In the sticky heat of the Palace of Westminster, waiting for divisions of the House of Commons at hours when sane men and women are in their beds, I have been perusing Argentina: The Malvinas and the End of Military Rule by Alejandro Dabat and Luis Lorenzano.[*] The authors are Argentine Marxists living and working in Mexico. I shall be interested to see whether the reviewer for the London Review of Books judges the work to be cant. I believe myself that it is full of real insight. Understandably, Dabat and Lorenzano loathe the Argentine military. But the point they bring home is that it is wishful thinking to believe that after Alfonsin’s victory the military have simply gone away. They haven’t! Macho officers who have seen their seniors humiliated can be very dangerous indeed. In human affairs, the desire for revenge should never be underestimated. Reckless? Yes. Costly? Yes. An increase in human misery? Yes. An increase that will be seen as unacceptable? Not necessarily. The class, race and nationality which have produced some of the greatest racing drivers, from Juan Fangio on, and remarkably daring pilots during their first-ever modern war, are not simply going to accept defeat in one cup-tie. Besides, let us never forget that before the elections which swept Alfonsin to power, senior officers were telling the Anglo-Argentine community in Buenos Aires: ‘We can destabilise the elected government after two years or so.’
I have begun to make systematic inquiries about the extent to which Argentina are better-armed in August 1984 than they were in April 1982: and if I enumerate awkward facts leading to unpopular opinions here in the London Review of Books, it is because this magazine was willing to publish criticism of the whole Falklands escapade before any other would touch it. Well, Shakespeare had a phrase for it. ‘Now thrive the armourers!’ The Argentine Air Force lost 74 strike aircraft during the Falklands campaign. Dr Paul Rogers, defence analyst at the University of Bradford, can show that they have been replaced by at least 107 new aircraft. In April 1982, only five Argentine aircraft were capable of delivering air-to-surface Exocet missiles. The number has now swollen to 24. Numbers of air-to-ground Exocet missiles have quadrupled. And Aerospatiale-Dassault have taught the Argentines how to fuse their Exocets properly. The 27 Puccara low-flying aircraft lost during the campaign have been replaced by more than eighty. Not only can the American Skyhawks be launched from the carrier 25th of May, but, with spare parts from the United States, Sidewinder missiles, and extra fuel tanks to enable them to loiter over the Falklands, they are now altogether more formidable than they were two and a half years ago. Some of the Mirage III Super-Etendards have been sent back to France for resale, in exchange for Nesher Mirage Vs adapted by the Israelis. Since these were battle-tested in the Lebanon, there are few more practical ultra-modern weapons available on earth.
Our French friends at the Elysée can wring their hands and protest their loyalty to Britain. But just as the technicians of Aerospatiale-Dassault, when publicly prevented at Orly Airport from going themselves to Argentina, simply got on the telephone from Bourges to their engineer at Bahia Blanca, Monsieur Hervé Colin, to explain to him in a seven-hour call how to marry a surface-to-surface Exocet to the wing of an aircraft, so today the French merrily continue to supply Argentina with the weapons themselves. To preserve the proprieties, they do it through Israel. But they still do it.
French observers were present on 7 November 1983, when the Argentines conducted a live firing from an A69-class frigate of a surface-to-surface M38 Exocet, which scored a direct hit, six feet above the waterline, on the decommissioned destroyer Dominique Garcia. Training has improved out of recognition, partly because Argentine pilots can use the first and only Mirage Flight Simulator in the whole of South America – thoughtfully provided at cost price by the French. No armaments manufacturer, least of all the heirs of Marcel Dassault, is going to acquire the reputation of letting good customers down in their hour of need.
But don’t let us simply pick on the French. The Italians have supplied at least two remote-controlled MQ Chimango anti-submarine aircraft. Coupled with the Ota-Melara remote-controlled mines of Italian origin, these make HMS Conqueror far more vulnerable than when she was able to trail the Belgrano with impunity. The advantage that nuclear submarines gave us in Round One is being nullified.
When the Sunday Times saw fit to carry on its front page the news that a Condor missile system with an 800-mile range was about to come into service in Argentina, I contacted Anthony Terry, under whose byline the story appeared, at his residence in France. From Terry, and by dint of cross-checking, I discovered that Italian and West German rocket experts have been developing the Condor missile at Argul, 300 miles south-west of Buenos Aires. I also know that tests have taken place at Chamical in the north-west of Argentina. A conventional warhead could for crucial days render inoperable the ‘Margaret Thatcher International Airport’ at Mount Pleasant, and the effect of a nuclear warhead does not bear thinking about. Since Alfonsin came to power, there has been no hiccup in the Argentine nuclear weapons programme, for which the Junta bought 143 tonnes of heavy water from West Germany. The costs of improved counter-missile air defence systems are mind-boggling. Nor do I think – and colleagues on New Scientist with the relevant technical expertise agree with this – that there is any convincing defence against rockets approaching at 3000-4000 m.p.h. from the upper atmosphere over a mere 400-mile range.
