British drilling for oil in the Falklands has prompted the deeply unpopular President Kirchner of Argentina to become bellicose.
The news that Desire Petroleum has begun a month of drilling for oil in the Falkland Islands has prompted the deeply unpopular President Kirchner of Argentina to become bellicose. In April 1982 the military junta, seeking to distract the Argentine population from chronic economic mismanagement at home, embarked on a disastrous invasion that ended in humiliation two months later.
President Kirchner has already announced that any ship servicing the embryonic oil industry in the Falklands will require a special license to call at an Argentine port, and this is obviously intended to inhibit the exploration, provide an income for Argentina and exercise a degree of sovereignty.
Anyone visiting the Falklands today will be struck by the strength of feeling on the Islands about the Argentine occupation, and might be forgiven for thinking that the conflict took place last month, and not twenty-eight years ago. The local inhabitants remain absolutely determined to keep their British status, while the military situation has been transformed by the construction of a modern airport and the routine deployment of Tornado jets.
When the Argentines occupied the Islands they sowed huge minefields and had good reason to believe, in an era before night vision goggles, that Port Stanley was easily defended by taking advantage of the natural terrain dominated by several small mountains. In addition, there were the extraordinary geological phenomena of the rock streams, lines of exceptionally difficult obstacles interspersed in the wet peat.
The Argentines failed to launch a devastating preemptive attack on the British Task Force, or on the landings at San Carlos, confident that the capital’s defenses were unassailable. With virtually no cover, any attacking force would be at a daunting disadvantange against well-prepared defenders, and it was a combination of British skill and ingenuity, with Argentine poor planning, that led to the astonishing feats of arms represented by the capture of Tumbledown, Mount Harriet, Mount Kent, Two Sisters and Mount Darwin. Argentine complacency and incompetence led to a crushing defeat, but it was an unexpected victory.
In today’s scenario there is a permanent patrol of at least one nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine in the vicinity, and it would be suicidal for anyone to contemplate an amphibious assault with such a vessel in the area. The loss of the cruiser ARA General Belgrano, sunk by HMS Conqueror, remains vivid in Argentine memories. The British sent a covert task force, Operation JOURNEYMAN, down to the South Atlantic in 1977 to deter an invasion, and although that lesson was not learned in 1982, it has now.
The alternative methods for seizing Port Stanley consist of a clandestine infiltration, perhaps from submarines, of sufficient Special Forces to secure the town and maybe close Mount Pleasant. However, there is a permanent garrison of around two thousand British servicemen on the Island, many with plenty of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be a very foolhardy Argentine commander that thought he could pull of such a coup-de-main.
A drop of airborne troops near Mount Pleasant might also seem an option, but the terrain and weather are quite unsuited for parachute operations, and the early-warning radar coverage would probably eliminate the advantage of surprise.
In short, another Argentine attempt to take the disputed archipelago seems absolutely doomed. Especially as Mount Pleasant has been designed to receive reinforcements at short notice, and much of the land is covered with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, thoughtlessly left behind by the 1982 occupation forces. Those mines remain lethal, as the mine disposal teams can testify, although a massive airborne landing might be one method of conducting a major clearance, albeit at considerable cost of Argentine lives.
Latin American critics of the British now include Chile, Brazil and Venezuela, although this belated solidarity is insignificant. Although the British received some help from General Augusto Pinochet in 1982, and Brazil remained neutral, the Chileans played only a minor role and were rewarded with some RAF Sigint aircraft. They were not consulted in adance on the abortive SAS raid on Rio Grande airfield, and only temporarily detained the three Sea King helicopter aircrew who crash-landed near Puento Arenas.
The Brazilians raised no objection when a Vulcan bomber was diverted to Rio de Janeiro, but apart from those episodes the erst of the continent was hostile to Britain´s commitment to the United Nations principle of self-determination. In other words, not much has changed, and Hugo Chavez has rather more pressing problems than encouraging President Kirchner on another ill-fated adventure.