Falkland Islands status reignites UK-Argentina tensions

Falkland Islands status reignites UK-Argentina tensions

UK-Argentine tensions have risen as London plans to bolster military presence in the South Atlantic. British energy discoveries in the region and intelligence leaks are heating up the dispute over the territory, which both London and Buenos Aires use as an electoral clutch. 

During the past weeks, there has been a significant deterioration in UK-Argentine relations due to the Falkland islands issue. The resurfacing of tensions comes at a time when the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) is struggling to reach the 2% of GDP military expenditure threshold set during the last NATO summit in 2014.

On March 24th, UK Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon announced a 280 million pound ($414 million) reinforcement package for defenses on the Falkland Islands. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Fallon justified this spending increase by stating that it is meant to counter a “very live threat” from Argentina.

That same morning, British media outlets denounced an Argentine-Russian military deal aiming to secure twelve Su-24 ‘Fencer A’ supersonic bombers. The operational range of these aircraft puts the Falkland Islands within bombing range.

Furthermore, on March 29th, the British media reported on alleged Argentine plans to launch a special-forces operation to the Falklands. Unsurprisingly, such plans were characterized by observers as a political gambit by Argentine President Kirchner’s unpopular administration to boost her image during an electoral year.

In this context, the acquisition of the Russian bombers would create a window of vulnerability for the Falkland Islands. Specifically, the island’s coastal defenses would be outgunned, having yet to be bolstered by the introduction of HMS Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and F-35B Joint Strike Fighters (slated for carrier deployment in 2016).

Consequently, the MoD aims to replace the Rapier FSC mobile surface-to-air missile batteries on the islands with the land-based FLAADS (Future Local Area Air Defence System).  Moreover, the Ministry of Defence is also adding two Chinook heavy-lifting helicopters for rapid reaction against hypothetical Argentine amphibious assaults.

While April 2nd marked the 33rd anniversary of the beginning of the Falklands War, bilateral tensions also increased due to the discovery of recoverable oil and gas deposits in the region by three British drilling firms. These promising energy discoveries, as well as previous media accusations, benefit the Conservative government. These two factors remind the UK political class of the enduring relevance of the Falklands dispute, thus justifying increased regional defense spending despite existing austerity plans.

Leaks Leave the UK in Hot Water

To further complicate the situation, on April 2nd, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked intelligence files related to the Falkands dispute. This leak shows that from 2006 to 2011, the UK actively spied on Argentine military and political authorities.

Specifically, this effort was part of the covert ‘Offensive Cyber Operation’ – Codename QUITO,  lead by the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) and overseen by the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office).

April 5th saw yet more headaches for London after several UK newspapers confirmed that precise details of the Mount Pleasant military airfield in the Falkland Islands were leaked on mistake by the MoD. This leak made public key information that would aid any nation seeking to carry out air-raids on the islands.

This scandal has invoked the ire of Argentine authorities who have summoned the UK Ambassador in Buenos Aires, demanding an official explanation for the espionage operations. Moreover, Argentina has threatened to file international criminal charges against British energy companies operating in the disputed area.

What to expect

In such a heated scenario, Argentina may well try to retaliate economically, prosecuting corporations which hold shares or participate in  projects in the disputed area. In particular, energy, fishing, and maritime freight companies are most likely to be targeted by such sanctions.

If tensions continue to escalate, the Argentine government will attempt to convince neighboring countries to help extend its economic retaliation against UK interests in South America. In such a scenario, Argentina would push for multilateral agreements in regional integration mechanisms such as MERCOSUR and UNASUR. There is precedent for this, since in 2011 both MERCOSUR and UNASUR  agreed to deny docking rights to ships flying the Falklands Islands flag.

Military confrontation can be definitively ruled-out, as Argentina has not the material means, nor the logistic infrastructure to conduct any military operation against the Falklands. Indeed, Argentina cannot even muster a limited amphibious special forces assault.

Lastly, even if Buenos Aires is fully commited to acquiring Russian aircraft, it would take over half a decade for Argentina’s armed forces to have an operational force.

The most likely scenario is an escalation in the political rhetoric emanating from London and Buenos Aires. As both nations are gripped by general elections, Argentine and British politicans have unintentionally found common ground in their mutual efforts to leverage tensions.

About Author

Martin De Angelis

Martin F. De Angelis is a political and security risks analyst with a focus on Latin America. He has lived and worked in the US, UK and Cuba. He is a former US DoS Fulbright Scholar and UK FCO Chevening Fellow. Martin has been broadcast by BBC, AlJazeera, SkyNewsHD, Euronews and other media. He holds a Licentiate degree in Political Science from the University of Buenos Aires, an MA in Strategy and Geopolitics from the Army War College of Argentina and an MSc in International Relations Theory by the London School of Economics [LSE] with Merits.