Could the UK still defend the Falklands?

Graphic showing the relative strength of UK forces in the Falklands in 1982 and 2012

Diplomatic tension has been growing between Argentina and the UK in recent weeks over the Falkland Islands. The 30th anniversary of the war between the two nations is just over a month away.

But in a hypothetical repeat of that conflict, could the UK hold on to the islands? And in the event of losing them, would they be able to recapture them from Argentine forces?

Could Britain defend the islands? 1982 2012

Compiled by Tom de Castella and Megan Lane

What's on the islands?

Troops arrive on the islands

On the eve of the invasion, there were about 70 Royal Marines stationed on the islands - twice the usual number due to a changeover.

They were, in theory, backed up by about 120 local reservists, although only a small proportion reported for duty.

HMS Endurance, an Antarctic ice patrol vessel, was the only ship based in the South Atlantic at the time.

And there were no fighter jets - none of the island's airstrips were long enough. The only planes that could land before the war came from Argentina.

Supplying the Falklands by sea from Britain took two weeks.

The major difference is the construction of RAF Mount Pleasant, a modern air base housing four Eurofighter Typhoon strike fighters, a Hercules transport plane and VC-10 tanker plane. There are also Rapier missile batteries in several locations. The British garrison numbers 1,200, including 100 infantrymen, with 200 reservists in the Falkland Islands Defence Force.

The Royal Navy has a patrol vessel, an auxiliary support ship, and frigate or state-of-the-art destroyer. It's reported that a British nuclear-powered submarine is in the South Atlantic, but the Ministry of Defence will not discuss operational matters. "It's quite a considerable deterrent force," says Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.

Intelligence capability

Despite repeated warnings from naval attaches in South America, the invasion took the UK government by surprise.

Even when it became clear that Argentine troops had landed on the island, it took some time for the British government to establish that the islands had fallen. "Intelligence in those days [1982] was hopeless," says Prof Sir Lawrence Freedman, official historian of the Falklands War. "There was no access to satellites at the time of invasion. People didn't know what was going on."

Nowadays the UK has access to satellites that would show a massing of Argentine forces.

Islanders have the internet, which would make it easier to get word back that the islands are under attack.

"There was incredulity in the early 1980s that Argentina would invade," says Prof Freedman.

"That's not present now, they're more alert."

Chance of success

The tiny British contingent stood little chance against a large invasion force. Argentine special forces began landing late on 1 April and more beachheads were made in the following hours. Their arrival was not detected until just before dawn. The 70 British troops and 20 local reservists put up some resistance. But the Argentine troops, reinforced and numbering about 600, pressed on to Stanley. Governor Rex Hunt agreed to the surrender of British forces at 09:30 that morning.

Military experts believe the islands are now virtually impregnable. The new air base has completely altered the balance of power. Any sign of Argentine invasion and the islands could be quickly reinforced by air. "There's no way Argentine forces could ever take Mt Pleasant air base," says Prof Clarke. They would need to land a large number of troops to capture it. And with more than 300 miles of sea to cross from the mainland, and Typhoon fighters and HMS Dauntless in the way, it is not going to happen, he says.

Could Britain win them back?

1982

2012

Navy's ability to launch task force

Man reads The Sun headlined: "It's War"

When the islands were invaded, a task force of ships was quickly assembled.

The force numbered more than 100 ships, of which 40-odd were Royal Navy ships.

The task force's two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and Invincible, carried Harriers and Sea Harriers. There was a nuclear submarine, two amphibious landing craft, several destroyers and frigates. There were also 20+ ships belonging to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

It's been suggested that the US military had considered an attempt to recapture the Falklands as militarily impossible for the UK at the time.

The main difference now is that the two carriers can only support helicopters, and it's likely only one would be available at any one time. There are three Type 45 destroyers - far more advanced than their predecessors - three Type 42 destroyers and 13 frigates. There are still two amphibious landing craft, but they are far more modern and effective, says Lt Col Ewen Southby-Tailyour, who advised the task force in 1982.

There are three landing auxiliary ships, a modern Astute class submarine and six of the older Trafalgar nuclear-powered submarines.

Air power

Carriers were critical to the success of the amphibious landings.

They allowed more than 20 Harriers and Sea Harriers to be close to the action, providing air cover for the troops and rest of the fleet.

