Nik Darlington 8.32am
Today is the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. Events are taking place in Britain, Argentina and on the islands to mark the occasion.
In 1982, 2nd April fell on a Friday, meaning that Parliament met on a Saturday for the first time since the Suez crisis to talk over what Russell Johnston, Liberal MP and member of the Falkland Islands Association, called that “shameful day”.
Julian Amery, the Conservative MP, blamed a lack of preparation and the Government’s defence cuts, lamenting, “the consequences of our defeat yesterday will be a good deal more expensive.”
However heroic, the campaign to recover the Falkland Islands was costly, particularly in the aftermath, albeit not as costly as regularly believed. From 1982 to 2006, the war and the subsequent defence of the islands had a net cost to Britain of approximately £25 billion (2006 prices). The British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), by comparison, was costing £3 billion per year in the early 1990s.
However, no one can put a price on the cost of 258 British and 649 Argentine personnel who lost their lives during the war, nor the many hundreds more wounded in action. It is them who we remember most today.
What of the future defence of the islands, and how to prevent another conflict from breaking out?
The lesson for Mr Cameron’s government, undergoing its own round of defence cuts (especially to long-range naval capability), is to be as prepared as possible.
Argentina, led by her ebullient president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has waged sustained diplomatic skirmishes in the months leading up to the anniversary. Yet this emotional fervour masks a struggling economy and threadbare armed forces.
On the surface, the proxy aggression is irritating rather than damaging. Argentina’s Latin American neighbours murmur their support but few are willing to make too concerted a stand on behalf of the Argentine claims to the islands.
And the Falkland Islands today are relatively well protected by the couple of thousand military personnel at RAF Mount Pleasant, with its four Typhoon aircraft. The state-of-the-art Type 45 destroyer, HMS Dauntless, is also on deployment.
Military sources say that Argentina’s military is largely under-equipped, badly equipped, and - in comparison to 1982 - poorly organised. The generals do not wield the influence they once did, and the funding simply isn’t there to update weaponry and train troops.
The exception, however, is Argentina’s special forces, which I am told are well trained and well resourced. In March 1982, a band of Argentine soldiers disguised as scrap metal workers stole on to the island of South Georgia, south-east of the Falklands, in the first offensive action of the war.
Following the war, South Georgia housed a small garrison of British soldiers, to protect it and surrounding islands from any repeat Argentine invasion. These soldiers were replaced by civilian members of the British Antarctic Survey in 2001.
If even a small detachment of Argentine special forces managed to gain a foothold on South Georgia, or other islands in the group such as Southern Thule (also invaded during the 1970s, but kept quiet by the Callaghan government), it would pose grave problems for Britain’s diplomatic standing.
It might be difficult to justify heavy military retaliation for such a relatively minor action. In all likelihood, it would drag British officials to the negotiating table, precisely where we refuse to be as long as Falkland islanders profess their allegiance to Britain.
As we remember the last Argentina invasion of the Falkland Islands, let us leave no stone unturned, and no entry route open, to prevent any such thing taking place again.
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