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Will Prince William's tour of duty reignite simmering Falklands dispute?

Prince William, a Royal Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter pilot, will be deployed 8,000 miles away from home, at a base in the Falkland Islands, a British colony off the coast of Argentina. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

LONDON -- As Prince William prepares to head 8,000 miles from home to serve as a helicopter pilot in the remote Falkland Islands, the traditional "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves!" refrain seems rather far-fetched.

Britain's naval fleet was once twice the combined size of its two closest rivals. But austerity cuts have seen billions of pounds vanish from military budgets. Even the Royal Navy's flagship aircraft carrier hasn't been spared -- HMS Ark Royal was sent to the scrapyard last year.


Tensions have been increasing between Argentina and the U.K. as the 30th anniversary of their 10-week war over the Falklands approaches. Argentina claims sovereignty over the British-ruled islands, which are about 300 miles off its coast in the South Atlantic.

'Provocative act'
Britain's oil prospecting on the seabed near the islands has added fuel to the fire. Buenos Aires has condemned such exploration as illegal. There has also been a war of words over territorial fishing rights and President Cristina Fernandez has pledged an "eternal fight" to reclaim the islands.

Britain has ruled the Falklands for more than 180 years.

When Prince William's posting was announced by the Royal Air Force, one Argentine official described the move as a "provocative act."

Reuters reported that Britain's National Security Council discussed the islands' defenses on Tuesday.

Prime Minister David Cameron subsequently accused Argentina of "colonialism" in its claim to the Falklands, saying Britain was committed to protecting the islands and insisting that people there should be allowed to decide their own nationality.

"These people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else," Cameron told lawmakers.

Florencio Randazzo, Argentina's interior minister, later described Cameron's comments as "totally offensive," Reuters reported.

Olympic protest?
Even this summer's Olympics in London appear in danger of becoming entangled in  the spat. Some Argentine athletes have discussed plans to wear a logo on their uniforms stating: "The Falklands are Argentine."

According to The Associated Press, Britain maintains about 1,000 troops in the territory, which is home to about 3,000 people.

Lasting 74 days, the 1982 conflict ended with 258 British lives lost and six ships sunk. The cost to Argentina was even greater: 649 killed with 11,313 others captured. Its navy lost a submarine, a cruiser and 75 fixed-wing aircraft.

Some now wonder if the Royal Navy would be able to respond to a similar overseas crisis today.

When asked if Britain would be sending an aircraft carrier to the Falklands during Prince William's military service, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense told NBC News: "No, we don't have one." HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in March.

The aircraft carrier Invincible, Britain's flagship vessel in the Falklands war, has been put up for sale to raise money in the face of impending military budget cuts. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

The Ministry of Defense spokesman pointed out the Falklands boast a "well-defended airfield with Typhoon aircraft."

But Admiral Sandy Woodward, who commanded the task force that liberated the Falklands' British population from Argentine occupation in 1982, believes the islands "are now perilously close to being indefensible."

Major General Julian Thompson, the brigadier who led the initial British assault 30 years ago, told NBC News he believed that if Argentina invaded the islands now, the U.K.'s military could not get them back without an aircraft carrier.

He dismissed reinforcement by air instead of sea as "sheer nonsense."

"We certainly won't get over-flying rights or basing facilities within range of the Falklands – assuming the Argentines have taken the airfield and destroyed the Typhoons there," Thompson added.

So how powerful is today's Royal Navy? Critics highlight that when Russian ships were spotted off the Scottish coast last year, Britain could only send the aging  frigate HMS York on an 800-mile journey from a base in England.

Two under-construction aircraft carriers are behind schedule and won't be ready for about another decade.

Bearing that in mind, might Argentina be prepared to move beyond rhetoric when Prince William's presence draws the world's attention to the Falklands beginning next month?

One thing appears likely. Before his six-week tour of duty, William will have surely discussed the Falklands war with his uncle. Prince Andrew was a helicopter pilot during the conflict.