LONDON - Argentina has little chance of taking the Falkland Islands by force, but defence cuts mean Britain's military would struggle to reclaim the territory if it did, the former head of the U.K. army has warned.
Gen. Mike Jackson told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that defences on the South Atlantic islands are much better than in 1982, when Argentine forces invaded. Argentina lost the subsequent war with Britain over the islands it calls the Malvinas.
But Jackson said that Britain's decision to scrap its Harrier jets, which are capable of launching from aircraft carriers, would make it "just about impossible" to recover the islands if Argentina managed to seize the main airfield.
Jackson said the official British position was "that it would not be possible for the Argentinians to gain a foothold on the islands, in particular to take Mount Pleasant airfield, which is key to the British defence plan."
"We have a large international-sized airfield to allow for very rapid reinforcement by air, should circumstances so require," he was quoted as saying. "But I suppose I have learned in life, never say never.
"What if an Argentinian force was able to secure the airfield? Then our ability to recover the islands now would be just about impossible."
Other ex-military chiefs have also warned that the loss of Britain's Ark Royal aircraft carrier and fleet of Harrier jets under the country's austerity plans could leave Britain unable to defend the islands, 290 miles (460 kilometres) east of the Argentine coast, which Britain has occupied since the early 1800s.
But the officer in charge of the islands' defence rejected the claims.
Brigadier Bill Aldridge, commander of British forces in the Falklands, said he was "not expecting to hand the islands over to anybody and therefore put us in a position where we would have to retake them."
"Deterring aggression is my top priority but I am fully confident that I have the capability to defend the islands," he said.
Offshore oil exploration in the area has encouraged new waves of nationalism on both sides, and recently the two countries have traded barbs over the islands, home to about 3,000 people.
British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Argentine President Cristina Fernandez of having "colonialist" aims, while she said Cameron of was guilty of "mediocrity bordering on stupidity."