Two British-built Type-42 destroyers, including the flagship, Hercules, and four Meko-class frigates, built in Germany but powered by Rolls-Royce Tyne engines, would be unable to operate now without spare parts made in the United States. They are copies of original Rolls components obtained illegally as part of the MI6 operation, codenamed Tigre.
The revelations are embarrassing for the British government. Two ministers, Ian Lang and Malcolm Rifkind, have criticised the Labour Party for selling the ships to Argentina in the 1970s. Now, it appears, MI6 kept the Argentine navy afloat after the Falklands war, even though Argentine claims to the Falklands - a potential casus belli - have not been withdrawn.
According to Channel 4's Dispatches programme tonight, the man at the centre of the affair is Clive Russell, MI6's man in Argentina in 1987 when the Argentine navy was running out of spare parts for the Rolls-Royce engines powering the British ships it ordered in 1970. Unable to get the new parts they needed to make accurate copies any other way, they approached Mr Russell at the Naval Club in Buenos Aires.
Mr Russell, a former Royal Navy officer who had built up business contacts in Argentina, immediately contacted his MI6 controller who encouraged him to help the Argentines as a means of gaining access to the centre of the Argentine military-industrial complex, which he did. The case has remarkable similarities to the Matrix Churchill affair, in which businessmen working for MI6 and believing they were immune from prosecution were prosecuted by other Government agencies.
Mr Russell became concerned that, in his words, MI6 "were encouraging me to break the law in order to have, in their view, the greater benefit of precise information". He continued: "They would go to any lengths in order to satisfy their hunger for information."
He decided to reveal his story because "the present government has made a mockery of democracy and they have betrayed the men and women who sailed from here to die and be wounded in the Falkland Islands war".
MI6's zeal to obtain precise information about Argentina's armed forces is understandable, as it was widely blamed for the failure to predict the invasion of the Falklands in 1982.
Mr Russell was approached by an Argentine admiral, Edgardo Segura, and asked for help in getting the spare parts. He was asked to spend 10 days in Puerto Belgrano, a secret naval and air base, assessing the state of the navy's engines and the maritime air strike force of Super Etendards. This gave him "grade A" intelligence.
Because of the embargo on military exports from Britain to Argentina, a firm called Comptine Technology was set up in New York state to copy the key parts obtained by divers means from around the world for a fee of $6m. Some were stolen from Rolls-Royce in Britain.
Mr Russell became concerned that the re-equipment of the Argentine navy was going too well and that in its quest for information MI6 was defying parliament, becoming "an agency out of control".
He therefore tried to interrupt operation Tigre, throwing one key component - an A63 bearing - into the Hudson river. Its disappearance was the subject of extensive correspondence between Admiral Segura and his colleagues. The fact that the Argentine navy's best ships are still operating suggests that it did not sabotage the programme, however.
Eventually the Argentines became suspicious. Mr Russell was subsequently attacked in Buenos Aires and badly beaten up. "They severely damaged my spine and did other most unpleasant things that I suppose I'd rather not talk about." He left Buenos Aires in a wheelchair and did not return to Argentina until he helped make tonight's film.
In 1991 MI6 told him his intelligence-gathering services were no longer needed, but operation Tigre continues. "I feel terribly let down by MI6," Mr Russell said. "One is put in a position of considerable danger under the pretext of patriotism and then MI6 just wash their hands."Reuse content