Pretty quickly in doing research on the recently increased tensions between Argentina and Great Britain, I realized one of the biggest problems Argentina would have in any notional conflict would simply be getting to the islands. Getting ashore would just be the first problem. Defeating the current defenses would be another.
Let’s take a look at the current Order of Battle for both sides.
Given the vast increases in British defense resources in the Falklands since 1982, any Argentine attempt to seize the islands would have to take a much different approach than the 1982 amphibious invasion, and would be a much wider scale operation, with much greater risks.
Argentina no longer has a credible ability to deploy more than a single battalion of expeditionary forces. Facing a reinforced rifle company in the defense with such a small force is just within the realm of feasibility, but facing one with air superiority over its own territory would be futile.
Argentina could land a token force of special operations somewhere in the Falklands to “show the flag” for domestic political consumption. Such a force could be landed by fishing vessel, or conceivably by Argentine submarine. Such a force would likely not be able to maintain station on the islands for more than 48 hours before British forces hunted them down. Since such a mission would be strictly for domestic purposes, the capture or destruction of such a team would be highly counterproductive, and great pains would be taken to plan for the retrieval of the team.
Other options short of an outright invasion are open to Argentina. Harassment of fishing vessels in Falklands waters, denial of landing rights to civil aviation from the Falklands (or even Great Britain), denial of port entry to ships making landfall in the Falklands are all options. Other than being about 300 miles from Argentina, the Falklands are in the middle of nowhere, and some level of outside trade is critical. Actions by Argentina that are short of outright combat can persuade some commercial interests that it isn’t worth it to trade with the remote outpost. We can expect Argentina to continue to do as much as possible to make the Falklands as expensive an outpost of Great Britain as they can, in hopes of reducing British support for the Falklanders continual claim to be under the protection of the Crown.
Should Argentina seriously try to seize actual control of the islands, they would first have to seize control of the air. The only way to do this would be to attack RAF Mt. Pleasant, and render its runways inoperative, at least for a few days. With any strategic warning at all, Great Britain could reinforce the standing force of four fighters with fairly large numbers of fighters, strike aircraft, and tankers. With that in mind, Argentina would have to strike “out of the blue.” A mass raid by as much of the A-4AR fleet as can be made operational would have a fair chance of success of damaging both runways. But if RAF Mt. Pleasant has as little as five minutes warning of the incoming raid, Argentine losses would be very heavy, both from ready alert Typhoons and Rapier surface to air missiles.
Let’s assume that such an Argentine raid has been successful. While denying Great Britain use of its airpower (at least temporarily) is a condition for any chance of success, such a raid would certainly alert ground forces to a possible landing. Rehearsed plans to defeat any Argentine landings would be initiated. Whether Britain would attempt to defeat such a landing on the beaches or inland is an open question.
Any Argentine landing would have as its prime objective to seize RAF Mt. Pleasant. Failure to do so would give Britain time to repair any damage, and potentially allow reinforcements to flow in via an air bridge. To defeat the British Army garrison quickly, the Argentines would need to land more than one battalion of their own Marines. But they lack the amphibious shipping to do so. They would have to press into service merchant vessels, themselves ill suited to serve as troopships. Worse, this procurement would have to take place prior to any hostilities. Such an action could very easily come to the attention of Britain, and serve as strategic warning of an impending attack. Indeed, an large scale preparations by the ARA to ready more than a usual number of ships for sea is likely to attract British attention, and lead to reinforcing the islands.
But let’s assume, for the purpose of our discussion, that Argentina somehow manages to both suppress RAF Mt. Pleasant, land two or more battalions on the Falklands, and seize RAF Mt. Pleasant, and destroy or capture the garrison. What could Britain do in return?
Much as Argentina would need to change its approach, with the absence of sea base airpower, and with a much smaller navy (and RAF, and army) Britain too would have to resort to different methods.
We’ll take a look at some possible courses of action in our next installment.