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Do Unto Others: The 1982 South Atlantic Crisis


By Chris Oakley

Part 1



Margaret Thatcher had a reputation during her tenure as British prime minister for being an implacable enemy of those who endangered Britainís interests. Rarely was this reputation more severely tested than in the South Atlantic crisis of 1982, when for weeks Britain was teetering on the verge of war with the Argentine military junta led by army general Leopoldo Galtieri. The Falkland Islands, an island chain off Argentinaís coast which had been claimed by the British government since 1833, was the catalyst for this standoff. The two countries had long quarreled with one another over who had rightful jursidiction over the islands, but their disputes had largely been confined to verbal jousting...


....until December of 1981. That month the MI5 foreign intelligence service obtained credible evidence the Argentine military would try to seize a vital weather station on the island of South Georgia as a test of British resolve. Deep-cover operatives inside Argentina uncovered papers at the Argentine defense ministry headquarters in Buenos Aires referring to a secret operation called Project Alpha, whose objective was to covertly establish an Argentine presence on South Georgian soil as a prelude to a larger campaign to capture the Falklands as a whole.

Even before those papers were discovered, there had been some unpleasant words exchanged between Buenos Aires and London when an Argentine scrap metal merchant landed at the South Georgian coastal town of Leith and refused to let British authorities at Grytviken stamp his entry visa. That alone would have been enough to cause ill will toward Argentina on Britainís part; the discovery of a military plan to forcibly secure an Argentine foothold on the islands added fuel to the fire. When additional investigation by MI5 confirmed the existence of a broader Argentine invasion plan, code-named Project Azul, it was the straw that broke the camelís back.

Three days after the Project Azul papers were uncovered, Prime Minister Thatcher convened a special session of her cabinet to map out a strategy for confronting the Argentines and defending British interests in the Falklands. Though there was considerable debate on whether to take military action right away or to wait and give the diplomats a chance to resolve things first, Thatcherís advisors were in total agreement on one point-- they could not afford to ignore the Galtieri regimeís blatantly expansionist behavior.

On January 7th, 1982 the British Ministry of Defence presented Thatcher with its own action plan for the Falklands, designated as Operation Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt called for the deployment of a naval action group to the South Atlantic to reinforce the British garrison already on the island; it also included provisions for a Royal Marines expeditionary force to be sent to the Falklands to defend vital strategic points all along the islands. There was even some discussion of the possibility of using Ascension Island-based RAF bombers to hit Argentine military targets, but this idea was soon dropped on the grounds that (A)the flying distance involved was too great and (B)even if the bombers could make it to Argentina, chances were that Argentine air force Mirage IIIs would shoot the bombers down anyway.

Thunderbolt planners did, however, endorse the idea of using RN carrier jets for defensive missions against the Argentine navy if the situation required it. One aircraft particularly suited to the cold and rugged milieu of the South Atlantic was the Hawker-Siddeley Sea Harrier "jump jet", an offshoot of the Harrier first developed for the even more hostile environment of naval air combat in a possible future NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in Europe. Not needing a conventional flight deck for takeoffs or landings, the Sea Harrier was the perfect fighter for tactical air operations in the Falklands. What it lacked in speed, it made up for in the ability to pack a punch.

Yet the main burden of guarding the Royal Navyís South Atlantic task force against Argentine warships would fall on the shoulders of the crews of the submarine flotilla accompanying the task forceís main body. The RN submarine service, which had come of age during World War II and still had a sizable number of veterans from that war among its  ranks, was widely regarded as one of the best sub branches among the Western navies; only the United States and the Soviet Union possessed more effective submarine fleets. And some of the British submarines attached to the South Atlantic task forces were nuclear-powered, which meant there would be no need for such vessels to make refueling stops. Theoretically, in fact, the nuclear subs could patrol the waters off the Falklands coast indefinitely, hunting Argentine naval vessels like sharks stalking wounded prey.


While the British military marshaled its forces for a possible showdown with Argentina on the battlefield, the British diplomatic corps waged its own campaign in defense of the Falklands in the world press, in the conference rooms of foreign government leaders, and on the floor of the UN General Assembly. In a move that for many people recalled Adlai Stevensonís verbal confrontation with Valery K. Zorin during the Cuban missile crisis nearly twenty years earlier, Britainís ambassador to the UN showed his Argentine counterpart excerpts of the top secret MI5 report on Project Azul and challenged him to disprove its accuracy; the Argentine ambassadorís only response was a stunned silence.

That was just the opening salvo in the British UN ambassadorís rhetorical showdown with Argentina. As the rest of the Assembly was reacting to the disclosure of the Project Azul report, the ambassador showed videotapes of an incident in which Argentine air force jets had intentionally violated Falklands airspace as a test of British resolve in the South Atlantic crisis. These tapes were accompanied by a highly skeptical, sometimes almost sarcastic, running commentary from the ambassador which questioned the Argentinesí intentions in regard to the islands; there was little the Argentine UN ambassador could do at that moment other than quietly fume about what he considered a blatant insult to his countryís honor.

The willingness of Britain to go toe-to-toe with Argentina was not lost on Britainís chief foreign ally, the United States, or its main foreign adversary, the Soviet Union. The South Atlantic crisis came at a moment when relations between Washington and Moscow were at their nadir; Margaret Thatcher, dubbed "the Iron Lady" by then-Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, was known on both sides of the Iron Curtain as a formidable figure-- if she dared risk a military confrontation over a handful of (mostly)barren islands in one of the coldest regions in the Southern Hemisphere, it wasnít likely that she would simply sit on the sidelines should the Warsaw Pact give even the vaguest hint of intending to move against British interests in western Europe.

The Soviet response to the escalating animosity between the Galtieri and Thatcher governments was to mostly sit back and let the two famously anti-Marxist heads of state continue to get angry with one another; with any luck, suggested then-KGB boss Yuri Andropov, Thatcher might get too distracted by the South Atlantic emergency to make any serious trouble for Moscow. With a gentle nudge or two from the propaganda section of the KGBís "black ops" unit it might even be possible to goad the British into starting hostilities in the South Atlantic and thereby sow seeds of dissension among the ranks of Great Britainís NATO partners.

On the other hand, the Americans were quick to intervene in support of their British allies; the famous Anglo-American "special relationship" has been a fact of life in international diplomatic circles since at least the First World War, and on a more personal level Prime Minister Thatcher was a close friend of President Ronald Reagan.

Reaganís Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, met with Thatcherís defense minister John Nott to discuss options for providing US military assistance to Britain should the South Atlantic crisis become a full-scale war. CIA director William Casey instructed his station chiefs in Latin America to assist the British government in gathering further data on Argentinaís war plans; Reaganís Secretary of State, George Schultz, bluntly informed the Argentine ambassador in Washington that the United States had not ruled out the possibility of deploying its own combat forces to the South Atlantic to forestall any Argentine attempts to seize the Falklands.

To say that Schultzís words sparked controversy throughout the rest of Latin America would be an understatement. Even among US allies like Mexico and Chile, the Reagan Administrationís pro-British stance on the Falklands crisis was viewed with a certain degree of concern; Fidel Castro, Washingtonís number one adversary in the region, blasted Reaganís actions in response to the South Atlantic crisis as yet one more example of typical Yanqui imperialism...


To Be Continued

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