Falkland Islands will always be defended by UK, says David Cameron

PM responds to growing unease over Argentina’s reported acquisition of military planes, as defence secretary pledges helicopters to island force

David Cameron has said that Britain will always defend the Falkland Islands, amid growing concern of an increased threat from Argentina.

As the prime minister made his assurance, Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, announced that two Chinook helicopters are to be deployed in the middle of next year, which would mount a “swift and decisive response” to any “emerging incidents”.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Fallon said the UK military presence in the Falklands was broadly proportionate and at the level required.

But amid reports that Argentina was planning to lease 12 long-range bombers from Russia, he said the government would be installing an enhanced communications system at the military headquarters at Mount Pleasant, as well as putting in place plans to replace the Rapier air defence missiles when they go out of service at the end of the decade.

He also confirmed the government’s commitment to maintaining a Falklands patrol vessel – currently HMS Clyde – while investing £180m over the next 10 years upgrading ageing infrastructure, including harbour facilities and fuel supply.

However, he disappointed many MPs by not announcing an increase in troops in the Falklands. Fallon said the Ministry of Defence would keep military and civilian personnel at the current level of 1,200.

“We are not complacent,” Fallon said, but the “government can be confident of its ability to defend the Falklands”.

Earlier, Cameron said: “The assurance that I can give the Falkland Islands is that we will always be there for them, we will always defend them. This government has been very good to its word on that and has actually strengthened our defences in the Falklands.

“We believe in the Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination. They had a referendum. They couldn’t have been more clear about wanting to remain with our country and we should protect and defend them.”

Fallon said the principal threat to the island remained the “unjustified claim by Argentina“.

Military analysts have argued that without an aircraft carrier, Harrier jump jets or the ability to deploy a task force, the Falklands could be vulnerable to any move from Argentina.

Buenos Aires has ratcheted up its claim since oil exploration began. Rockhopper Exploration, the British oil company, has reported significant discoveries of oil and has begun another round of drilling offshore in association with Premier Oil.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Argentinian president, has called Cameron “arrogant” for insisting the islands would remain British as long as islanders wished it.

Reports in Argentina indicate that it has been considering buying fighter jets from China or Russia to replace its ageing fleet. The new fighters would have sufficient range to reach the Falklands, experts say.
An Argentinian air force team was reported to have gone to China earlier
this month with plans to buy between 14 and 20 FC-1/F-17 Thunder fighter
jets built by China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. Another option is the
Chengdu J-10B fighter, the daily Clarín reported earlier this month.

Argentina is considering the Chinese and Russian options after it failed to
renew its fleet of Mirage fighters with attempted purchases from
France and Spain.

Reports of Argentina’s interest in buying Chinese fighters gathered
pace after the official visit of Fernández to China in February. Argentina’s congress subsequently approved a bill permitting the installation of a Chinese satellite-tracking station in the southern province of Neuquén, as part of a wide-ranging trade and economic agreement with China.

Due to go into service in 2016, the station will track unmanned Chinese
missions to Mars and the moon. But opposition politicians have raised fears
that it could eventually be used for military purposes.

Another reported option is the purchase of Russian fighter jets. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, described Argentina as Russia’s “main strategic ally” in Latin America during his visit last July. Fernández is scheduled to travel to Moscow for a meeting with Putin next month.

Argentina’s defence minister, Agustín Rossi, meanwhile, denied his country
had any military plans regarding the islands. “It is simply a lie, our country has no armament plans,” he said in a radio interview on Tuesday.

In a referendum in 2013, the Falkland islanders voted overwhelmingly to remain a UK territory. The British government last year turned down calls to negotiate the islands’ sovereignty with Argentina.


Mark Tran and Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

The GuardianTramp

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