Confronted by such disagreeable findings, Ministers are elliptical. Consider, for example, the following two Parliamentary Questions from 23 July this year:
Mr Dalyell: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what assessment he has made of Argentine missile capability to put the Falklands Airport out of action.
Answer (Mr Stanley): It would not be in the public interest to disclose our assessments of Argentine capabilities.
Mr Dalyell: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, if he will discuss with the governments of Italy and West Germany their provision of rocket exports to the Argentine.
Answer (Mr Ray Whitney): We continue to ensure that our allies remain fully aware of our concern about the supply of arms to Argentina.
If the Argentine Air Force has undergone a metamorphosis, the Argentine Navy is also in an altogether different state from what it was at the time of the Falklands campaign. The destroyers Hercules and Santissima Trinidad have been sold off to Iran. In their place are four Meko 140 frigates and four Meko 360 destroyers powered by Rolls-Royce engines, David Brown gearboxes and Decca navigation equipment: all made by us, though ordered before April 1982 after Cecil Parkinson, in his incarnation as Minister of State at the Board of Trade, had gone to Buenos Aires and eulogised the Junta for coping with their problems in the same style as the Thatcher Government. When questioned about these refurbishments, the Government maintained its characteristic silence:
Mr Dalyell: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment of Meko 360 frigate purchases by Argentina since June 1982.
Answer (Mr Geoffrey Pattie): Under a pre-Falklands contract, Argentina has purchased from West Germany four Meko 360-class destroyers. It would not be in the public interest to disclose our assessment of particular threats.
Even more menacing to the UK-Falklands lifeline are the quiet diesel-electric submarines, one of which – the TR 1700 Santa Cruz – started its Baltic trials out of the Blöhm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg on 5 April 1984. The first Argentine-built submarine, under German licence, was laid down in Buenos Aires on 14 October 1983. More sinister still, I am told by sources that have proved accurate in the past that at least two of the six submarines Argentina has bought will be nuclear-powered. Once again, the Government has refused to come clean about his appalling catalogue (which is, furthermore, incomplete). More immediately disturbing is the news that Argentine marines have been practising amphibious landings at night. With a referendum to put the seal on agreement with Chile over the Beagle Channel, why should the Argentines be carrying out such manoeuvres except with the possibility in mind of a bee-sting attack against the Falklands?
Now that the Berne talks have ended in both sides stomping off, the situation looks ugly. At best, the British taxpayer will go on paying around £3 million a day. When one considers cuts in the Health Service, the closure of London’s only hospital for women, the slashing of the Medical Research Council’s budget, this £3 million a day takes on a new meaning. Compare these two Parliamentary Questions, once again taken from Question Time on 23 July this year:
Mr Dalyell: To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland, how much was spent by his Department on: a. a feasibility study and b. repairs to the jetty at Tobermory in the Island of Mull.
Answer (Mr Ancram): Nothing to date. However, the pier owners, Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd, have accepted a tender for work to renew the pier at a cost of approximately £200,000. This includes prior investigatory work. 75 per cent of the cost will be paid in grant from my right honourable Friend.
Mr Dalyell: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, if he will make a statement on the progress of the contract with ITM Offshore Ltd for a port in the Falklands; and at what cost the work was carried out.
Answer (Mr Stanley): Construction and assembly of the Falklands Intermediate Port and Storage System (FIPASS) has been completed satisfactorily at a cost of the order of £25 million.
Mull has been waiting for years to get that urgently needed Tobermory pier.
Far worse than the cost is the prospect of another fight. Alfonsin may not have a final say. He has been sending units down to Patagonia to get them away from Buenos Aires and the possibility of a coup. Out of mischief, but into greater mischief? If there is a ‘next time’, the 100,000 members of the Anglo-Argentine community may not be as lucky as they were in the first Falklands War. What would happen to the 17,000 British passport-holders in a second war is anyone’s guess. We have no option other than to talk about Soverieignty and talk about it now.
[*] Verso/NLB, 205 pp., £20 and £5.95, 2 August, 0 86091 085 7.