Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Falklands, exercises and tactical nuclear penguins...

Over the years Humphrey has become somewhat cynical of the news cycle about Defence. Most weeks of the year see the same cyclical series of stories about how the UK is no longer relevant, how the RN couldn’t defend Falmouth from a horde of French marines in Pedalos and how the Argentines clearly pose a major threat to the Falkland Islands. The latest iteration in this is the now traditional outburst that the UK is somehow causing a rise in tension in the South Atlantic by conducting routine exercises in the Falklands.

While it is easy to get either easily riled at the ridiculousness of the situation, or get worked up at the sheer outrage of it all, the pronouncements on the story perhaps show how weak the current Argentine case is, and hint at desperation measures to get the news story away from internal problems.   Breaking the story down, it is essentially the latest in a long series of claims by Argentina that the UK is attempting to militarise the Falklands – this seems to be linked to the deployment of Typhoon aircraft, the updating and replacement of in service equipment and the routine deployment of UK nuclear submarines into the region. Currently the news articles are reaching new levels of hyperbole, claiming that the Falklands are now a NATO base for nuclear submarines (something that may come as a mild surprise to NATO).

The story is one that owes more to the near total lack of updating of the Argentine military relative to the continued investment and planned replacement in UK equipment than it does in any suggestion that the UK is militarising the islands. A cursory glance shows how much smaller the garrison has become over the years.

Why then given the ridiculousness of the claims and the fact that they make Argentina look foolish does the Argentine Government persist in putting them out? Humphreys personal view is that there are several reasons why this increasingly odd propaganda campaign continues, despite seemingly having no real basis in truth.

Firstly, the narrative of the Falklands debate is one which is of relatively little interest to most other nations, beyond perhaps a few die hard anti-colonial powers. Routine pronouncements on the unfairness of the situation by Argentina will get little if any wider interest, and generate no real support now. Instead, in order to keep feeding the publicity monster that is the Falklands debate, Argentina has to keep drumming up ever more outrageous claims to get attention. The sort of claims about militarisation and nuclear submarine bases are patently ridiculous, but they are getting attention and as such means that the UK has to spend time patiently trying to explain the reality of the situation.

The danger with such a tactic is that each time you raise the bar in the debate, you make it ever harder to come up with a new story or credible reason to be covered. The more Argentine politicians make these statements, the harder it is for them to de-escalate the situation. How do you back away from these sort of patently false statements when the UK can easily demonstrate that it has not been militarising the islands? The challenge is going to be working out a way to step down from extreme rhetoric and moving to a position where the Argentines are seen as being reasonable rational actors.

The problem they face is that with a referendum highlighting the enormous support for the islands to remain British, and with a quiet diplomacy campaign going on with islanders travelling across central and south America to put their side of the story across, the Argentine view is looking increasingly isolated. The problem on the international stage is that grandiose pronouncements of outrage need to be backed up by provable facts in order to gain international support. Argentina is treading a path where it is increasingly crying wolf, and the more it does this, and the more outlandish and bizarre its claims, the less international support or attention it will enjoy on the matter. As a rule most nations dislike being drawn into others territorial disputes – the more that Argentina links the Falklands to its external policy, the harder it will find it to gain international support on other matters. This is a shame as it weakens Argentina externally, and reduces her ability to act as a wider force for good in the world. No nation should be seen as a single issue foreign policy actor, but right now it is hard to see Argentina as anything other than this. 

At home the policy seems linked more to try to deflect attention from continued political weakness and  a very poor economy than any real sense of trying to bring about change. Nothing unites like a manufactured foreign policy crisis, but again the problem for the politicians is that the more they cry wolf, the harder it is to continue generating the same level of popular support. The reality is that as the economy tanks, inflation hits and people lose jobs, their interest in a frankly hypothetical territorial dispute hundreds of miles from their borders, when their real lives are a struggle will diminish. For Argentine politicians, faced with the challenge of trying to secure domestic support and keep their hold on power, it will always be easy to try and drum up a bogeyman – but to keep on doing so past the point when there is a critical mass of popular support seems futile. One only has to look at the way the claims have got ever more outlandish and dramatic to realise that the Argentine population itself seems to have a much higher tolerance threshold on these matters than in the past – indeed, beyond a hard core of supporters, are the Falklands really an issue for most now, and will this soon be a foreign policy trump card that has been played too often to be of any real value to placate the masses from their domestic worries?

