HMS Dauntless’ routine deployment underlines Britain’s right to defend the Falkland Islands
In 1982 foolish cuts to the Royal Navy by a Conservative government were seen as a green light by the Argentines to invade the Falklands. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of a short but bloody war that had a big impact on British history. Fundamentally it was a triumph for the Royal Navy and the lessons from the conflict profoundly influenced the shape of the RN for the following 20 years. Defence is possible, In the last 10 years many defence pundits and journalists have written endless articles asking “Is the UK capable of re-fighting another Falklands War?” This is a rather tired debate but in light of recent Argentine belligerence and the 2010 defence cuts it is an issue worthy of re-consideration and which raises 2 fundamental questions. (1) Are the Falklands properly defended and (2) could they be recovered if invaded?
Recovery is not
The RN has maintained at least 1 warship and 1 RFA in the South Atlantic (in addition to a permanent Falklands patrol ship HMS Clyde and Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector) ever since 1982 and they usually rotate every 6 months. This single warship is supposed to cover this vast area that includes not just the Falklands, but South Georgia and West Africa. The main permanent defence for the islands supposedly rests with just 4 Typhoon fighters based at RAF Mount Pleasant. Their main strength would be intercepting invading aircraft but 4 aircraft is a tiny number to defend an area the size of Wales. Essentially there is a bare minimum of defensive assets around the islands but defending Mount Pleasant and the rapid arrival of reinforcements would be the key to defence of the Islands, in the unlikely event of an attempted invasion.
Should Argentina manage to invade and take Mount Pleasant, there is no hope the UK could mount a recovery operation. In reality, the UK gave up any hope of being able to mount an independent Falklands ’82-type operation when Tony Blair’s government decommissioned the Sea Harrier FRS2. The Sea Harrier was a fighter aircraft, critical to the air defence of the fleet and it was the handful of Sea Harriers made the 1982 victory just possible. The axing of HMS Ark Royal and her GR9 Harriers in 2010 was just the final nail in the coffin. The GR9s were essentially ground attack aircraft with only limited air defence capability. The shrunken Royal Navy, lack of RFAs and merchant ships and an Army and Royal Marines committed in Afghanistan mean the cupboard is bare. The long-term decline in the RN can be illustrated in simple numbers – in 1982 the RN possessed about 90 major warships, currently there are around 35 and crucially no fixed wing aircraft carrier (until 2020 at least!).
Are we ‘militarising’ the Falklands?
Even if it were true that the UK is ‘militarising’ the Falklands as Argentina recently claimed in the UN, there would be every justification given President Kirchner’s recent threats. The Argentines have also made much of HRH Prince William’s arrival in the Falklands saying it’s “provocative” even labelling him a “Conquistador”! He could hardly be less belligerent, flying a bright yellow helicopter and rescuing people. On closer inspection it’s clear the defences of the islands have changed little in the last decade. In fact Britain is busy ‘de-militarising’ itself and although the defensive forces around the Falklands remain much the same, the naval forces required to reinforce them in the event of a conflict are much-diminished.
The deployment of HMS Dauntless to the South Atlantic in April was leaked to the press prematurely on January 31st (Although long-planned and the ship’s company knew before Christmas, the RN had not planned to make the announcement until much closer to sailing) The Argentines seem to think HMS Dauntless’ deployment is some kind of deliberate escalation. In fact her programme is quite routine and she is simply replacing HMS Montrose on the Atlantic Patrol Task South (APTS). HMS Dauntless is a more powerful ship than the ship she replaces on station but the new Type 45s were always destined to become part of the regular cycle of RN warships deployed (HMS Daring left for the Gulf in January relieving a Type 23 frigate). The media coverage of this diplomatic row is set to make HMS Dauntless Britain’s most famous warship, before she has even sailed from the UK on her maiden deployment. The arrival of Dauntless will strengthen the radar surveillance, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences around the islands but it could also be argued that the departure of HMS Montrose weakens anti-submarine defences. Argentine claims that naval power around the islands has been “quadrupled” are as ridiculous as the over-blown claims that Dauntless could “shoot down the entire Argentine airforce” and putting too much reliance on a single new and untested warship is very unwise as history has shown.
In an a break from the usual policy of not commenting on RN submarine operations, it has been confirmed that a submarine has been despatched to the South Atlantic. (Either HMS Tireless or HMS Turbulent). Again this is fairly routine as there have been RN submarines in the South Atlantic since 1982 although the shocking decline in RN submarine numbers in the last 5 years mean that a continuous presence has not been possible. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, the permanent presence of a submarine could only be maintained in future by abandoning the commitment to have one on station in the Indian Ocean. Back in 1977, the RN’s first nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought was dispatched to the Falklands (operation Journeyman) in response to Argentine threats and her presence prevented any further aggression at the time. Argentine suggestions that an RN Trident submarine is in the South Atlantic with nuclear weapons targeted at South America is utter hysteria. The whereabouts of the ballistic missile subs are a closely guarded secret but even if there was one in the South Atlantic, the UK will NEVER use a nuclear weapons first. They are a deterrent aginst other nations with nuclear weapons and are of absolutely no relevance or concern to Argentina, whatever happens in the Falklands.
A second Falklands war?
The reality is that Argentina is not (yet) equipped to attack the Falklands even if it has the political will. However with a planned increase in defence spending of 50%, development of cruise missiles and even wildly optimistic talk of developing its own nuclear submarines, its military may start to present a very credible threat in the next 5-10 years. While the 1982 Falklands conflict was described as “2 bald men fighting over a comb” the situation has changed with the discovery of oil and the “bald men” could be fighting not just over a moral principle, but enough money to make a dent in their respective large national debts. History has shown that the most effective response to the diplomatic crisis is to maintain the peace through strong deterrence.