Argentina is arming for a new Falklands War. America can probably prevent it

Recent moves by Argentina to renew and expand its military capabilities, including aspirations to acquire amphibious assault ships and a deal to buy retired F-16 fighter jets from Denmark, have raised eyebrows. The Falklands War of 1982 remains a defining event in the histories of the United Kingdom and Argentina.

For Britain, the conflict reaffirmed its sovereignty over the islands and demonstrated its military resolve; it showed that despite its decline, Britain remained a first-rank military power and a force for good.

The defeat was a national trauma for Argentina, yet it did not quench the desire to reclaim the “Islas Malvinas.” This enduring desire is continually fuelled by Argentine political leaders who use the Falklands issue to unite the populace and divert attention from domestic woes.

Argentina’s plans for new equipment present a clear threat to the Falklands. F-16 jets, especially if supported by refuelling aircraft, could compromise local British air superiority over the Falklands. Amphibious vessels could potentially land a force capable of overcoming the British garrison on the Islands, which is only of company strength. However, the practical use of these assets to seize the Falklands presents potentially insurmountable challenges for Argentina.

One of the first problems would be diplomatic. As the world has recently learned from the case of Ukraine, advanced US made military equipment – certainly this includes the F-16 – cannot be used without US consent. Without American parts and support, aircraft such as the F-16 are very hard to keep in the air and even harder to keep fighting.

Then, the Falklands are approximately 300 miles from the Argentine mainland, separated by often treacherous South Atlantic waters. The logistical complexities of launching and sustaining an amphibious operation over such a distance are immense. British Typhoon jets based at RAF Mount Pleasant would on their own make such an amphibious operation impossible unless they were dealt with or suppressed in some fashion. If Britain had warning of an invasion attempt, which would be difficult to prevent, it could potentially send an attack submarine or other naval reinforcements to the area.

In 1982 the threat of British submarines, made completely plain by the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by HM submarine Conqueror, was sufficient to deny the seas to Argentina.

So for now at least, Argentina can’t realistically retake the Falklands. But the situation throws the weakness of today’s British forces into stark relief. The Royal Navy today has just six attack submarines: it would almost certainly not be able to send more than one to the Falklands, and might not be able to send any. The real concern here lies in the adequacy of Britain’s own capabilities, particularly the size of its fleet.

Argentina has repeatedly voiced its determination to reclaim sovereignty over the islands, with President Javier Milei reminding his nation that their constitution explicitly mandates the reunification of the Falklands with Argentina. Despite the UK’s resolute position that the islands’ sovereignty is non-negotiable, the Argentine government continues to press the issue.

President Milei has made his intentions clear, drawing parallels to the UK’s return of Hong Kong to China and asserting that Argentina’s claim to the islands is non-negotiable. He has candidly acknowledged that it may take decades to achieve sovereignty, but Argentina’s persistent claims highlight the necessity for Britain to maintain a robust posture and a clear, long-term message that the UK can fight and win to protect the islanders. We can’t do that if we’re telling the world we don’t care about how many ships and people we have.

Of course, the Royal Navy’s ability to project power across the sea completely outmatches Argentina. The UK’s fleet of destroyers, frigates, submarines, and state-of-the-art aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, provide a formidable deterrent – when they’re at sea with crews, at least, and aircraft for the carriers. Depressingly, the British forces have never managed to put more than eight jets aboard one of our new carriers. The bloody lesson of 1982 – that ship-borne airborne radar aircraft are utterly vital when a fleet is operating without shorebased air cover – has not been well learned: the RN’s “Crowsnest” radar helicopters have been beset with problems.

The Royal Navy’s hull numbers have declined in recent years, and this trend must be reversed to ensure our ability to defend British values are not eroded. More general-purpose ships would serve the general purpose of keeping the peace, deterring any potential Argentine aggression.

Even Britain’s amphibious warfare capabilities, particularly assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark – whose predecessors were so crucial in the 1982 campaign – have recently come under quite a wee bit of scrutiny. Despite assurances from the top, there is doubt about whether these ships will ever return to active service. Initially, HMS Bulwark was expected to return to the fleet after maintenance but will now be kept ready for deployment only if necessary. The language changed from promises the ship would return to service to a vague assurance it might if needed. That’s not good enough, is it?

Ensuring that these platforms are fully ready for deployment is essential. A Britain without a robust and capable maritime force is really no Britain at all.

The UK must be clear about its objectives for the Royal Navy and fund it accordingly. Whether the goal is to maintain a nascent ability to retake the Falklands at the expense of other commitments or to retain a fully-fledged blue-water force with the proper enablers being operational – from assault ships to tankers and store ships – clear priorities must be set.

Most will correctly point out that an Argentine assault on the Falklands remains highly unlikely, my point here however is that the situation of an old adversary rearming while we reduce our own capabilities underscores a broader issue: Britain cannot afford to be left behind at sea.

The Royal Navy fleet must be expanded and the men and women that fight these vessels must be recruited and just as importantly, retained. The Government frequently touts the fleet’s growth as a hallmark of its commitment to defence. Yet, what they do not trumpet is that this growth merely reverses some of the severe cuts made in 2010. Despite the rhetoric and even the genuine improvements being made to the fleet, the Navy is still grappling with a reduced capacity in many respects compared to a decade ago.

Our greatest challenge is not Argentina’s armed forces; it is the need to strengthen and fund our own. We must not abandon Britain’s proud tradition of being able to fight and win at sea. Compared to such a loss, I do not fear Argentina.

George Allison is editor of the UK Defence Journal