The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is to conduct a review of its plans for the defence of the Falkland Islands following reports that Russia is to supply Argentina with Sukhoi Su-24 'Fencer' strike aircraft, UK media reported on 28 December.
The review follows a report in the Daily Express newspaper that Russia is to lease 12 Su-24s to the Argentine Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Argentina - FAA) in return for foodstuffs.
According to the media report, the Su-24s would be delivered to the FAA ahead of the introduction into service of the first of the UK's two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in 2020 (full-operating capability for the Queen Elizabeth is currently slated for 2023).
The potential arrival of Su-24s into Argentine service ahead of the introduction into service of the UK's new aircraft carriers could pose a "real window of vulnerability", MoD officials reportedly told the Daily Express .
With Argentina arguing sovereignty over the islands that it refers to as Islas Malvinas, the UK maintains a force of four Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft, Rapier surface-to-air missiles, and about 1,200 troops permanently stationed on the Falklands. These are supported by visiting Royal Navy warships, and while the MoD won't comment publically on such deployments it is understood that nuclear-powered attack submarines are often sent to the South Atlantic as a further layer of defence for the islands.
While the MoD declined to address the specific threat of the Su-24s with IHS Jane's , it did provide a statement which read, "The MoD undertakes regular assessments of potential military threats to the Falkland Islands to ensure that we retain an appropriate level of defensive capability to address any threats. We continue to remain vigilant and committed to the protection of the Falkland Islanders."
For some years now, Argentina has been trying to replace its antiquated and increasingly unserviceable Dassault Mirage IIIEA, IAI Dagger, and McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fighter fleets with a newer and more capable type.
Reported procurements of surplus Spanish Mirage F1s, Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Kfirs, Chengdu Aircraft Corporation FC-1/JF-17, and Saab Gripen E/Fs all appear to have stalled for either economic or political reasons (the proposed buy of the Gripen E/F was effectively vetoed by the UK, which manufactures many of the aircraft's systems).
What makes the Su-24 report so alarming for the UK government is that the proposed lease from Russia would not likely be affected by either economic or political reasons, and so is much more likely to progress.
The Su-24 is an old design, and so, on paper at least, should easily be defended against by the Royal Air Force's Typhoons and the Rapier surface-to-air missiles. However, wars aren't fought on paper, and the Su-24's combat radius of 565 n miles (1,046 km; 650 miles) - hi-lo-hi with 3,000 kg (6,615 lb) of weapons and two external tanks - means it would be able to strike at the Falkland Islands without the need for aerial refuelling. Its supersonic performance would also reduce the time afforded to the UK defences to react to any such attack.
While the Su-24's nine hardpoints means it can carry a wide range of air-to-surface weaponry, it is its ability to carry anti-shipping missiles such as the Kh-31A (AS-17 'Krypton') that make it such a potent threat to UK forces in the region. If Russia were to back up its offer of the leased aircraft with weapon systems such as these (Iran also makes its own weapon systems for the Su-24, which could be offered to Argentina), then the Su-24 could pose a real problem for UK plans for the defence of the Falkland Islands.