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Argentina and Britain, 30 Years On

It was thirty years ago on Monday that war erupted between Argentina and Great Britain for control of the tiny Falkland Islands. A lot has changed for both countries since then. As the Financial Times reports, decades of cuts to the defense budget have left Britain’s Royal Navy with about 20 surface combat vessels, a sharp decline from 1982, when it had more than 50:

Crucially, Britain has no aircraft carrier in service and, while two are being built, they will not be operational for another decade.

“The ships that the navy has today are considerably more sophisticated than they were three decades ago,” says Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank. “But in many ways, the UK is weaker. There is . . . no way in which today’s much-smaller British fleet could lose ships on the scale it did in 1982 and still go on to win the war.”

Fortunately for the British, the Argentine military has decayed even more rapidly.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has made a concerted push to reclaim the Falklands, pressing her country’s claim over the islands in a multitude of domestic and foreign tribunals, but as the Wall Street Journal details, Kirchner’s bark is much worse than her bite:

Argentina’s military spending, which had been about 3% of GDP at the time of the Falklands War, has fallen steadily to 0.9% of GDP by 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank. Today, even as Mrs. Kirchner has elevated overall public spending to historic highs, Argentina’s military budget is at a record low both as a percentage of GDP and of the total budget, said political scientist Rosendo Fraga.

Just how toothless has the Argentine tiger become? According to the Journal, the country’s defense ministry refused to put tanks on the street during its bicentennial celebration in 2010 because it was worried they would break down along the parade route. There were no air force flyovers either, since 15 planes have crashed in the last 11 years as a result of old age and lack of maintenance. Even Argentina’s great rival, Chile, has an army that is nearly 1.5 times larger, despite having a population one third that of its neighbor.

The British earned a decisive victory in 1982, and the Argentinians are still smarting from their defeat. Much of Kirchner’s saber rattling, therefore, is likely intended only for domestic consumption. Given the parlous state of Argentina’s military, Britain’s war planners are probably not losing much sleep over the Falklands.

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  • Mrs. Davis

    I would bet the Brits are keeping their most effective weapons system from the first war, the submarine, on station in the south Atlantic and that the Argies would not send out an invasion fleet to challenge it (them). If they can’t get an invasion fleet to the islands, they’ll have a hard time invading.

    This is a distraction from a failing economy.

  • bill phelps

    Kirchner is trying to distract public attention from the upcoming economic implosion.

  • Hammered at Tosca

    Yes, but peace loving, status-quo types ignore Argentina’s secret weapon at their peril: How can anyone forget the awe inspiring spectacle of Sean Penn roughing up some camera toting paparazzi?

    Just think of that guy turned loose against a truly worthy foe, like British military imperialists…

  • Jbird

    The anemic military budgets for most of the world just goes to show you how widely felt the Pax Americana is. Argentina & Britain apparently feel very little need to project power and patrol their own shipping lanes, because the Americans do it for them, for free. We really should start collecting tribute payments or something. As an aside, Has there been a British Navy as small as 20 surface ships since King Alfred the Great?

  • Tom Richards

    I imagine there is one and only one RN SSN in the South Atlantic. That’s quite enough to make any attempt at an invasion unfeasible even without accounting for the likelihood that the half-squadron of Typhoons stationed at Port Stanley would comfortably win a battle for air supremacy against the Argentinian air force. Militarily, invasion is a complete non-starter for Argentina, every bit as much as re-conquest would be for Britain.

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