Argentina’s new President Javier Milei has reopened the debate on the disputed Islas Malvinas (Malvinas Islands) with the United Kingdom (UK), reigniting memories of the 74-day bitterly fought Falklands War, as the islands are called in England.
Reports have quoted Milei striking a very reconciliatory tone in the territorial assertion, suggesting the resumption of the stalled diplomacy between Argentina and the UK over the islands.
That the Malvinas is a solid emotional issue in Argentine society transcending political lines is evident from Milei broaching the topic immediately after coming to power, far from the next election.
But what has complicated matters is official Brazilian support to Argentine territorial claims, like most of South America. This highlights the contradictions in the continent’s equations with the US and the UK.
Britain Stunned, But Won: English Military Glory Restored
The Falklands (or Islas Malvinas) archipelago, 600 kilometers from the Patagonian coast, erupted in a war after the military Junta – then headed by General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri – tried to retake the British-controlled islands by force. The islands are officially classified as British Overseas Territory (BOT).
Eventually ending in a British victory, the war also saw significant losses for Great Britain. Notable tactical actions included sinking warships HMS Sheffield and ARA General Belgrano. It was the most extensive air, naval war, and amphibious operation between conventional forces after World War Two, especially the one in which England was involved.
Air wars and aerial strikes by US-made A-4 Skyhawks, Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Daggers, English Electric Canberras, French-built Mirage III (used by the Argentine air force), and BAE Sea Harriers FRS Mk.1 vertical take-off landing (VTOL) aircraft were recorded.
New President Rekindles Old Claim
Milei’s statement came on the 191st anniversary of the British takeover of the group of islands on January 3, 1833, after Argentina inherited them from the Spanish crown.
“The recently sworn-in government of Javier Milei has renewed Buenos Aires’s desire to re-engage in bilateral talks on who should control the islands,” said The Brazilian Report. These include the Malvinas, South Georgia, and South Sandwich islands.
A government spokesperson said the day marked “191 years since the forced occupation of the Malvinas Islands by the United Kingdom. The Government and the entire society claim our right to sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands.”
The Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately followed up with a statement advocating “resuming bilateral negotiations with the United Kingdom to find a solution to this sovereignty dispute, under the provisions of the relevant resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations.”
“The Argentine Government wishes to maintain a mature relationship with the United Kingdom, which contemplates a substantive and constructive dialogue on all issues of common interest to generate a climate of trust conducive to the resumption of negotiations,” read the statement.
President Javier Milei’s office also upholds diplomatic means as “the only possible way for the sovereignty of the Malvinas, South Georgia, and South Sandwich Islands, as well as other maritime spaces located in the southwest of the Atlantic Ocean.”
Before being sworn in as president on December 10, Milei had promised to “exhaust all diplomatic channels so that (the Malvinas Islands) become Argentine again.”
Political & Diplomatic Dynamics
Major South American countries then backed Buenos Aires. Brazil issued a statement supporting “Argentina’s legitimate rights in the sovereignty dispute.” Venezuela also came out in support.
“The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela ratifies its firm support for the legitimate claim of the Argentine people over the Malvinas Islands, illegally occupied by the former British Empire for 191 years,” said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil.
The heart of the debate is the sovereignty versus the popular will argument. England contends that the democratic principle takes precedence, where the popular will of the roughly 3,000 British inhabitants decides the island’s ownership.
On the other hand, Argentina argues that the island’s history was never originally British, either through cultural affinity or geographical proximity.
The inhabitants, too, are not indigenous populations but foreign settlers who moved to the island following a forced takeover in modern, contemporary history. The British Government, however, has declared that its sovereignty over the Falklands is “non-negotiable.”
The highlight of the war was the sinking of the HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982, after being struck by an AM39 Exocet missile fired by one of two Argentine Navy Super Etendards.
They were supported by Argentine Naval Aviation Lockheed SP-2H Neptune patrol aircraft and KC-130H Hercules aerial refueling tanker.
“In the two weeks leading up to the attack, Argentinian pilots had been practicing tactics against their ships, including Type 42 destroyers of the same class as Sheffield, and therefore knew the radar horizon, detection distances, and reaction times of the ship radar, as well as the optimal procedure to program the Exocet missile for a successful attack profile,” said an April 2005 paper filed with the US’s Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College.
The Argentine pilots used a technique colloquially known as ‘Pecking the Lobes,’ which involves the aircraft ‘probing’ the side lobes of the emitting radar using the radar warning receiver. The aircraft could escape detection by avoiding the main lobe of the emitting radar. Combat also broke out between the Sea Harrier FRS Mk.1 and the Mirage IIIs, where one was shot down by an AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile (AAM).
The ‘Black Buck’ interestingly raided Stanley Island in early May, where Royal Air Force (RAF) Avro Vulcan bombers bombed the airfield there. Taking off from the mid-Atlantic island of Ascension, a Vulcan flew a 15,000-km trip to Stanley and dropped conventional bombs on the runway. While the attack was tactically a failure and logistically taxing, it scored an unexpected strategic and political impact.
Only some of the bombs hit the runway, and the mission also required repeated air-to-air refueling using several Victor K2 tanker aircraft, including tanker-to-tanker refueling.
The Argentines, however, interpreted that their mainland could also be vulnerable and redeployed aircraft further to the north. Some British and Argentine reports also say that the raids forced the Mirage IIIs to be shifted to the Buenos Aires Defence Zone.