Monday, 5 March 2012

The Falklands' Air Link Threat: Part II

As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War approaches,  the persistent whine of Argentine diplomatic bullying has increased to fever pitch. The latest threat - a proposed air link via Argentina - is not only an attempt to control the territory's civilian links to the outside world.

If such a mad scheme was ever considered, it would immediately undermine the lynchpin of the islands' defence, by exposing RAF Mount Pleasant air base to a "Trojan Horse" special forces attack - one of the unconventional military options available to Argentina.

In 1998, former President Carlos Menem reflected his country's limited military options after losing the Falklands War, stating that Argentina would only seek peaceful means to gain sovereignty. Since then, however, the rhetoric of each Argentinian leader has been more bellicose than the last.

Argentina's conventional military threat to the islands is actually much less prominent than it was in 1982. The country has barely modernised its defence forces since then, leaving them technically obsolete in any battlefield confrontation. In contrast, Anglo-American wars in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have kept Britain's military forces among the world's best.

The UK government's position on the Falklands has remained steadfast since 1982: the clear will of the islanders to remain British means that negotiations over their sovereignty are impossible, and protected against Argentina's competing claim by the principle of self-determination, enshrined in the Falklands' own constitution.

Britain's military options for defending the islands have declined since 1982. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review decision to scrap the Harrier fighter aircraft (and retire one aircraft carrier) has restricted the Royal Navy's remaining aircraft carriers to flying only helicopters from their decks.

The military strategy for defending the islands is now centred on RAF Mount Pleasant, built in 1984 and home to four Eurofighter Typhoon state-of-the-art jet fighters that are vital to the island's defence.

The base also has a VC-10 aerial refuelling aircraft a C-130 Hercules transport plane, several Rapier anti-aircraft missile batteries, and well over a thousand military personnel, including some dedicated infantry and engineer troops. Offshore, at any one time there is always at least one Royal Navy warship, as well as an armed patrol vessel attached to the islands. 

Until new aircraft carriers and their F-35 jets come into service in about a decade's time, the Royal Navy cannot project air power 9,000 miles from home, like it did in order to retake the islands in 1982. That means that if Argentina could somehow seize RAF Mount Pleasant, it would not be possible to retake the islands with a naval task force like that of thirty years ago.

In short, the defence of the islands depends on the RAF base. In the event of an attack, the security of the base would be vital to the islands' defence. Press reports suggest UK plans for defending the Falklands are dependent on quickly ferrying troops and supplies by air.

Air reinforcement would be via the air base on Ascension Island, roughly half way across the 9,000 miles between Britain and Mount Pleasant. If an enemy neutralised RAF Mount Pleasant, Britain would find it tough to defend the Falklands, and almost impossible to resupply or recapture them.

Lesson from Entebbe

I think you may have twigged it. If Argentina's state airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, ever had access to RAF Mount Pleasant, it would pose a grave security risk. I expect the government's defence advisers will be relaying this message to David Cameron, in case he would ever feel tempted to consider appeasing Cristina de Kirchner with an an air link deal.

Sophisticated Typhoon fighters and Rapier missile batteries, not to mention the (temporary) presence of an advanced air defence warship such as HMS Dauntless in the South Atlantic, would all render a conventional air attack on the Falklands nearly impossible. However, most military commanders would flinch at the thought of pressing the button to shoot down a civilian airliner.

I'm reading Andrew Rawnsley's superb "The End of the Party" which describes British political hand-wringing in the days after 9/11 about who would have theoretically authorised the destruction of a civilian aircraft, in the scenario of a suspected hijacked airliner, thought to be on its way to launch a similar 9/11-style strike on the UK.

Defence advisor lieutenant-colonel Ewen Southby-Tailyour has argued that using a civilian airliner offers Argentina their best opportunity to take the Falklands, via a surprise attack on Mount Pleasant.

Argentina's defence budget means its conventional assets - aircraft, tanks and ships - are mostly antiques compared to UK equipment. But they still have a sprinkling of effective special forces troops: perfect for a surprise raid.

Southby-Tailyour suggests that special forces could use a civilian airliner - diverted from its usual flight path for a faked emergency landing, or, in an ideal attack scenario, even allowed access by an air link agreement - as a "Trojan Horse".

Special forces men could quickly jump from a plane to neutralise the airbase's defences and parked Typhoons in an attack from within, as Israeli commandoes did to spectacular effect in the epic "Raid on Entebbe" against Idi Amin's Uganda in 1976.

In the case of Argentina, they could potentially be supported by submarine-inserted commandoes, to divert British attention in the critical moments.

"It would take a very brave politician to shoot down a civilian airliner in cold blood. The Argentine forces are good. They could jump out and shoot everything up," says Southby-Tailyour.

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