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The truth is we couldn't defend anything further than the other side of the Channel

Published: 14 Jun 2011

The truth is we couldn't defend anything further than the other side of the Channel

By Admiral Sandy Woodward - from the Dail Mail 14 June 2011.

Less than a month ago President Obama left these shores after a highly successful State visit that appeared to leave the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America in better shape than it had been for years.

And yet only last week, the United States was not only signing a declaration calling for Britain and Argentina to begin negotiations over the future sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, but also providing an uncomfortable clue as to their preferred outcome.

They referred to the islands by their Argentinian name, the Malvinas. This doesn’t really leave too much doubt about which way the wind may be blowing, does it?

As one of those intimately involved in the successful retaking of the Falkland Islands in 1982 – indeed today is the 29th anniversary of their liberation at the end of the war – this marked shift in the American position sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing.

Indeed, if I was the Prime Minister I’d be on the first plane to Washington and asking my old table-tennis partner: ‘Hang on a minute; we’re your closest ally – what the hell’s going on?’

It really is that serious. For without American support, the Falklands, the reclaiming of which cost 253 brave British lives, are now perilously close to being indefensible.

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope’s warning yesterday that Britain does not even have enough ships to continue even the small operation in Libya, highlights the weakened state in which defence cuts have left our navy; a position from which we are incapable of defending our territory in the south Atlantic.

The received political wisdom runs counter to this, of course. Westminster-based politicians will say that whoever controls the islands’ Mount Pleasant Airbase controls the Falklands and that with up to 1,000 RAF personnel stationed there and a further 500-1,000 Army troops garrisoned nearby, Mount Pleasant is firmly in British hands and staying that way.

Well, I wish I shared their confidence. Because what the politicians won’t tell you is that Mount Pleasant was, until recently, equipped with only four ageing and ineffective Tornados – the same attack aircraft that have made such heavy weather recently of providing air support in Libya. When they were needed at short notice, only three of the RAF’s 135 aircraft were ready for action.

Apparently these Tornadoes have now been replaced by four Typhoons, about which there have been many rumours of too few trained pilots, inadequate spares and poor ability in aerial combat. Neither type of aircraft has any anti-ship weapons systems, which would be vital against any invasion by sea. Central to long-term plans for the defence of the Falklands is the idea that if attacked, Mount Pleasant could be rapidly reinforced by air. Unfortunately, any swift operation could take out the runways by lunchtime and air reinforcement would have nowhere to land. I’d like to know what our Government is planning to do about that.

Without aircraft carriers (today HMS Illustrious is our only remaining carrier, and she has no fixed-wing aircraft, which are much faster than other planes) it was always going to be pretty difficult, but without the Americans it would be nigh on impossible.

Despite much talk of sharing resources, I can’t see the French handing over the keys to one of their carriers so we can fight another war in the South Atlantic.

In 1982, the American base on Ascension Island – handily placed mid-way between Britain and the Falklands – was vital to the British Task Force. The fact it was made available to us may well have earned the American defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger, his honorary knighthood. Then again, his ability to quietly supply us with Sidewinder missiles might have helped, too.

All that came about while the United States, under President Reagan, was officially adopting a neutral stance over the Falkland Islands. But if the Americans are now supporting Argentina’s claim of sovereignty, then clearly we wouldn’t be able to rely on their help again.

So why has the American position shifted so far that it was prepared to sign this highly controversial declaration over the islands’ future sovereignty at last week’s meeting of the Organisation of American States?

Well, one answer is that it actually hasn’t shifted that much. In 1982 there was widespread American support for Argentina’s sovereignty claim to the Falklands, particularly from the State Department. It’s only thanks to Weinberger, the special bond between Reagan and Thatcher and, indeed, the successful outcome, that this now gets overlooked.

But the other explanation for America’s warming towards Argentina is a more familiar one: oil.

There are believed to be huge reserves of oil and gas under that part of the South Atlantic and America’s oil industry would dearly love to play a significant part in its extraction.

The only way it can do this profitably, however, is if there is political stability in the area which would allow some of America’s biggest oil companies to invest billions of dollars in long-term infrastructure.

Someone at the State Department clearly believes that this sort of long term stability can best be brought about if the disputed sovereignty of the Falklands is settled in favour of Argentina.

You can see the economic logic – oil profits flow into the Argentine coffers, bringing prosperity and political stability to a key country in what is already one of the fastest developing regions of the world. America just wants a slice of that action.

However, there remains one rather big problem. The Falklands are British, their inhabitants want to stay British and too many good men lost their lives expecting they would stay British forever.

Now, it’s just possible that the Government has quietly decided, for both political and economic reasons, that the Falklands are no longer worth fighting for. If that’s the case, I can promise David Cameron one thing: he will lose the next election.

Far more likely an explanation is that the Government is sleep-walking towards disaster.

In its haste to save money by scrapping our aircraft carriers, mothballing our Harriers and chopping up Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft into tiny pieces, it seemed to be sustained by a vague hope that we could muddle through until the new super-carriers were built, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) F-35C aircraft planes were ready and the British economy had dramatically improved.

But HMS Queen Elizabeth, the new aircraft carrier, isn’t due into service until 2020 at the earliest, while the F35 planes won’t be in action until at least 2023. Also, there are the logistical and operational problems encountered since the Strategic Defence and Security Review was published just eight months ago. The problems the RAF has had honouring the PM’s pledge to provide air support in Libya are surely just warnings of worse to come.

And yet Britain – and its far-flung interests – is somehow supposed to get through another nine-plus years of this.

As things currently stand, we’d have serious trouble defending anything much further than the other side of the English Channel.

So as he prepares to fly to Washington, I hope David Cameron finds a moment to reflect on the damage his Government’s cuts have done in just nine months to Britain’s military capability.

Twenty-nine years ago today, we re-claimed the Falklands for Britain in one of the most remarkable campaigns since the Second World War. The simple truth is without aircraft carriers and without the Americans, we would not have any hope of doing the same again today.


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