by choice or accident, decides to poke the cobra, here’s what they face: a squadron of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft capable of taking out multiple threats simultaneously, a Type 23 frigate, a patrol ship, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, and a battalion of highly trained infantry. Moreover, C-17 military transports can quickly fly in reinforcements.

A Geopolitical Flashpoint

Throughout Argentina, the consensus on the Falklands/Malvinas issue is that Britain unfairly took the islands from Argentina in 1833. Argentines are taught in school, and it’s been written into their constitution, that the islands belong to them. Do they want another war to reclaim them? Not in the least. A typical response to that question is, “We need to stabilize our economy, our government, improve our educational system and develop the resources we already have. The economies of Brazil and Chile are taking off, and Argentina should do the same. That’s what I want—a better life for my family. The Malvinas is a political issue that isn’t relevant to me.”

The islanders refer to Argentina as a bully. The recent blockade has meant, among other things, that they no longer receive seaborne shipments of fresh fruit and vegetables from Chile. Instead, this commodity must be shipped by air—an expensive proposition. Fundamentally, islanders believe that Argentina prioritizes land and power over common humanity. In the words of Phyl Rendell, Director of Mineral Resources, Falkland Islands Government: “Ideally Argentina would recognize our right to exist, and we could cooperate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This would lead to an increase in the standard of living for everyone. Its current belligerence toward us is a concern. When one of our Typhoons flies low over Stanley Harbor, my heart cheers! That’s the sound of freedom.”

As the drums of war beat on, will the civilized world stand by with the tacit message “that’s not my problem,” or will rational minds dedicate themselves to helping these nations chart a course away from war and toward a new era of harmony? We may find ourselves forced to decide sooner than we think.

1. David Rock, ARGENTINA 1516-1987 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1987), p. 375.

2. Ed Stocker, Merco Press, “Argentina to see biggest anti-British protests for years,” 2 April 2010.

3. U.S. Department of State Web site, Secretary of State Clinton, “Remarks With Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner,” 1 March 2010.

4. Tim Shipman, Mail Online, “Cameron attacks America’s refusal to back Britain over the Falklands,” 1 April 2010.

5. Merco Press, “Uruguayan concern with Argentine interception of vessels bound for the Falklands,” 15 July 2010.

6. D. Larcombe, The Sun , U.K., 26 July 2010.

7. Merco Press, “Argentina announces Malvinas sovereignty presence with patrol vessels,” 29 May 2010.

8. Merco Press, “Argentina planning to develop nuclear powered vessels for the Navy,” 4 June 2010.

9. Merco Press, “Argentine to increase budget defence 50%, recovering losses of Falklands war,” 1 September 2010.

10. Tom Leonard,, “Hugo Chavez demands Queen return Falkland Islands to Argentina,” 22 February 2010.


Captain Dempsey writes on military issues and traveled recently to Argentina and the Falkland Islands to conduct interviews for this report.


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