[Ed: This is the first part of a two part article; part two will be published later this week.]
The exclusive British maritime economic zone of the 778 Falklands islands contains an estimated 30 billion barrels of oil reserves worth (assuming 20% wastage and $50 per barrel), £520 billion pounds after extraction costs of £680 billion pounds so £1200 billion gross.
The UK should take steps now to ensure that Argentina (or, say, Russia), £520 billion potential profit notwithstanding, knows that invading the Falklands will not pay in the late 2010s or 2020s.
I estimate the United Kingdom spent £340 million (£110 million on naval defence, £110 million on air defence, £26 million on army defence and £94 million on support) defending the Falklands in 2014. It almost might as well have spent nothing.
The last line of defence of the Falklands are the 120 soldiers of the British army infantry company group there (the other circa 1,080 military servicemen and women, although the 140 Royal Engineers might disagree with me, are largely non-combat personnel).
260 combat personnel may be sufficient to act as a trip wire but a trip wire did not prevent war in 1982.
In the spring of 2015 Michael Fallon announced a £180 million upgrade to the islands’ forces focused on improved command, control and communications facilities. A better use of less money would have been the approximately £90 million annual expenditure required to beef up the infantry company group already there to battle group strength of circa 1,000 infantry and artillerymen. Such a force would be disproportionately potent as it would include, which the company group does not, organic artillery. A battle group would have a fighting chance of delaying any Argentine attack from capturing Mount Pleasant for long enough to allow reinforcements to arrive and could deploy a force to contest for the West Falklands too. A company group has no such chance.
The Argentine army has a front line strength of 70,000 so even a battle group will not be able to defeat a determined landed Argentine attack indefinitely.
Evidently the current plan for defence of the islands does not rely on the army, so how does the second line of defence shape up? The second line of defence of the islands is the flight of four Typhoon Fighters operating out of RAF Mount Pleasant. This constitutes circa 3.7% of the RAF’s front line combat aircraft. At any time one or two of these four Typhoons will probably be in refit, maintenance or repair. Assuming a flight ratio of two pilots to one plane this would mean that each aircraft not in refit or repair could be airborne (assuming 5 hour shifts) for about 40% of the time. In other words, with a single flight stationed on the island, unless the ratio of pilots to planes is much higher than two, often only one, and occasionally zero British warplanes would be in the air. Whatever the pilots position this puts an alarming degree of reliance on the islands’ ground based radar systems (which are vulnerable to special forces attack) to detect an aerial attack in a timely fashion.
In 2014 Argentina attempted to acquire 20 Mirage F1 fighter jets from Spain, considered a deal to lease 12 Sukhoi Su-24 long range bombers from Russia and sought18 Kfir fighter jets from Israel. British diplomacy, and other factors, stymied these three deals but at the time it appeared that Argentina wanted to triple its interceptor force (from 14 to 44) and perhaps create a bombing force, too. By January 2015, Argentina had established a working group with the People’s Republic of China with a view to replacing the existing interceptor inventory with 14-20 Chinese FC-1 (called JF-17s when manufactured in Pakistan) or J-10 multirole war planes. Of the two the J-10s would be the more modern and potent. Mere replacement of the 2015 inventory would still leave Argentina able to engage the RAF at odds of three to one but unlike the old Mirages the Chinese planes are of a more recent design than the British Typhoons. The Typhoon probably is stronger than the FC-1 but the gap if Argentina acquired FC-1s would be narrower than it was in 2015 and if they acquired 20 J-10s and deployed them against the Falklands the Typhoons would have little chance even if all four were airborne at the time of attack.
Unlike in 1982, The UK has no means, until 2019 or 2020 (when HMS Queen Elizabeth, whose sea trials begin in February and whose flight trials begin in July 2018, should complete working up its combat planes), to deploy air power for any campaign to retake the Falklands.
To defend the Falklands in a proportionate fashion, by which I mean without recourse to strategic assault, we must have more than a trip wire defence.
Given the weakness of the infantry company it is plain that the defence chiefs have determined that it is in the air that the Falklands will be lost or won. But the current air defence does not shape up. We should increase the flight of four combat aircraft there to a squadron of twelve Typhoons. Permanent deployment of a strong squadron to the Falklands would cost circa £220 million per year more than the current spend (circa £110 million) on a single flight but this would be a fraction of what it would cost to try to retake the Falklands if they were lost.
It would also be prudent to deploy a second surface to air missile battery (ideally the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile system not another Rapier) at RAF Mount Pleasant to better defend any planes on the ground from surprise attack from the air. A Rapier surface to air missile battery (3 x launchers) can engage about six incoming targets simultaneously. With 14-20 Chinese multi-role war planes in mind a second battery is in order (as might be a third to a secondary base in West Falklands were a base to be established there).