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British author says islanders were kept in the dark on Malvinas sovereignty transfer negotiations
London almost sold arms to BA before war
Astonishing weapons sales plan for Argentina
The sales of British weapons to Argentina did not go ahead and all these weapons subsequently deployed by Britain were vital factors in winning the war.
The idea of weapons sales to Argentina came while Britain and Argentina were engaged in negotiations seeking a solution to the sovereignty dispute, including talks deliberately kept secret from the islanders.
Freedman declares: “One indication of the lack of concern within the Ministry of Defence — although this went too far for most — was an idea from Defence Sales that it might make sense to consider the sale of an aircraft carrier plus Harriers to Argentina. The Veinticinco de Mayo (Argentina’s aircraft carrier deployed in the early stages of the war) would need replacing in the late 1980s... Argentina might be interested either in an Invincible class or the Hermes (which became the two most valuable and indispensable warships in the British Task Force)... This (sale, the book says) could be worth some 300 million pounds (about 550 million dollars)”.
The Professor continues: “The (British) Naval Attaché in Buenos Aires suggested that the Sea Harrier could be promoted jointly with a carrier and Admiral Allara, then head of the Argentine Naval Mission in London (who later commanded the Argentine surface fleet at sea in the conflict) asked to visit the Invincible to see the Sea Harrier (which proved vital for the defence of the Task Force against air attack and for raids on Argentine troop positions to facilitate the British advance on land).”
“The Foreign Office noted that while such a sale might not fall foul of the guideline about not being used for internal repression (a condition of British arms sales), it certainly fell foul of capacity for use against the Falklands and, if pushed, would almost certainly be rejected by Ministers. Yet the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) were also wary that offence might be given to Argentina by rejecting an idea for an order of some magnitude which would not make a lot of difference to the Falklands as similar equipment could be purchased elsewhere. (A French Clemenceau-class carrier was one possibility).”
“To avoid a decision (the book says) it was suggested that the Harrier might be more feasible without a carrier or that ministers might be asked to consider the promotion, but not yet the supply, of a carrier. In 1981, Nicholas Ridley (the Foreign Office Minister for South American affairs and for the Malvinas sovereignty negotiations) agreed to a proposal for supply of two further ex-RAF Canberras but a tentative interest in refurbished long-range Vulcan bombers, which were about to leave RAF service after two decades as a nuclear strike force, was quashed at official level. In September 1981, there had been some discussion of the sale of a single Vulcan aircraft, which it was assumed would not materially affect Argentina’s strike capability. The FCO judged that a strike aircraft would ‘be entirely suitable for an attack on the Falklands’.” (In fact, a British Vulcan bomber carried out a remarkable bomb attack on Stanley airport during Argentine occupation, in a complex long-distance flight from Ascension Island which took the Argentines by surprise and unnerved them psychologically).
“Nonetheless,” Professor Freedman continues, “continuing expressions of Argentine interest were forwarded. The Air Staff took the view that the Vulcan would be perfectly suited to the Falklands and would also alarm Chile (which supported Britain and feared Argentine invasion at that time).”
“In 1981 there was some discussion with Vickers (arms manufacturers) over a main battle tank (an order which went to Austria). While FCO objections were a factor in holding back these sales, the difficulty of coming up with attractive tenders was another.”
Extra defence resources denied to islands
“The Defence Attaché’s assessment was that Britain was seen by the Argentine military as ‘a useful source of comparative information and a potential supplier to be invited to quote’ but ‘in general regarded as slow and expensive’”. (So Argentine reluctance was also a factor which prevented sale of British weapons which might otherwise have been used against the British Task Force). At the same time as considering the idea of weapons sales to Argentina, “the Ministry of Defence (and the Treasury) was reluctant to find extra resources for (defence) of the Falklands Islands”. They had decided to scrap the ice patrol vessel Endurance as an economy measure (much to the dismay of the islanders who regarded the ship as factual evidence of British commitment to them and to South Atlantic deployment.)”
While weapons sales were being mooted, Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee issued in July, 1981, a new assessment warning of possible Argentine actions, which the Official History lists as: Harassment or arrest of British shipping, military occupation of one or more of the uninhabited islands, arrest of the British Antarctic Survey team on South Georgia, small-scale military action against the Islands, full-scale military invasion of the Islands.
British-Argentine 1981 secret plans revealed
Regarding the duplicity in the secret negotiation for the transfer of sovereignty to Argentina, the Foreign Office Minister involved, Nicholas Ridley, went to great lengths to keep secret a meeting he had with the Argentine Deputy Foreign Secretary, Air Force Colonel Cavandoli. At first he even suggested they meet informally while fishing together on a Scottish riverbank.
Instead, after considering a series of venues away from the prying eyes of the public and press, they chose Lake Geneva, in the picturesque village Hotel du Lac. The cover story, according to Professor Freedman, was that “Mr Ridley’s visit to Geneva with his wife is private for a short holiday break and that he hopes to do a little watercolour painting”.
In fact, the real plan was to negotiate transfer of sovereignty to Argentina with simultaneous lease-back for the islanders to continue their British way of life for a period of 99 years. Both ministers were sworn to secrecy and to avoid leaks of their true purpose.
The Argentine minister was accompanied by his private secretary, Commandant Bloomer-Reeve, later civil administrator in the islands after the invasion, who warned that the minister would have great difficulty avoiding leaks as “he is watched day and night, not only by the press but by others in the Ministry and the establishment who do not like or trust him. Asking a junior Foreign Minister to enter into secret discussions on the Falklands is rather like asking a junior Israeli Foreign Minister to enter secret discussions on the Gaza strip”.