What then is the impact for the UK from all this? On a practical basis very little, but it does highlight the challenges faced in trying to put forward a balanced and rational debate on the Falkland Islands, when one party is keen to put forward all manner of outlandish propaganda. When the issue is discussed, rather than focusing on the positives, the UK finds itself having to rebuff ever more bizarre allegations. It also means that when routine deployments go ahead, or when equipment is updated, the UK has to be fairly defensive in its approach – an Argentine campaign highlighting the supposed militarisation of the region is fairly simplistic, but easy to do when you compare the capabilities of a Type 45 or Typhoon to the Argentine Armed Forces. This in turn makes it more difficult to just do the routine sort of deployments that used to be taken for granted – one impact of the internet and social media is that its very easy to push a cause, no matter how unusual or extreme, and whereas in previous years, Argentine protests would have had little coverage, today they can be pushed globally through various websites.

For the UK then although the whole situation may seem somewhat odd, it does warrant attention. The more that Argentina tries to frame the debate on the Falklands around ever more ridiculous pretexts, the harder it is to bring it back to what it is really all about – the right of self-determination for a group of Islanders who have repeatedly made clear that they wish to remain British. 


  1. If there is one issue about which Sir Humph is guaranteed to rise like the proverbial trout, It is the defense of the Falklands and, about which, I have not read a dickey bird in the press.
    And I scan several, so, unless the offending rubbish is in 36point Times New Font, it's more than possible that I could have missed it.
    However, what I haven't missed is the news that the economy is on the up, wages are on the up, inflation is steady and unemployment is down.
    Sir Humph, for whatever reason has not only missed the target, but has hit a blue on blue and it was unnecessary. He has given quite a few excellent assessments of the military situation in the South Atlantic and all of them have been written to debunk careless and inaccurate press reports.
    This time he has only just missed his own foot, but I enjoyed his bile.

    1. Put this piece in its wider context: Russian actions in the Ukraine and the seeming abandonment by Britain, due to both military and moral weakness, of it's NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Sir H is clearly trying to distract us from the demonstrable threat that Russia poses to the Western alliance system and the territorial integrity of both NATO and EU by dragging from back pages of a google news search an example of something where Britain actually has a useful military capability.

      Its the oldest trick in the book but unsurprising given his preciously stoic support of British military cooperation with Russia and then passivity in the face of Russian imperial aggression.

    2. "Put this piece in its wider context: Russian actions in the Ukraine and the seeming abandonment by Britain, due to both military and moral weakness, of it's NATO allies in Eastern Europe."

      Ukraine is not in NATO and therefore there is no military option. End of. The UK is following the same course as its NATO and EU allies, so the US, France, Germany etc. must also be guilty of military and moral weakness. The only viable course of action is political/economic sanctions against Russia, beyond that it is not our problem.

    3. Simple thoughts producing simple conclusions I see.

    4. I think simple is preferable to plain incorrect. Ask the wrong questions and do not be surprised if you come up with the wrong answers.

    5. As you have amply demonstrated, thank you for clarifying how you come to your wrong answers.

  2. Try this : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26999735
    "Argentina has accused the UK of provocation over plans to hold military exercises in the Falkland Islands.

    It said drills by British forces would include missile launches and were part of a "pattern" of "hostile acts".

    The British ambassador in Buenos Aires has been summoned by Argentina's deputy foreign minister, who will protest over the "new show of military force"....said the UK planned to conduct the exercises on "occupied Argentine territory" between 14 and 27 April."

    1. I apologise, but really, The Beeb!
      I cannot imagine Sir Humph loading his pen just to rebuff the BBC. He'd be at it all year.
      Personally, I prefer Al Jazeera for the latest on the MoD sit rep on the Falklands and they're schtum.

