“It is simply not the case that decommissioning the Harrier would impact upon our ability to defend territories in the South Atlantic.”
Defence Secretary Liam Fox, the Times, 10 November, 2010
In its Strategic Defence and Security Review in October, the Government opted to scrap its only aircraft carrier Ark Royal and its fleet of Harrier jets.
They wrote dramatically: “In respect of the newly valuable Falklands and their oilfields, because of these and other cuts, for the next 10 years at least, Argentina is practically invited to attempt to inflict on us a national humiliation on the scale of the loss of Singapore – one from which British prestige, let alone the administration in power at the time, might never recover.”
The signatories included Admiral Lord West of Spithead, a former minister in the Labour government whose ship HMS Ardent was sunk by Argentinian aircraft during the Falklands War, and Major General Julian Thompson, British commander on the islands at the end of the conflict.
By decommissioning Ark Royal, Britain will be without an aircraft carrier for up to a decade while two new vessels are built.
Harrier jump jets have been flown from Ark Royal, but are being taken out of service – while Britain’s fleet of Tornado jets, which can’t fly from carriers, will be protected.
Lord West told FactCheck: “The point is that we must never forget that the Argentines are taught that the Malvinas, as they call them, are theirs. I don’t say it’s going to happen immediately, but there is a risk. It’s an example of what can happen anywhere in the world.”
In 1982, when the Argentinians invaded the Falklands, the islands were lightly defended by a contingent of Royal Marines and the Antarctic patrol vessel and ice breaker, HMS Endurance.
The Thatcher government’s announcement in 1981 that Endurance would be decommissioned is credited with encouraging General Galtieri’s regime to believe that Britain wasn’t serious about defending the Falklands.
This year, there has been renewed tension between Britain and Argentina over oil exploration in the South Atlantic.
But these days, Argentina is a democracy, not a military dictatorship – and the islands are defended much more robustly than in 1982.
There’s a fully functioning airfield at Mount Pleasant and four Eurofighter Typhoon jets.
In place of Endurance, there’s a warship (a Type 42 destroyer), a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship and a patrol vessel. There are also more than a thousand servicemen and women.
But if the Falkands were invaded, it’s true to say that there wouldn’t a be a carrier and Harriers to send there.
Nor would Britain be able to rely on a new generation of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft because the programme was scrapped in the defence review.
So are the former admirals right to say that cuts have made the Falklands vulnerable to attack?
He told FactCheck: “The Falklands are, per capita, probably the best protected place on earth. Unless the air base is taken out, there’s no threat to the Falklands given the state of the Argentinian air and naval forces.
“It would be suicide for them to attack the Falklands. If I was going to make a balance of risk argument, I think the Government can easily swat them (the letter’s signatories) down.”
Prof Lindley-French said the retired admirals were right to criticise the fact that Britain had been left without a carrier, “but they’re wrong to use the Falkland Islands as an example”.
It’s understandable that veterans of the Falklands, like Lord West and Major General Thompson, would want to use the conflict to make their case against cuts they believe will damage Britain’s defences.
But 2010 isn’t 1982. Despite the tensions over oil and Argentina’s continuing claim to the islands, a functioning airfield, Typhoon aircraft and a destroyer mean Britain would find it easier to repel an attack today than 28 years ago.
The Government wouldn’t be able to dispatch an aircraft carrier, but on the “balance of risk”, the cuts in the defence budget shouldn’t give the 3,000 islanders too many sleepless nights. FactCheck accepts Liam Fox’s analysis.