U.K., Argentina: Territorial Tensions Re-Emerge
SummaryAhead of the April 2 anniversary of the invasion of the Falkland Islands, tensions between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the islands are predictably on the rise again. For the next several years, the United Kingdom's capability to respond to potential threats to the Falklands will be limited by the lack of deployable aircraft carriers. Consequently, U.K. military planners will have to consider defensive contingencies. Military posturing between Argentina and the United Kingdom will increase ahead of the 2020 deployment of the Royal Navy's new Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, which will increase the U.K.'s capacity to project power and respond to threats. Still, Argentina's economic challenges and the British military's ability to mount a significant response will prevent any actual conflict over the islands in the next five years.
AnalysisThe Falkland Islands have long been a point of contention between Argentina and the United Kingdom, with Buenos Aires maintaining its claim to the so-called Malvinas since its failed war to take the islands by force in 1982. Both governments can use the dispute for political purposes, especially ahead of U.K. general elections in May and Argentine general elections in October. Buenos Aires in particular has used the issue to rally nationalist sentiment, taking symbolic actions — such as introducing a new 50-peso bill emblazoned with the image of the islands — to keep the claim alive in the public's minds. For years, Argentina pursued diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to open talks on the status of the islands, lodging protests with the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization.
Capabilities and ContingenciesThough Argentina's claim on the islands has been peaceful in the wake of the failed 1982 campaign, Argentina's possible acquisition of new aircraft could alter the scenario in the minds of U.K. military planners. Argentina signed defense agreements with China in February for joint development of JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft and reportedly sent an air force delegation to China in March with plans to buy dozens of the planes. Argentina was also rumored to have pursued leasing 12 Sukhoi Su-24 from Russia. On March 27, Russia denied having such talks but said it would be ready to do so.
Argentina lost more than one-third of its aircraft in the Falklands War, and the air force has possessed minimal capabilities ever since. Budget constraints and U.K. moves to block acquisition of some European-made fighter aircraft have prevented major new purchases. The country is estimated to have only 100 combat-ready aircraft, many lacking modern weapons systems. A relatively small U.K. defensive presence on the islands — 1,200 military and civilian personnel, four Typhoon fighter jets, Rapier surface-to-air missiles and a navy destroyer and patrol vessel — has been sufficient to deter a potential attack. British defense planners are considering contingencies should Argentina acquire new fighters that would give it the ability to challenge British airspace, use airborne infantry units to capture the airfields at Mount Pleasant and Port Stanley and fly in more ground forces with transport planes to occupy the islands.
In response, the United Kingdom has announced an increase to its defensive capabilities on the islands. British Minister of Defense Michael Fallon reported to Parliament last week that the United Kingdom will deploy two Chinook helicopters in 2016, upgrade the command facility at Mount Pleasant and begin work on new surface-to-air missile systems to replace the existing Rapier batteries. The United Kingdom is expected to allocate more than $250 million to upgrades in Falklands defense over the next 10 years.
The United Kingdom's acute defensive concern comes from the difficulty of getting air power to the region in the event of a conflict. The United Kingdom has no fixed-wing combat aircraft that it could project over the required distance until the Elizabeth-class carriers with F-35s come into service in 2020. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom would be able to mount a significant military response led by its Joint Rapid Reaction Force that would challenge Argentina's ability to hold the islands even in the event of a surprise attack. The Royal Navy's anti-aircraft capabilities could still deny Argentina air dominance, and British forces' combat experience in recent decades puts them in a position to be more effective than their Argentine counterparts in the event of military action.
An Unlikely ConflictStill, an Argentine military campaign against a seemingly vulnerable Falkland Islands is unlikely. Argentina will be too focused on addressing its economic concerns. The country is looking to get out of its technical default, return to international capital markets that it has been locked out of since 2001 and improve investor sentiment, particularly to develop its energy sector. All of these goals are linked to the international community. Threatening the United Kingdom with military action would not serve Argentina's interests. Instead, an attack would almost certainly provoke economic sanctions, deepening the country's economic crisis. Buenos Aires also faces financial constraints that limit its ability to cover unexpected expenditures such as a military conflict.
Moreover, while a conflict with the United Kingdom could be politically popular, that popularity would be fleeting, as it was in 1982. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, who launched that occupation, temporarily turned his political fortunes around, but was forced out of office two months later in the wake of defeat. Argentine victory would not be guaranteed in a new conflict either. Even with a favorable result, the government would lose the issue as a tool to mobilize the electorate. The islands are more useful to an Argentine president as a continuing grievance to rally nationalist sentiment.
Argentine claims over the Falkland Islands will continue. Tensions will rise periodically, and the United Kingdom could increase its military presence to ward off any threat. However, the economic and political costs of war for Argentina will continue restraining military action.