  3. I live in Australia and have done so for years. Even here, there have been a few dickey birds about it in the media.

    It was, as usual, a thoughtful and insightful post. Thanks Sir Humphrey.

  4. Crikey Sir H, second post in a row where you are broadly right- keep this up and it may become a habit. However, it does seem that this piece may be designed to keep attention away from British weakness with regard to Russia.

    I get the sense that the Argentine Falklands whining is getting tiresome even for their most erstwhile allies while the Argentine military is utterly pathetic, even compared to the British military, the reported acquisition of Kfirs being demonstrative of this. Argentina's complaining is nothing more internal distraction to cover up domestic failures and polish the ego of the current president. Best not to worry about it.

    1. "However, it does seem that this piece may be designed to keep attention away from British weakness with regard to Russia."

      Complete nonsense. What exactly should the UK do that it has not done already? There is no military option and I do not see anyone else rushing to get involved. The situation in Ukraine is not our problem and we should steer clear of it. You might just as well accuse the US, France, Germany, NATO, the EU etc. of weakness.

    2. See above.

  5. I actually think it might be more dangerous than that. As a young man back in the seventies and eighties I used to attend the odd soccer match with a pal who was a keen fan...and as you will recall that period was the zenith of organised fighting at such events; so I witnessed some, and indeed met some of the protagonists. What struck me was the amount of bouncing up and down, threatening and generally getting yourself and others into a state of deliberately induced hysterical rage was required before a blow was struck...not unlike the sort of ritual preparation for battle that has been observed amongst the indigenous tribes of New Guinea.

    I sometimes wonder if this is the same sort of stuff played out at a national level, and if so it is potentially dangerous...we don't want to find ourselves having to take heavy-handed measures against something akin to the "Turkish Peace Flotilla to Gaza" that happened a few years ago...at least not without careful preparation.

    aka GNB

  6. To clear it up, it was a Company-level exercise of 1 RRF (not the going or gone 2 RRF) which got the Argie's protest.

    the MOD is right that it is routine exercise--although lots of exercises don't look routine (even to bloggers and other countries)

    Sir H toes the Coalition govt's line often.

    Is the Falklands defenceless? Comparing ORBAT to ORBAT, the debate goes on forever. But by a large, the lessons of 1982 were learnt. And defence is never a computer game. If you want to increase the size of the garrison sure--say where the money and troops wil com from. Tell families how they like love ones to be away.

    On the Nuclear stuff: Well no one knows where the V-Boats patrol.

  7. I am more bothered about the SNP claiming the Falklands; they seem to like grabbing British archipelagos that have oil.

  8. The real problem with the Falklands is that until 1970 the British Sir Humphreys were keeping it in their back pocket as a possible free gift to sweeten a trade or military bargain with Argentina. Even in the years immediately preceding the war Lord Carrington was busy offering the Falklands as a chip in the international game of poker. The net result of this Foreign Office perfidy is that the British position has not been stated clearly on the world stage.

    The simple truth is that Argentina does not have a legal or moral leg to stand on. See Las Malvinas: The Legal Case. It needed a serious own goal by the British over a century and a half to turn the Falklands into a crisis.

    1. Good Lord, whatever else is in the pocket?
      Antarctic slice?
      Isle of Man?
      .............the mind shudders, but we know it's entirely probable.

    2. Its funny you should mention Gibraltar, the Foreign Office are doing a Falklands on Gib as we write. The UN recognises Gibraltar and the Falklands as colonies, not as vacant lumps of ground, having recognised this it is bound by the UN Charter (Articles 73 and 103) to allow the population to decide their own future. The Foreign Office has a different idea about Gib - they want to play international poker with Gib as a stake.

    3. And has been doing it for years, decades in fact. It is incredibly tiresome but basically the British ruling elite has nothing but contempt for those over which it rules so is perfectly content to place them in danger or sacrifice their sovereignty if their is some minor gain to be made by the ruling elite. They are more than happy to engage in complete logical fallacy in the pursuit of this, I will always remember the Foreign Office rejecting the 2002 Gibraltar referendum as a shining example of this.