Argentine planes outnumbered the British by about five to one, but could not reach top speed as they needed to save fuel to return to the Argentine mainland. It showed the importance of having floating airfields.

There are no aircraft to protect a task force. RAF Wideawake, the air base on Ascension, in the middle of the Atlantic, is 4,000 miles away. So any fighter planes deployed from there would require mid-air refuelling. Even if a carrier comes into service in 2020, there is no guarantee there will be strike jets to go on them, says Felstead. If the Falklands were invaded again, there would be no way for Britain to take them back. With no genuine aircraft carrier, it would be impossible to protect a task force. To send a flotilla without air cover would be "suicidal", he says.

Merchant ships

QE2 laden with troops

About half of the task force was made up of merchant vessels. Cruise liners the SS Canberra and QE2 - pictured above - were used as troop ships, while container ships such as the SS Atlantic Conveyor and SS Atlantic Causeway, were requisitioned to transport supplies. The task force was assembled in four days.

Very few merchant ships carry British flags now - many fly a flag of convenience.

"It would be much harder today," says Freedman.

But it might prove equally easy today to get hold of ships.

It's easy to charter ships and takes no time to change a ship's flag, says Gavin Simmonds, secretary of the body that advises the UK Chamber of Shipping on defence matters.

And ship owners are desperate for business in the economic downturn so would be happy to see their vessels chartered by the UK government.

Military strategy

Sea power supplemented by air cover was the only way of winning the islands back in those days. The Argentine junta thought the UK government wouldn't bother to try to recapture them - they were wrong. The key to success was an amphibious landing backed by air power, submarines and destroyers.

Much has changed in strategic terms. Nowadays, it could be won back through long-range air power, says Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute. The lack of carrier aircraft is an impediment. Many, including former head of the military General Sir Mike Jackson, have said it would now be impossible to recapture the islands. Clarke disagrees. Bombers from Ascension - backed by refuelling planes - could destroy Mt Pleasant air base if it fell into Argentine hands. Once Argentine defences had been nullified, special forces could be dropped onto the islands. So it is possible - but politically, there is probably no heart for such a campaign, Clarke says.

The Argentine position

1982

2012

Military strength

Fighter-bombers

Argentine marines were ordered to capture the islands without killing any British soldiers, a feat that they accomplished. The Argentine navy was well equipped with Dassault-Breguet Super Etendard strike fighters, which destroyed several British ships with Exocet missiles. Other planes in use by the Argentine military included Aermacchi MB-339s as well as Skyhawks and Mirages. Argentine pilots were admired for their skill by UK forces. However, the conscript soldiers who fought against the British landings showed limited appetite for the fight.

The Falklands War was 30 years ago. "But in military terms it is 100 years ago," says Clarke. British forces have advanced about 60 years in sophistication, but Argentine forces have barely improved, still using military hardware from the 1970s and 80s. Southby-Tailyour says they no longer have the landing craft to make an amphibious landing possible. However their special forces are highly respected.

Most military thinkers agree they offer the only credible threat through a surprise attack on Mt Pleasant. One scenario might be a civilian airliner packed with special forces to divert to Mt Pleasant, says Colonel Southby-Tailyour. "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."

Political context

Former President Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri and current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

Argentina was a military junta led by General Galtieri, pictured far left. The junta was unpopular and saw a war to reclaim the long coveted Islas Malvinas as a way of boosting support. And it mistakenly believed islanders would see the Argentines as liberators.

Britain had been in negotiations with Argentina, with historians suggesting signals were effectively sent out that it might be happy to give them up. The sole British naval vessel in the South Atlantic at the time, HMS Endurance, was due to be withdrawn in mid-April but the order was cancelled once war broke out.

Today Argentina is a democracy. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (left) has requested talks on the islands' future and accused the UK of "arrogance" for refusing to negotiate.

But it is a diplomatic war of words. Experts say there is no enthusiasm in Argentine government or military circles for another war with Britain. The rhetoric from Britain is tougher, and the military hardware on the islands far more of a deterrent. And the Argentine government understands the islanders want to remain British.

Oil may be what the current dispute is about - according to some sources, a compromise whereby Britain allows the profits to be split 50-50 is likely to be considered.

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