Alternative Futures: Argentina Attempts a Second Annexation of the Falkland Islands

Hal Wilson lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in the aerospace industry. A member of the Military Writers Guild, Hal uses narrative to explore future conflict.  He has been published by the Small Wars Journal, and has written finalist entries for fiction contests with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project.  Hal graduated with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is studying an MA on the First World War.  He tweets at @HalWilson_.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


National Security Situation:  In an alternative future, the Republic of Argentina is attempting a second annexation of the Falkland Islands in the year 2030.

Date Originally Written:  August 27, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  October 15, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the United Kingdom’s (UK) National Security Adviser personally briefing 10, Downing Street on potential responses to Argentina’s action.

Background:  Inconceivable even only two decades ago, we now have positive confirmation that Argentine naval and military forces are conducting long-range precision fire against RAF MOUNT PLEASANT, the Royal Air Force station in the Falkland Islands.

Anglo-Argentine relations have long soured against their high-point around 2017, when favourable Argentine politics dovetailed with our joint operations to rescue the missing Argentine submarine ARA SAN JUAN[1].  These favourable politics were quickly reversed by domestic Argentine authoritarianism of a sort unseen since Argentina’s so-called ‘Dirty War’ of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.  This authoritarianism built amid economic slowdown in Argentina and overwhelming Venezuelan refugee inflows escaping the totalitarian rule of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro[2].  This refugee influx has only worsened after the 2025 collapse of the Maduro regime and ongoing Venezuelan Civil War, which has also left Argentina as the largest Chinese creditor in Latin America[3].

UK institutional bandwidth remains highly constrained with the fallout of the Russian attack against the Baltic nations in 2028[4].  As such, we have again been surprised by the Argentine leadership’s depth of feeling – and risk-tolerance – in this bid to offset domestic discord with foreign adventure.  We assess this annexation is at least partly driven by the need to service increasingly onerous Chinese debts with Falkland oil revenues[5].  Finally, British Forces Falkland Islands (BFFI) stands at token levels.  Initially justified by Anglo-Argentine détente, this was sustained even while historic Argentine military weaknesses[6] were resolved through years of Chinese financing.

Significance:  With our focus on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Eastern Flank, BFFI is under-strength and at risk of being cut-off.  RAF MOUNT PLEASANT constitutes the lynchpin of our position on the Falkland Islands; its neutralisation will leave our forces vulnerable to a follow-on amphibious assault.  The Argentine goal will be to damage or seize the airbase to cut off our ‘air-bridge’ of rapid reinforcement and present the annexation as a fait accompli.

Option #1:  Assemble a Task Group at once to defend, or retake, the Islands.

Risk:  This option is not without risk; we cannot expect a repeat of 1982.  Geography is against us in every sense, with 3,000 miles of ocean separating us from the islands.  Moreover, the Argentine Navy now operates a large inventory of ex-Chinese drone-submarines capable of operating farther north than their forbears could reach in 1982.  Safe anchorage at Ascension Island is not guaranteed.

Unlike 1982, our fleet is also not concentrated for rapid reaction into the South Atlantic.  Whereas the nucleus of the previous Task Group was concentrated at Gibraltar for Exercise SPRING TRAIN 82, our carriers and major surface escorts are dispersed to Singapore (HMS PRINCE OF WALES) and the North Sea (HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH).  Redeploying these assets to the South Atlantic will take time, and compromise our obligations to NATO among others; we must hope our allies can meet these shortfalls.

We nevertheless have the advantage that the Argentine military, despite their investments, suffer from limited amphibious and airlift capabilities.  These will limit their scope to capture and garrison the Islands, should BFFI be overrun.  Effective targeting of these assets will be key to crippling the Argentine position.

Gain:  Britain can decisively restore the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, should we succeed. There is a high risk of casualties, including the loss of high-value warships, although we will deter future threats.

Option #2:  Pursue non-kinetic operations against the Argentine mainland.

Risk:  Cyber operations against targets in Argentina itself, coupled with targeted influence operations on social media, may destabilise the Argentine leadership.  Expanded operational scope could also incur meaningful economic difficulties; even simply revoking shipping insurance from leading British firms[7] might disrupt vital exports from the fragile Argentine economy.  We must nevertheless beware the public relations impact of too broad a target set.

We must also calibrate these operations for the greatest and quickest effect possible, as the BFFI garrison will not survive indefinitely.  The garrison’s most effective component includes a pair of Typhoon F2 fighters, reduced from the historic complement of four.  While some of our oldest airframes, they can match the second-hand Chinese models operating with the Argentine Air Force. But their effectiveness is not assured amid precision-fire threats to the MOUNT PLEASANT runway.

Gain:  Non-kinetic operations against the Argentine mainland might provoke the collapse of the Argentine leadership, while avoiding the risk of sending a full Task Group into the South Atlantic.  This may shorten the conflict and prevent a larger British casualty list.

Option #3:  Appeal to the United Nations (UN) for a return to the previously existing state of affairs.

Risk:  The United States, Canada and Australia will certainly support an appeal in the General Assembly.  However, our French and German counterparts have failed to support us on national security issues at the UN in the past[8].  The Chinese will also exert great influence among their client states to protect their creditor.

We cannot expect a resolution in our favour, but even a successful outcome may see our conduct thereafter bound by UN guidance.  The Argentine leadership likely shall not observe any rulings, and simply use the time spent to defeat the BFFI then consolidate their position on the Islands.

Gain:  A successful appeal through the UN will frame global perception as one of legality against Chinese-driven opportunism.  It will also leverage diplomatic legitimacy and economic tools in our favour, with potential for appeal among the Argentine domestic opposition, for a longer struggle.

Other Comments:  The Falkland Islanders have repeatedly affirmed their status as fellow Britons.  We must not fail them.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Savetheroyalnavy.org (2017, Nov. 29) Reflecting on the sad loss of the ARA San Juan https://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/reflecting-on-the-sad-loss-of-argentine-submarine-ara-san-juan/ (Accessed 29.08.18)

[2] Phillips, D. (2018, Aug. 6) Brazil: judge shuts border to Venezuelan migrants fleeting hunger and hardship https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/06/brazil-shuts-border-venezuelan-migrants (Accessed 28.08.18)

[3] Wheatley, J. (2018, Jun. 5) Argentina woos China in hunt for support package
https://www.ft.com/content/2e0cf612-68b0-11e8-b6eb-4acfcfb08c11 (Accessed 28.08.18)

[4] Shlapak, D. & Johnson, M. (2016) Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html (Accessed 28.08.18)

[5] Yeomans, John. (2016, Jan 11.) Rockhopper shares bounce after Falkland oil discovery  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/12092516/Rockhopper-shares-bounce-after-Falkland-oil-well-discovery.html (Accessed 28.08.18)

[6] Wilson, H. (2016, Feb. 17) Whence the threat? Lessons from Argentina’s Air-Naval Arsenal in 2015 http://cimsec.org/21667-2/21667 (Accessed 28.08.18)

[7] The Telegraph (2012, Jun. 19) Britain stops Russian ship carrying attack helicopters for Syria https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9339933/Britain-stops-Russian-ship-carrying-attack-helicopters-for-Syria.html (Accessed 28.08.18)

[8] Harding, A. (2018, Aug. 27) Chagos Islands dispute: UK ‘threatened’ Mauritius.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-45300739 (Accessed 29.08.18)

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