Another Falklands war unlikely but not inconceivable

Despite a tense exchange over the Falkland islands between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner, another war over the islands looks highly unlikely any time soon. Instead, argues James Lockhart Smith, the conflict will continue to take a diplomatic course, the outcome of which will determine whether military confrontation is likely in the long run.

Sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (or in Argentina the Malvinas) is no less disputed now than it was over two centuries ago when Great Britain, France and Spain first disputed their rival claims. At the beginning of this month the US supported the Organisation of American States’ (OAS) declaration that the UK and Argentina should negotiate. Then last week Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner called David Cameron’s parliamentary defence of the islanders’ right to self-determination mediocre and stupid and the UK itself ‘a crass colonial power in decline.’

This unsurprisingly provoked concern in the British press about the UK’s ability to defend the Islands following the defence spending cuts outlined in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The risk of another invasion by Argentina of the Islands should not be ruled out. But it is currently unlikely.

Firstly, Argentina’s own armed forces are in no condition to confidently reprise their previous assault, launched by the Proceso military regime in 1982. The civilian governments that held the purse strings after the heavy losses of that war and the democratic transition that followed kept the defence budget low, looking to avoid further coups and impose their own authority. Years went by without the armed forces receiving enough funding or long-term procurement needs being considered. Most defence funds went simply on meeting year-to-year salary and pension obligations. Cristina Kirchner, who succeeded her husband in 2007, inherited armed forces that are undermanned and underequipped. The fighter-bomber capability of the airforce, for example, consists of a fleet of 1970s-era antiques due to be retired next year, and low pay and insufficient training hours mean that pilots are too often lost to the private sector.

Then there is the lack of public support in Argentina for another military invasion. A survey in 2010, for example, suggested that only 3% of Argentines would support this, and 24% would be prepared to countenance a solution involving some kind of shared sovereignty. However deep the cracks in Argentina’s democracy, it is a democracy, and the government is accountable to voters, even if only at the next election.

In this case that next election is due in little over four months. As has been noted elsewhere, President Kirchner’s hostile outburst against David Cameron is not unrelated to the fact that she was just about to confirm her candidacy for another term in office. Already riding relatively high in the polls, she finds invocation of the Falklands issue to be an easy source of political capital. There is no contradiction here with lack of support for a military invasion. The same 2010 survey mentioned above suggested that only 5% of Argentines would be prepared to recognise UK sovereignty over the Islands, and 60% would back pursuit of Argentine sovereignty by diplomatic means.  

Pursuit of Argentine sovereignty by diplomatic means is exactly what the government in Buenos Aires is doing, in fact. The Kirchner administration has denounced with increasing vociferousness the UK’s continuing Falklands presence and refusal to negotiate in all possible international fora, including the UN. It has brought new zeal to the issue, its strategic interest heightened and its ire provoked by tantalising but as-yet unconfirmed (and perhaps ultimately disappointing) reports that British companies may find substantial oil deposits around the Islands.

The UK currently seems to be losing this diplomatic battle, making Argentina even less likely to opt for war. Argentina argues that UK possession of the Islands is an aberrant colonial holdover, using rhetoric that resonates with the rest of Latin America, including Brazil, and - it hopes - others in the international community. In this respect, UK arguments about self-determination are valid. But they are weakened by the fact that so few people live on the islands and many of those that do are linked to the existing defence community. Unless Whitehall finds some way of massively boosting the Islands’ economy and population, that is hardly likely to change any time soon.

So another Argentine assault on the Islands, if not inconceivable, is improbable in the near future. But the risk may increase in the long term. Argentina would need to conclude that however much international backing it can get for its cause, it cannot force the UK to the negotiating table by diplomatic means. It would also need to have the necessary military capabilities and public support for military action – and may eventually obtain them. Like other governments in the Southern Cone, Argentina is currently rebalancing civil-military relations, decades after the democratic transition that left its mark on these. Increases in the defence budget are being planned – specifically, a rise in spending from 0.9% to 1.5% of GDP in the coming years, which at least one early forecast sees as eminently feasible. Furthermore, policy-making processes in the Ministry of Defence have also been re-engineered, institutionalising officers’ influence over procurement and planning and their ability to say what equipment they need and why. And if at some point in the future well-equipped, manned and trained Argentine armed forces face a militarily weaker UK, public opinion in Argentina might also change. Current lack of support for military action in the country is, arguably, closely tied to an awareness of its probable futility and the collective memory of the humiliation and loss of life suffered in 1982.

It is in this scenario that the UK would discover that its diplomatic disadvantages had combined with geography to become a critical strategic weakness. Despite being able to use, as in 1982, its own mid-Atlantic airbase on Ascension Island, and perhaps compete with Argentina to re-establish a naval toehold in South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands – another territory which both countries also claim – its supply lines would be severely overstretched. The same diplomatic disadvantages would also impose a greater test of international political will on the UK government in the event of an attempt to recapture of the Islands being necessary, as it was in 1982.

However, the UK’s diplomatic losses as regards the US would not necessarily be the most important. The US’s position as revealed at the OAS at the beginning of this month is no surprise and adds to a long history of American indifference towards the issue. Nor is it even important for UK-US relations. The US knows that, whereas supporting the UK on the Falklands would create additional problems for US policy in Latin America, its stance is hardly going to deter the UK from seeking to maintain a special but decidedly asymmetric relationship with the US and working with it in other areas.

Instead, regional attitudes would arguably be decisive. Other South American countries would probably not provide active military support to Argentina in the event of a conflict. Certainly Brazil, the giant next door, would probably hold back, taking into account not only its own long history of rivalry and disagreement with Argentina but also its global great power ambitions (to which the UK’s support for a permanent Brazilian seat on the UN Security Council is relevant). At the same time, however, Argentina’s perceived grievance over the Falklands commands almost unanimous solidarity in the region.

It is unlikely that any country in the hemisphere – even the US – would step forward to actively support the UK either. Elements in the Chilean government or armed forces might be tempted to provide covert backing, as in 1982. But without the impetus of active Argentine plans to seize territory from Chile (as was the case in 1982), and with a strong commitment to UNASUR norms, it is improbable that such backing would be given. Any consensus position of neutrality forged in the UNASUR Defence Council would probably include a prohibition on UK access to ports and transit through national airspace or territorial waters. In this respect, Uruguay and Brazil are already willing to deny port to Royal Navy ships as means of signalling their position on the Falklands.

Argentina is unlikely to attack the Falkland Islands tomorrow. But there is every risk that it could do so in the next 10-20 years – if, of course, it doesn’t get its way by diplomatic means first.

About the author

James Lockhart Smith is an independent analyst of Latin American security issues. He is the principal author of the IISS Strategic Dossier 'The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of Raúl Reyes'.