Argentina wouldn’t dare to invade the Falklands again, says Colonel Tim Collins. The Telegraph Saturday 28th March 2015.
What struck me about the Falkland Islanders on the several occasions when I served there during my army career was their warmth and their disarming generosity. That is not to say relations are always completely rosy between the islanders and the garrison that more than matches their numbers. The local joke goes “How do you make 4,000 people happy in the Falklands? Send 2,000 home”. The simple truth is that Falkland islanders just want to be left alone. But that is not likely to happen. Their jealous neighbour covets their tiny farms whilst using the islands as a convenient distraction from Argentina’s many domestic woes. With the news that the Russians are contemplating leasing 12 long-range bombers to Argentina, it would appear that the military threat to the Falklands is still very real. So what could and should the UK be doing to reassure the islanders and deter the aggressor?
We first have to analyse what is happening and why. What are the real intentions of the Argentines? A glance at the state of Argentina provides the answer.
The discredited president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is the subject of a number of criminal allegations. She has been accused of money laundering and tax evasion.
Only last week she was cleared by an Argentine appeals court of covering up the alleged involvement of senior Iranian officials in a 1994 bomb attack against a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires.
The allegations were based on a 350-page dossier compiled by special prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Nisman died in unexplained circumstances in January: he apparently shot himself – in the back of the head. His family believes he was murdered. Following his mysterious death, hundreds of thousands of people marched in silence in the Buenos Aires rain to pay tribute to him.
A controversial figure, and the subject of some ridicule in Latin America, Kirchner followed her husband to power in a series of governments that have presided over the collapse of the Argentine economy. I recall when I visited Colombia and Peru in 2012, working with the governments there, that there was much speculation about Madam Kirchner’s operation for suspected thyroid cancer. She had shown no signs whatsoever of illness. One official noted: “When you get a biopsy done on both sides of your neck at once here, we call it a face-lift.” It is to distract from the incompetence of her government, that Kirchner frequently wheels out the unjustifiable claim on the Falkland Islands. Despite a 2013 referendum in which the islanders voted to remain a British Overseas Territory – 1,513 to 3, with a turnout of more than 90 per cent, Kirchner dismisses them as squatters. Ironically, they have been there far longer than her own family have been “squatting”, to use her term, in southern America. Her grandparents were born in Spain and Germany.
So what would the addition of the Russian aircraft mean to the Argentine military? In my opinion, their impact would be negligible. The aircraft in question – Sukhoi SU 24s (NATO designation ‘FENCER’) – are old ladies with distinctly dated capabilities. They entered service with the Soviet Union in 1974 and were familiar to me when I served in Berlin in 1982. Those nations where they are still in service – for example Iran, Sudan and Kazakhstan – are not major air powers.
There are other problems for the Argentine Air Force. It still has not recovered from losing one-third of its strength in the Falklands War. Its inventory includes a number of second-hand A4 Sky Hawks – which proved easy pickings for the Royal Navy Harriers – and 60s era French Mirage fighters. Furthermore, the force’s leadership is suspect. Kirchner sacked the top 17 air force generals in 2005 for involvement in drug trafficking.
Also, consider the fact that the Sukhoi deal is superb for Russia. In exchange for some ancient junk, the Russians would get shipments of beef and wheat – circumventing the EU sanctions imposed over its involvement in the Ukraine conflict whilst sticking two fingers up to the UK for our criticism of that involvement (Putin himself compared Russian stance on Ukraine with the UK stance on the Falklands).
However, the Fencers could have the range to get to the Falklands and back if unopposed – unlike the rest of the Argentine Air Force, with only the A4s being capable of air-to-air refuelling and with only two tanker aircraft being available.
So, if the deal went through and, more seriously, if Argentina’s attempts to procure 24 Saab Gripen fighters – modern Swedish aircraft – through an order place by Brazil are successful, then the Argentines would have – on paper at least – a credible threat to the tiny islands.
But only on two conditions; First they would need to be able to pay. Whilst Russians would swap for beef and wheat, the Brazilians would require hard cash. Argentina’s defence budget is 0.9 per cent of an economy that shrunk 2 per cent last year. Her defence spending outstrips only that of Suriname in the region – and Suriname is the smallest sovereign state in South America. Secondly; they would have to get past the Royal Navy, the Royal Air force and then survive the Army’s Star Streak missiles.
Getting past the Royal Navy would be a challenge. In the South Atlantic, the Royal Navy deploys at least one of the new Daring Class Type 45 destroyers. Doesn’t sound much; but with each one capable of tracking up to 1,000 targets from 400Km simultaneously and engaging up to 300 targets in layers from 120 km to 30 km (provided the targets are larger than a tennis ball) simultaneously, it is the equivalent of 5 Type 42 destroyers of the type used in the Falklands War. In effect, if all the serviceable attack aircraft in all of Latin America – including Cuba – were attacking the Falklands, a Type 45 could cope comfortably.
Then there are the four Typhoons based in the Falklands. With a combat radius of 100 miles, they would far outperform anything that would come their way with the exception of the Gripens. The Gripens – slower, with a lower service ceiling, and less thrust than the Typhoons – would, in numbers at least, stand a chance against the Typhoons.
But then they have to avoid the Star Streak missiles. Built in Belfast, Star Streaks travel at more than Mach 3 – three times the speed of a SU 24. My money would be on the Star Streaks.
For the sake of argument, what if the Royal Navy was accounted for by the Argentine Navy? With 17 war ships, including four destroyers, and three submarines the Argentines have again – on paper – a threat to the Royal Navy and the Falklands. But, again, that is where the threat ends. On paper. The bulk of the navy is confined to port because of a lack of spares and engine problems. The ships’ on-board ordnance is past its sell-by date. There isn’t even the money for petrol to run the engines. One of the corvettes, Spiro (P 43), is out of service having run aground. So is one of the elderly submarines, Santa Cruz. The Submarine fleet has achieved a grand total of 19 hours of submerged training since 2012 against a minimum requirement of 190 days.
Training is very poor. The list of disasters is endless. The Sarandi – one of the destroyers – managed to damage the Brazilian Frigate Rademaker by firing on her during joint naval exercises, injuring four Brazilian sailors and an Argentine observer when her fire control system went haywire. The Destroyer Santisima Trinidad capsized and sank at anchor due to poor maintenance. And that is all before the Type 45s even turn on their defence systems against ships up to 40 years old and with the RN’s submarine fleet not even considered.
In a nutshell, I’m not sure what the fuss is about. I wouldn’t worry about the knackered old Fencers. They need to be maintained and we know that is one capability gap in the Argentine military. Of course, we do need to keep up a strong defence – and that means we must maintain the two per cent spending required by NATO – if the peaceful farmers on the wind wept islands are to continue to live their bucolic ideal and Kirchner’s rhetoric is to remain just that. But let the Russians have their little jibe. I hope they enjoy the beef.
It is my most humble opinion that Colonel Tim Collins would make a an excellent politician – it is hoped one day he chooses to throw his hat into the political arena. A fine honest Irishman with a rod of iron for a backbone… Yours Aye.