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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 June 2007, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
'We don't sit here doing nothing'
by Paula Dear
BBC News

One of the many legacies of the 1982 Falklands conflict was the establishment of a sizeable British military base on the islands. Nearly 1,500 service personnel are still posted there. Why are they there and what do they do?

RAF Tornado escorts flight from UK
Tornado jets practise intercepting airliners with flights from the UK

There has been peace in the South Atlantic archipelago of the Falkland Islands in the 25 years since Argentina invaded.

In a way that is unique to the islands, the territory is still considered to be operational by the UK Ministry of Defence because of the way troops are deployed there, although it is referred to as "non-operational" because it is not funded in the same way a conflict zone would be.

An hour's drive south of Stanley, over a bumpy rocky road, is the sprawling Mount Pleasant base, which also houses the families of some military personnel and civilian contractors.

With buildings linked by a central corridor nearly a kilometre (0.6 miles) long it has been nicknamed locally as the Death Star, after the huge planet-destroying space station in the film Star Wars.

The mission there - to deter aggression, maintain UK sovereignty and protect the Falklands government's economic interests - is a joint one for the RAF, Army and navy.

There are both political and military objectives in the British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI) operation, says Cdr Chris Moorey.

Argentina has maintained its claim to the Falklands [Las Malvinas] since 1833 and there is no sign of that position changing.

Major Stuart Lane, Mount Pleasant, Falklands
To do all this in the UK, it would be difficult to get it all together - that's important, because they will do it for real in Afghanistan
Major Stuart Lane

The Argentine President, Nestor Kirchner is from Patagonia - in the south of the country - and "very much has Las Malvinas on his mind," says Cdr Moorey.

But while the political situation is clearly something the military must monitor, in the current climate they are more likely to be engaged in "protecting the economic zone" such as the islands' fisheries area, he adds.

One of their principal routine duties is to patrol the islands - by land, air and sea. That can mean anything from a small Army team trekking with packs, calling in on settlements and sleeping in farmer's sheds, to RAF pilots patrolling in low-flying Tornado jets or navy vessels touring the seas.

And it is the tri-service nature of the operation that is often cited as the main reason a Falklands posting can be seen as attractive.

It may not have the action of Iraq or Afghanistan, but the location provides a near-perfect microcosm of all the training opportunities you could wish for, according to Maj Stuart Lane, of the Roulement Infantry Company (RIC).

THE MISSION
British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI) should "deter military aggression against the South Atlantic Overseas Territories (SOAT) in order to maintain UK sovereignty ... whilst also protecting Falkland Islands government economic interests".
SOAT: Falkland Islands, Ascension Island, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands

Maj Lane, an Australian who took an attachment to the British army then stayed, says his company will be making the most of its eight-week posting - far shorter than the six months most Army colleagues serve.

The field firing on the islands is the "best training" they have, he says. They can also take advantage of working with the four Tornado F3s on the base, a Hercules C130, Sea King helicopters and navy vessels, he says.

"Opportunity wise, it's fantastic. People have really made the effort down here to look after the blokes. A lot of them have asked to stay."

"To do all this in the UK, it would be difficult to get it all together. We have a lot of places to play here. And that's important, because they will do it for real in Afghanistan."

"This was our opportunity to come to this part of the world. Eight of my blokes will get to go on HMS Endurance and travel to Antarctica, who gets that?"

Top Gun

Suggestions that being posted to the Falklands could be perceived as boring are met with scorn.

"No commander would come here without taking advantage of all the different assets here. And we have a real operation to do. If the people here want to belong to Britain we will defend them.

CAPABILITIES - AIR, LAND, SEA
One VC10: air-to-air refuelling, support for Tornado operations, medical evacuation
One Hercules C130: maritime radar reconnaissance
Four Tornado F3s: 24-hour quick reaction alerts and air patrol sorties
Resident Rapier Battery: ground-based air defence
Various Army units plus the independent unit Roulement Infantry Company
Atlantic patrol: navy frigate or destroyer for south Atlantic/West Africa regions
Falkland Island patrol vessel: air and surface radar surveillance, coastal and offshore patrols
Royal Fleet Auxiliary: usually tied to Atlantic Patrol
MV St Brandan: civilian ship providing logistical support - coastal re-supply

"The fact that there are not bombs flying around is a good thing, because it allows us to train. We don't just sit here and do nothing."

In the Quick Reaction Air building pilots and navigators are sitting in a recreation room in their flight gear.

A communications unit attached to the wall could bring their tea break to an abrupt halt. If it goes off "we will all have to go", they say.

If anyone unidentified comes into the Falklands' protected zone they are scrambled, which happens about once or twice a month, they say. In the last incident the unidentified object was a civilian aircraft.

The job is like sailing, says Flt Lt Kat Ferris: "It's 95% sitting around, 5% terror."

To deal with the sitting around, there are some exceptionally comfortable armchairs and a bank of DVDs on a bookshelf next to the communications unit.

Top Gun is on the bottom shelf.

11 September

But, like their colleagues, they say the training available on the islands is pretty special and air crews are kept busy for much of their six-week posting.

"Here we can do other things, like low flying. The Argentines would still come in at very low levels," says Flt Lt Ferris.

They also have the chance to practise intercepting airliners, with the twice-weekly flights, carrying military and civilian passengers, from RAF Brize Norton in the UK.

"That is a skill set we can't get at home. With a view to September 11-type incidents, getting to intercept an airliner is excellent training. As a high-altitude interceptor the Tornado can struggle a bit so it's not as easy as it looks."

But it is not all just about using the place to update their skills, adds Major Lane.

"What makes this place important is that we all grew up with 1982. We took lessons from that and adapted what we did. The blokes walk over those battlefields and learn about what their predecessors did.

"That means a lot to them."




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