WHEN the British task force set sail for the Falklands 20 years ago today, confident, cheering crowds waved off the troops, buoyed by a sense of moral outrage at the most serious affront to the nation’s sovereignty since the Second World War.
But even before the strains of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and We Are Sailing had faded away, military strategists were questioning whether Britain still had the capability to conduct a war 8,000 miles away in another hemisphere.
Today, the anniversary of the start of Britain’s last colonial war, those questions are still being asked, but 20 years of cuts to defence spending have fuelled the fears of those who believe that the country no longer has the capability to mount such an ambitious military adventure.
Even 20 years ago, the prospects for a British victory were by no means certain.
Margaret Thatcher, then the prime minister, was aware she was taking a gamble that would destroy her if it failed to come off.
Luck played as big a part as military bravado and flair.
Had the Argentines waited a few months longer, the outcome might have been very different.
John Nott, the defence secretary at the time, was proposing to sell off two of Britain’s carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, and get rid of the assault ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. If the cuts had gone ahead, it is doubtful whether the task force could ever have set sail.
Twenty years on, the navy is in an even more parlous state. According to the military historian Trevor Royle, many of the factors that helped Britain to victory no longer exist.
During the Falklands War, the Sea Harrier fighters operating from the decks of the carriers were a match for the Super Etendards and Mirages of the Argentine air force, but he believes a modern task force operating so close to its opponents’ home airfields today would find itself far more vulnerable to air attack.
“The Sea Harriers, which operated as fighters, are being replaced by ground attack versions of the veteran aircraft, and they can no longer be expected to provide effective fighter cover,” he said.
Britain still has three small carriers – HMS Ark Royal, HMS Illustrious and HMS Invincible – but plans for two large aircraft carriers are still in their infancy, with no realistic chance of the vessels becoming operational for another decade, if ever.
Carriers capable of carrying a range of modern aircraft, including reconnaissance and early warning planes, are seen as crucial to Britain’s ability to conduct a future Falklands-style operation.
Commodore Michael Clapp, the commander of the naval task group during the Falklands War, believes successive British governments have failed to learn the lessons of 1982.
“I think we are in an extremely dangerous position until the carriers come and the Argentines know it once again. That’s why they invaded last time, because they thought we were selling the carriers and the landing ships and we weren’t interested in defending the place.
“I find the politicians beyond belief because the defence budget has gone right down and it is so small compared to what it used to be, even in the ’60s.
“We have still got these other dramas and if Blair wants to keep us in Afghanistan and all those other places he really ought to give the services a bit more money because we are going to get caught out again. They are stretched all over the place.”
Defence spending has more than halved as a share of gross domestic product since the Falklands War and the British armed forces have suffered as a consequence.
Last month, the assault ship HMS Fearless was retired eight months ahead of schedule and the navy has only one amphibious support ship, HMS Ocean, a converted merchant ship. The navy now has only 31 frigates and destroyers, down from 50 in 1982, and four landing ships instead of six.
All three services are smaller than when the Argentine junta gave the order to invade and the army is 15,000 below strength.
During the Falklands War, commercial ships such as the Canberra played a vital role in transporting the troops to the islands, but with many British-registered vessels now under foreign ownership, no guarantee could be made that they would be made available for such an operation.
Other factors also played a crucial part in the British victory. The loss of even one carrier would have placed the entire operation in jeopardy, but the carriers escaped attack from the Argentine air force.
The failure of the Argentines to set the fuses on their bombs to explode on impact might have spared six ships and saved the entire operation.
At least six bombs smashed through British ships without detonating.
Lord Craig, the former marshal of the Royal Air Force, is said to have remarked: “Six better fuses and we would have lost.”
But despite the pessimism over the resources available, Royle believes one important factor would still enable such an operation to succeed – political willpower.
“I believe Tony Blair would try it, even with the limitations,” he said. “He’s shown himself well capable of that . He made such a noise in Washington about sending British combat troops that eventually they took him up on his word.
“He has the same instincts that Maggie Thatcher had, that there is a direct relationship between military success and political popularity.”