Exchanges ‘must never become public knowledge’
They hatched a plan for titular sovereignty to be transferred to Argentina with a 99-year leaseback for the islanders to continue their “way of life under British institutions, laws and practices... The British and Argentine flags would be flown side by side on public buildings” and there would be a British Governor, a locally elected Council... and an Argentine Commissioner-General... and “a Joint Council over economic development of the Islands and their maritime zone”.
It was agreed that the secret exchanges “must never become public knowledge”. Ridley called it the best package we can get... and not a bad one”. He believed “it can be sold to the Islanders”.
“Word came back from Buenos Aires that Cavandoli was ‘bubbling with pleasure’ over Ridley’s company, very pleased with the content, though careful to say that the answer was not for him to give”.
The British and Argentine Foreign Secretaries, Lord Carrington and Mr Pastor, later met in New York and Pastor expressed satisfaction. Ridley was to go to the islands “to work on the Islanders” to seek endorsement for formal negotiations but “would not go into the details of any solution with the Islanders”. The Argentines “offered, somewhat bizarrely, to help get him there anonymously from Rio de Janeiro”. The Governor, Rex Hunt, was alerted to the possibility of a visit “to be portrayed as tentative and for general pastoral purposes. No expectations should be raised”.
Argentines asked “not to be too nice”
The Foreign Office wanted to know from Argentina whether the proposals were “broadly acceptable”. The British Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Anthony Williams, warned that the Argentines “might jibe at our acceptance of their decision being made conditional on the wishes of the sheep farmers in the Islands”. In fact the Argentine Junta agreed to the plan but wanted a shorter lease-back period.
Ridley urged the Argentines that his visit to Buenos Aires en route to the islands should attract “no publicity”. He did not even want the Argentines to be “too nice in public about us” and to be a “little more pressing when I arrive in Buenos Aires”. He wanted them to complain about lack of progress.
“It was considered politically safer to present the situation as one of antagonism”.
In the Malvinas, Ridley assured the islanders Britain would “not do anything unacceptable to the Islanders”. During the visit, Islander opinion against negotiations and lease-back hardened. But Rex Hunt reported that it had made them “think instead of drift”. The official history says he felt the Islanders were not getting guidance and leadership from their Councillors.
“There was a battle between heart and head. He compared the attitude of many to an Israeli asked to hand over his country to the Arabs. ...They cannot stomach the thought of the Islands belonging to Argentina”.
They felt Britain would protect them and not let them down.
The initiative was killed not so much by the lukewarm reception on the islands but the hostile reception in Parliament (in London). Ridley wrote to Cavandoli, expressing gratitude for his “careful and reticent line”. The Argentine press criticized lease-back as “insulting, tasteless and indecent”.
Make Islanders “flesh creep”
In Buenos Aires, British Ambassador Williams impatiently argued for “lease-back as the only way forward.” He was ready to go to the islands to ‘wake councillors up by making their flesh creep with expert advice on potential Argentine frightfulness’. He said: “It was unrealistic to expect the dangers inherent in the current situation to be appreciated on the Islands unless the signals came out loud and clear from the UK... His prophecies of doom became increasingly hard to ignore.” He warned that it was deceptive to pretend there was any possibility of a convergence of views between the Islanders and the Argentines.”
By the end of 1981, the islanders suspected they were paying the penalty for having incurred the displeasure of the British government by deliberately refusing to accept the favoured lease-back solution. Life was deliberately being made difficult to attempt to bring them to heel.
Secret analysis on “use of military power”
In December, General Leopoldo Galtieri took power as President with a new junta, which made the islands its “top priority,” and decided “to reactivate to the fullest extent all negotiations for sovereignty.”
It resolved to “analyze the possibility of the use of military power to obtain the political objective”, adding: “This resolution must be kept in strict secrecy and should be circulated only to the heads of the respective military departments.”
Military plans were to be prepared by mid-March, ready for implementation in “a bloodless occupation.” The occupation was launched on April 2.
No time to unload nuclear weapons
Freedman said he was surprised that the British fleet carried nuclear arms.
“A number of ships had come from exercises off Gibraltar and had the normal number of nuclear depth charges British ships took with them at the time, and they didn’t really have a good way of taking them off,” Freedman said in an interview with BBC radio.
“The government was desperate to get them away from the task force, but the delays that this would have caused at a time when they were trying to make the biggest diplomatic impact meant they decided they had better take them and get them off later,” he said.
“They put them in the safest places possible. There was no intention of using them, but they certainly went.”
Retaking Malvinas “barely militarily viable”
Assessing how to react to possible Argentine occupation of the islands, the British Ministry of Defence declared in 1981 that the proposed diminution in Britain’s amphibious capability in that year’s Defence Review — later reversed — would mean that reinforcement, subsequent to an Argentine occupation, “would be extremely difficult, if not impossible”. The MoD judged that “such an option after an invasion was remote.” “The operations staff had severe doubts as to it as a serious political response. It was judged that “retaking of the Islands after an Argentine invasion is barely militarily viable and would present formidable problems”.
In an interview with The Today Programme Radio 4 Freedman said: “They really hit them on March 31. They got intelligence which showed that there was an invasion likely to happen in a day or so. Of course, this came in the context of a mini-crisis over the island of South Georgia... The islanders did not want for understandable reasons to be transferred to Argentina but not enough really had been done for their prosperity and their security. When this mini-crisis occurred... all the weaknesses in the British position were suddenly exposed and the government wasn’t really prepared for that.”
Asked whether the occupation of the islands came as a total surprise for the British government, he replied: “It certainly did.”
(Herald staff with Mercopress, AP)