Argentina eyes $664 million for fighter jets

JUAN MABROMATA
·4 min read

SANTIAGO, Chile — Argentina’s government has told lawmakers that it plans to spend about $684 million to procure new fighter jets and build related infrastructure.

The information, provided last week in response to questions from the Defense Committee within the Deputies Chamber, came from the chief of the Cabinet of Ministers, Juan Manzur, and the office of Defense Minister Jorge Taiana.

The budget, included in the current year’s Decree 88/22, calls for the allocation of $664 million to buy combat aircraft, plus an additional $20 million for the new infrastructure needed to support their operation.

The answers received by the Deputies Chamber defines the aircraft as “a multirole fighter jet fitted with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an in-flight refueling system compatible with the tanker aircraft currently in the inventory of the Argentine Air Force, a tactical data link and an electronic warfare defensive suite.”

Aircraft with an open-architecture design would be required to integrate weapons and systems of any origin, but legal requirements demand that no British-made or -designed system, subsystem or component may exist in the purchased aircraft. The ban aims to mitigate pressure from the United Kingdom, which, since the Falklands war in 1982, has limited or banned the supply of spare parts and material for military hardware to Argentina.

The U.K. effort has hindered maintenance and the operational capacity of platforms and weapons in Argentina’s inventory, and in recent years played against the South American nation’s options to buy secondhand Dassault Mirage F1, Saab Gripen and Korea Aerospace Industries FA-50 jets.

The answers sent to lawmakers also mention the aircraft types already assessed and under consideration as potential solutions, including the JF-17, which is jointly produced by China and Pakistan; the F-16, made by American firm Lockheed Martin; the Tejas, by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.; and the Russian Mikoyan MiG-35.

The Tejas could prove cost-effective, but its original radar is partly of British origin, its in-flight refueling system is of British design and its ejection seat comes from British company Martin-Baker. While the radar could be replaced, swapping out the in-flight refueling system would be more complex, as it might require structural intervention. And replacing the ejection seat would require an expensive redesign of the cabin.

A senior military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid workplace retaliation, said of the four aircraft listed by the government that it’s unlikely Argentina will choose the MiG-35 because of “political and logistical” reasons. The source felt similarly about the Tejas “because to replace components that can be vetoed by the British would be very expensive, beyond what the Argentine government is willing and can spend.”

“The Argentine Air Force would rather prefer the [Lockheed Martin] F-16, but the U.S. government does not help with it, as it is only willing to authorize a sale under very restrictive conditions,” the officer told Defense News.

“An Argentine request for allowance to integrate Rafael’s Derby BVR missile, as well as other Israeli weapons and systems, in the F-16 was made around a month ago,” the officer added. “No answer has come from Washington, and the silence sounds like a no here in Buenos Aires. Many here see these objections to the sale of AMRAAM and the integration of Israeli weapons as a product of British pressure or influence on the U.S. authorities.

“All of this plays in the favor of the procurement of the Chinese JF-17/FC-1 fighter jet, a machine that has no British components or parts, not even a screw.”

Meanwhile, Israel Aerospace Industries is launching a new campaign in Buenos Aires to promote the option of buying refurbished, upgraded Kfir jets.

Retired Argentine Army Col. Guillermo Lafferriere, now a Buenos Aires-based independent defense analyst, is skeptical about Argentina’s intentions and commitment to procure a new combat jet.

“They can hold long negotiations, can do several trips abroad to see offers, can even sign letters of intention short of contracts. [But] they have also powers to change the destination of approved budgets, so can take the funds for something else,” he told Defense News. “The people today in office in the government spent decades describing the military as criminals, as well as neglecting the armed forces while saying they are an unnecessary waste. Their voters believe that, and will get enraged if they now start spending in military hardware and getting international loans for it, even if it is a small amount like this for combat aircraft.”