Friday, October 29, 2010

Would The US Bomb Argentina?

The setup to that question deals with the British government, which last week as part of a fiscal austerity program announced across-the-board budget cuts that included the Ministry of Defense, which will see its budget cut by 8%. To put that in some perspective that would equal a roughly $56 billion dollar cut in current US defense spending (and to put that in perspective, that figure is nearly equal to Great Britain's entire defense budget). Bearing the brunt of the MoD cuts is the Air Wing of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy is planning to add two state-of-the-art aircraft carriers to the fleet this decade; the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. Normally when budgets are cut, proposed weapons systems are the first to go, but the British government found that because of the way the shipbuilding contracts for the carriers is written, it would actually be cheaper to build the carriers than to cancel the project outright. This has put the MoD in the odd position of announcing that the Queen Elizabeth will be built and put into service in 2016 without aircraft (which is kind of the whole purpose of an aircraft carrier...) for about three years until the Prince of Wales is finished; the Queen Elizabeth will then be retired in almost new condition. To make matters worse, the Royal Navy will retire their two existing carriers by 2014, leaving them without any aircraft carriers in service for three years and without any with actual airplanes aboard ship for almost six.

This situation has some in Britain – pundits, defense analysts, and judging by the comment boards of English newssites a fair number of average citizens – quite upset. The question being asked is how Great Britain can consider itself a world power without a way of projecting that power around the globe in the way that only a fully functioning aircraft carrier can. More specifically, some are asking how (or even if) Great Britain will be able to protect some of their last remaining far-flung bits of Empire, and here talk generally falls on the Falkland Islands. In 1981 a British fleet sailed halfway across the globe to wrestle the Falklands away from an invading force from Argentina (the two countries have spent nearly a century and a half of wrangling over possession of the islands, for a more detailed history, check this earlier post about the Falklands situation). Now, critics in Britain say that the MoD cuts would make a repeat of the 1981 flotilla an impossibility, while also noting that reclaiming the Falklands (or Las Malvinas as the Argentineans call them) is a recurring motif in Argentine politics and that the islands themselves may sit on rich oil and natural gas reserves, making them potentially very valuable real estate.

Some in America are upset by the British cuts as well since the British have been arguably the most active and most valuable members of the military coalitions assembled by the United States in recent years – the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, the first Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ongoing GWOT mission in Afghanistan. The MoD cuts though make it less likely that the British will be able to participate in future American-led coalitions like they have in the past, a fact upsetting the military minds in the United States.

And all of that brings us to the question asked in the headline; does that kind of partnership go both ways? In none of the coalition examples listed before was there a direct threat to the British homeland, people or interests abroad, yet Great Britain was an active and valued participant in what were essentially American military campaigns (particularly the “Global War on Terror” and the 2003 Iraq War). So what if the British asked the United States to join in a military campaign to defend their interests, would we join? For the sake of argument, let's assume that its 2015 and after a quick naval landing Argentina has retaken the Falkland Islands. The British government has vowed to retake the islands and has assembled another armada for the long sail across the Atlantic, just as they did in 1981. The difference is in 2015 the British don't have a functioning aircraft carrier, meaning they can't protect the armada from the air or support their Marines in a landing to retake the Falklands; in modern military terms, this makes the British mission nearly suicidal. The British ask the United States to join their coalition by adding one of our aircraft carriers to the fleet and providing air support. What would our answer be?

Almost certainly, it would be no. In terms of the Falklands/Malvinas issue, the United States historically has not taken a position – not wanting to offend either our long-standing allies the British, nor wanting to upset the nations of Latin America (or to provide any anti-colonial fodder for Latin America's more leftists leaders like Hugo Chavez by backing the British claim). Since the United States has spent the last century telling the two sides to “talk” about the Falklands/Malvinas issue and didn't support the British in the 1981 operation, it's impossible to see the US agreeing to go to war with Argentina on Britain's behalf.

Of course, from the British side you'd have to wonder what was the point of backing America on all of those earlier military coalitions if the US isn't going to support you when you need them the most. It is an interesting foreign policy question indeed...
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