Military chiefs are dusting off their plans for the defence of the Falklands after South American countries banned ships from the islands docking in their ports.
Sources fear Prince William’s six-month deployment to the South Atlantic as an air-sea rescue pilot next year could provoke more sabre-rattling.
Yesterday Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner claimed Britain was ready to use its military to steal natural resources ‘anywhere, anyhow’.
She said: ‘They’re currently taking our oil reserves and fish stocks from the Falklands but when they need more natural resources they will come and use force to steal them wherever and however they can.’
Mercosur, the South American trading block which also includes Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay have agreed to ban boats sailing under the Falklands flag from docking at their ports – even though Paraguay does not even have a coastline.
The ban affects around 25 ships – some of which are fishing vessels working for a Spanish company.
Argentina still claims the islands – held by Britain since the 1830s – are theirs, despite their crushing defeat in the 1982 Falklands War.
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox asked to see the war plans for the defence of the Falklands in 2010 and examined the plans twice as they were adapted. New Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, who took over in October, has also been briefed.
Diplomats privately dismissed the ban on Falklands-flagged ships as a political stunt. They claimed it would have few practical effects.
The vessels in question also have the right to fly the British red ensign.
‘They can simply arrive outside these ports, lower the Falklands flag and hoist the red ensign and then they’ll be able to go into port,’ a source said.
British diplomats in South America yesterday demanded urgent meetings with their host countries to assess ‘what they think their action means’.
Intelligence chiefs have told Mr Hammond and the National Security Council that there is currently ‘no credible military threat’ to the islands from the Argentine Navy or Air Force.
But a senior official said: ‘If there is a threat preparations would be made very quickly.
‘We are confident that the Argentinians could not land even a fishing boat on the islands.
‘But it’s important to show we are serious about our obligations.’
Ministers have been told that the 1,200-strong Falklands garrison would be capable of repelling an invasion long enough to send reinforcements to Port Stanley.
Four Typhoon interceptors are believed to be more than a match for Argentina’s ageing jets. A senior defence source said: ‘The second they cross their coastline, we’d shoot them from the skies. It would be a turkey shoot.’
Another official said: ‘We’ve got a decent fighting force defending the islands, which was absent in 1982, and the Argentine armed forces haven’t properly recovered from the drubbing they received last time around.’
Concerns remain that cuts to the Royal Navy, which means the UK will soon be without an aircraft carrier, would not be able to launch another Task Force like that sent by Margaret Thatcher in 1982.
Defence sources say a nuclear submarine is also stationed in the South Atlantic – and a former head of the Navy demanded that it ‘stick its mast up’ to deter aggression.
Lord West, who commanded HMS Ardent during the war in 1982, condemned the ban on Falklands ships as ‘outrageous’. He said: ‘When one (submarine) is there, it should stick its mast up and make a point of making it clear that it is there. I think the Foreign Office should be tougher. This has been ratcheting up for some time. We’ve got to make clear that sovereignty is not on the table. The people who live there want to remain British.’
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘We are very concerned by this latest Argentine attempt to isolate the Falkland Islands people and damage their livelihoods, for which there is no justification.
We have no doubt about our sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and will continue to support the islanders’ right to determine their own political future.
‘Neither we nor the Falklands will bend to those who seek to bully or blackmail the Islands.’ Roger Spink, president of the Falklands Chamber of Commerce, said the small Falklands community felt increasingly under blockade.
‘If we were Palestine, the European Union would be up in arms,’ he said.
So, could we win another war?
ANALYSIS by Tim Shipman, Deputy Political Editor
Political storm clouds are gathering in the South Atlantic. As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War approaches, Prince William is to begin a six-month deployment, an act described by Argentina as ‘provocative’.
The Buenos Aires regime may not be a military junta any more, but it is not above a little sabre-rattling to distract attention from its flatlining economy.
Argentina still feels the trauma of its humiliation in the 1982 war.
And the flames of resentment are fanned by another ingredient – the discovery of what could be vast oil and gas fields off the islands. To ramp up the political pressure, the Argentine government has struck a deal to prevent ships flying the Falklands flag from docking in neighbouring states.
This brinkmanship has raised fears that Buenos Aires may make another desperate bid for the islands they call Las Malvinas.
When I visited Argentina in the Spring, the issue was on everyone’s lips. In Buenos Aires, there is a permanent protest manned by war veterans, reminding politicians not to abandon the cause of liberating the islands for which 649 of their comrades died.
And there are concerns that Britain would struggle to retake the Falklands if Argentina were to seize them. Britain has just one aircraft carrier left and is soon to lose that, leaving the Royal Navy at the mercy of the good wishes of the French.
But there are two major differences between now and 1982. Firstly the message the British government is sending out to the Kirchner government is very different from that to General Galtieri’s junta.
For a couple of years before the invasion of 1982, the Foreign Office displayed a blithe lack of interest in the South Atlantic. The MoD announced that the South Atlantic patrol vessel HMS Endurance would be withdrawn.This time ministers are making clear they will retaliate against any threat.
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox was bold and public in his determination to defend the islands. Dr Fox was sufficiently concerned that he repeatedly asked to see the war plans, making sure they were constantly updated.
On paper Argentina appears to have a formidable military, with a standing Army of more than 73,000 troops, as well as more than 200 tanks, 11 major surface warships, three submarines and nearly 100 warplanes. This dwarfs the 1,200 troops and four Typhoon jets Britain has on the islands.
But look a little closer and ministers are confident they can repel an invasion. There was nothing like that firepower on the islands in 1982.
Sources say Argentina does not have the capability to deploy a meaningful invasion force. Most of their French Mirage, Super Etendard, Skyhawk and Pucara jets are obsolete, some dating back to the 1950s.
Insiders say British Typhoons, state of the art interceptors, would be able to shoot down the Argentine Air Force almost at will. Military sources say the aircraft and the nuclear submarine in the South Atlantic would be able to repel an invasion long enough to reinforce the islands via the RAF airfield at Port Stanley.
Reinforcements would be sent by air via the military base on Ascension Island in the equatorial waters of the South Atlantic.