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Can Britain Defend the Falklands?

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Thirty years ago Britain fought a costly and bloody war to reclaim the Falklands from Argentina. Today, Britain's ability to defend the islands is being repeatedly challenged.

The most biting criticism has come from retired senior military figures concerned about the impact of British defence cuts. A group of retired Royal Navy chiefs wrote a well-publicised letter to the Times arguing: "Argentina is practically invited to attempt to inflict on us a national humiliation...from which British prestige...might never recover." Major General Julian Thompson stated that "the Argentines could invade and seize the Falklands again." And a report by four retired senior military figures argued that the Falklands were a "disaster waiting to happen", and a "plum ripe for the picking".

It is certainly true that cuts to the British military would make retaking the Falklands more difficult should the islands be lost. It is also true that the discovery of significant hydrocarbon reserves in the waters around the Falklands has increased their strategic value, and that Argentine rhetoric on the Falklands has become increasingly bellicose. But does Argentina have the capability to seize the Falklands? Fortunately, the answer is no.

First, the Falklands today are well defended. In 1982, there were fewer the 100 Royal Marines on the islands, and Argentina was able to capture them with relative ease. Today, Britain has an airbase at Mount Pleasant with two runways, four Eurofighter Typhoon jets, an army deployment of 420, radar stations and - possibly - a nuclear attack submarine. A Joint Rapid Response Force could get additional forces to the Falkland Islands at very short notice.

Second, if Argentina wanted to land troops on the Falklands and seize the Mount Pleasant airbase, it would need to somehow achieve air superiority over the islands in order to prevent British fighter jets from attacking Argentine forces. Argentina's air force, however, has not received new aircraft or upgrades since the 1982 war. Computer simulations I conducted for a recent research paper suggest Argentina would need to use their entire Air Force if they wanted to try to destroy the Typhoons on the ground or destroy the runways - and would be highly unlikely to succeed even if they did so. And destroying the Typhoons in the air is likely well beyond the capabilities of Argentina's ageing planes.

Third, even if Argentina was somehow able to negate British airpower, Argentina simply doesn't have the ability to get sufficient forces onto the Islands to seriously threaten the airbase. Argentina has very limited fast sea transport capabilities - and the possible presence of a British submarine in the waters round the Falklands would make the crossing from mainland Argentina extremely risky for Argentine forces to attempt. An air assault would provide Argentina with their best chance of getting significant numbers of forces onto the islands - and if Argentine C-130s were able to land on one of the rough airstrips on the islands, they would not need to capture the airbase. But keeping such forces protected from British airpower, protecting the flights necessary to keep them resupplied, and preventing British reinforcements from arriving, are all likely beyond Argentina's capabilities.

There are, inevitably, uncertainties in assessing complex military contingencies. And the low odds of success do not necessarily rule out the possibility that Argentina might gamble everything in a daring and risky effort to get the Falklands back. But unless Argentina invests substantial resources in their Air Force and Navy, the Falkland Islands are at a low risk of being lost.

The debate over the wisdom of British defence cuts will - and should - continue. However, worries about Britain's capacity to defend the Falkland Islands should no longer play a prominent role in those debates.