The visiting Argentine reporter Hugo Alconada Mon who is in the Falkland Islands reporting for the Buenos Aires daily La Nacion, on the 40th anniversary of the April 2nd Argentine military invasion and occupation of the Falklands, has included in his round of interviews, British Forces South Atlantic Islands Commander, Jonathan Lett.
Alconada Mon reveals that to interview BFSAI commander was a long process, it started with a request to the British embassy in Buenos Aires, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense, but the Commander of BFSAI, with jurisdiction over Falklands, South Georgia, South Sandwich, Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha Islands, proved to be a very pleasant person. As soon as Alconanda Mon arrived at Mount Pleasant Complex, Lett approached him stretched his hand and simply said, call me Jonathan.
Commander Left explained to Alconada that the purpose of the base is entirely defensive, to defend the Islands from any potential threat. Sometimes we are accused of militarizing the South Atlantic but our forces here at MPC are at their minimum operational level required to confront any potential threat. Less than 1,000 soldiers, when the Argentines occupied in 1982, they needed 10,000 troops.
Forty years have gone by since (war), we should put aside our political differences and work together to save lives at sea, suggested Left, recalling regional and international collaboration when the loss of the ARA San Juan submarine and of the Chilean Hercules C130.
What role did you play during the search and rescue operations for the (Argentine sunken submarine) ARA San Juan?
I was not the commander of the base at the moment but I am a naval officer and as such the tragic loss of 44 lives I can tell you all the naval people around the world really felt it. At the time I was the link between UK and the US South Command in Miami, and from that very moment we did everything possible to coordinate the information between US, MPC and our attaché officer in Argentina. I also know that on 17 November, UK offered the support from all its forces in the South Atlantic for the search because it was the right thing to do. Forty years have gone by (since the war) we should leave aside our political differences and work together to save lives at sea.
HMS Protector participated in the search for the lost ARA San Juan?
That is so. We later added a patrol vessel, a C130, a Voyager aircraft and deployed a special submarine rescue team made up of nine officers on board the first military plane that landed in Argentina, in Bahía Blanca, since the war, while we supported the search from MPC and from Comodoro Rivadavia. It was quite an extended collaboration.
Was that the most ample joint military operation since the 1982 war?
Yes. It was not formally defined as such, but it was the closest because you, us and all the world wanted to find the submarine and its crew alive. Clock was ticking and it was vital that we responded rapidly.
Did this base collaborate in other search and rescue missions of Argentine vessels?
Some, yes, but on a much smaller scale. Mostly small vessels, close or around the Falklands, but the most relevant was when I was still assigned to the US South Command and the Chilean C130 aircraft which was flying from your country to Antarctica was lost in December 2019 with the tragic death of 38 military and scientists. A similar operation was deployed. Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and UK joined forces to search for survivors and later the remains. We deployed a vessel, a search aircraft and mounted a link office in Chile to support the search.
Do you see any chance of Argentine and UK armed forces participating in joint military exercises, following on these rescue operations?
First of all let me point out that HMS Protector is not a military vessel but a patrol vessel particularly in Antarctica and was the first vessel, non Argentine, to join the search for the ARA San Juan. It belongs to the Royal Navy, but it is red and white, has a peaceful role, centered in supporting British scientific research in Antarctica. It is not a military vessel, it is not painted grey and following what happened with ARA San Juan, HMS Protector in 2018 visited Buenos Aires. The same happened with HMS Endurance which was the first British war vessel to visit Argentina after the war. It called in Buenos Aires in 1997 and visited Mar del Plata in 1998, and twice again in Buenos Aires.
I insist, given the forty years since the war, is a military rapprochement possible between the two countries?
Each time military personnel from both countries meet, coordination is very good. And following on the search operations for the Chilean C130, there were talks not of joint exercises, but yes at least a conference where the forces of the region could meet to jointly assess what lessons could be drawn from the search for the ARA San Juan and the Chilean C130, but unfortunately it never occurred because of the pandemic. It is something we would like to see happening but it requires the authorization of the maximum political authorities. These type of military exercises can be possible when there is a political will. Remember for example that both countries agreed in 2016 to a joint communiqué with ten points. Point eight referred to Defense issues and the need to work together to jointly confront global threats and promote closer links between our forces. That has not occurred, but the door is open, yes absolutely.
What is the purpose of keeping such a base as this in the Islands at this time?
The purpose of the base is entirely defensive, to defend the Islands from any potential threat. Quite often we are accused of militarizing the South Atlantic, but our forces here are at a minimum operational level required to confront any potential threat and that level is under constant review. Let me contextualize it: my force is credible and capable, but is relatively small. Military personnel is below 1,000 persons. If we compare that with the number of Argentines who were in the Islands in 1982....
More than 10,000
Yes, More than 10,000 soldiers to defend the Islands and I now have less than a thousand. We are also accused of threatening Argentina and the region from this enclave. With a thousand soldiers ? I think that says it all. The other common accusation is that with our military exercises we are provoking. I have soldiers! We make them (exercise) wherever we are! No, I'm not sending any message, but I would not be complying with my duty as commander of the base if I didn't to it. If you have a car for an emergency, if you don't turn the engine on every now and then, it won't start is when you really need it.
What's the base for, then?
Look this is my fifth tour of the Islands in my career. The first was in 1994 as a young officer and for four months. The second, also four months, I was a Major. The third as commander of a vessel and for six months. The fourth as head of another vessel and for six months. Now I have been here for a year, and I will spend another year. So for me it is as a privilege to be here again and heading a team of military and civilians, men and women, very diverse and with specific capacities. We have Typhoon fighters, A400M (Atlas C1), Voyager tanker, helicopters and an only infantry company. We are 58 kilometers from the city (Stanley) but we are in charge of the international airport and a deep water port. But our relation with the civilian population is very careful, I could say harmonious. We are not an occupation force.
Is there anything else you are authorized to tell me about the base?
It is a large base, but as I have said our force has been reduced to less than 1,200 military and civilian personnel. It has its own population and when you were coming here, your crossed by the school we have in the base. MPC has a small force but it is credible.