Modernising the Argentinean Air Force: The F-16/JF-17 Conundrum

Upgrades needed: an IA-63 Pampa aircraft in service with the Argentinean Air Force. Image: Alexis Lloret / Alamy

As it looks to upgrade its air force, Argentina faces a choice that will have significant geopolitical implications, not least in the context of the US–China rivalry.

It is no secret that the Argentinean Army, Air Force and Navy urgently require immediate modernisation in weapons systems capabilities, training capacity, organisation and doctrine. The country’s defence sector comprises a collection of outdated capabilities, from ships and tanks to assault rifles. As documented by multiple analysts, Argentina’s maritime and airspace environment is poorly protected, as the military struggles to keep its systems working. Today, Argentinean defence policy is about ‘social work’, to paraphrase Michael Mandelbaum’s classic description of US foreign policy under Bill Clinton.

In an article in 2019, Francisco de Santibañes and I discussed the root causes of this decline: a lack of proper funding; a lack of political willingness to develop a functional defence policy and strategy; the so-called ‘dirty war’; and the Falklands/Malvinas War, which restrained Argentina’s military legitimacy.

After the decommissioning of the entire Mirage III C and V fleet in 2015, the only fighter/attack aircraft left in service is the older McDonnell Douglas A-4AR, received in 1995 thanks to an agreement between the US and Argentina following the re-establishment of Argentinean-UK relations, which were severed as a consequence of the 1982 war.

Thanks to US spare parts and the Argentinean capacity to do marvellous things with few resources, the Air Force has kept them flying alongside a fleet of locally produced IA-63 Pampa, an advanced trainer recently re-branded by the Defence Secretary for International Relations as a ‘fighter’. Frankly speaking, the Argentinean Air Force is an outstanding aviation museum.

Finally, in 2023, after years of failed attempts to acquire the French Mirage 2000, the Israeli IAI KFIR C-12 and the South Korean KAI-50 due to a lack of resources and political will as well as societal indifference, three options have emerged on the horizon to be the centre of a reinvigorated Argentinean Air Force: the JF-17, the HAL Tejas Mk2 and the F-16 A/B MLU.

To understand which fighter will be selected by the current or the next government, we should consider the following factors: 1) non-existent resources, 2) obstructionist nationalism, and 3) an international dynamic of political and military rivalry between China and the US. This decision will ultimately determine the operational capacity of the Air Force and the future of Argentinean relations in the Southern Cone.

Which to Choose: The US Option or the Chinese One?

Acquiring a combat aircraft is a complex process involving technical and political considerations. The operational capabilities and lifespan of the options are critical factors to be weighed against the backdrop of limited resources. The Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 bid, which offers a ‘new’ aircraft with a diverse array of available weapons, might appear more attractive in comparison to the relatively short operational life of the Danish F-16 MLU option. A Chinese-financed option also appeals to the current government’s chauvinistic supporters, as it aligns with their desire for sovereignty as an anti-Anglo-Saxon power. They believe that aligning with China will effectively serve Argentina’s national interests. This obstructionist nationalism opposes the F-16 option due to its US origin, fearing potential limitations or restrictions associated with a ‘UK veto’. This stance reflects a limited understanding of international politics and the intricacies of diplomatic relations.

For the US establishment, an Argentinean aircraft deal with China would be interpreted as an opening for Beijing to exercise wedge politics in the region, potentially enhancing its territorial footprint over time

Let us imagine for a moment that Argentinean decision-makers are wise, with a fine-tuned appreciation of the world's complexities, and that they choose the General Dynamics F-16. This decision would solve many problems simultaneously. Crucially, it would create a sense of stability in the South Atlantic and in the bilateral relationship between Argentina and the UK. The F-16 is not a match for the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 and its possible F-35 replacement at the Mount Pleasant Base.

This would be a sensible upgrade for the Argentinean Air Force, but would not be a menace to the RAF. It would represent a controlled delivery of specific weapons that the Argentinean Air Force needs to get back on its feet. The US would ultimately be able to reassure the UK by limiting Argentina’s access to more developed weaponry like AMRAAMs missiles. The plane has more value as a confidence-building measure among regional partners like Chile and Brazil, and for the possibility of sharing airspace control over the ocean with the UK.

Conversely, suppose Argentina's current political leadership were to choose the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder. This would certainly be an upgrade and would be a menace to the UK and the US, not because of the plane or its weapons but because of its political meaning. It would feed into Argentinean nationalists’ delusions about ‘Chinese solidarity’; for some, it could imply a second chance to regain the Falklands/Malvinas in the not-too-distant future. They itch for a new Cold War, but this time ‘we will do it better’ with Chinese help.

For the US establishment, which is worried about Chinese activities in the Southern Hemisphere, it would be interpreted as an opening for China to exercise wedge politics in the region, potentially enhancing its territorial footprint over time. Worse than that, it could open the way for agreements similar to the Chinese space station in Bajada del Agrio, Neuquén. The next step could be using Argentina's air bases as a forward operating location and accelerating Beijing’s strategic position in the only country neighbouring Antarctica that is free from Western influence, from a Chinese perspective. Also, sooner or later, the UK political establishment would wonder about the possibility of the Argentinean Navy buying the Type-039 submarine class, or the prospect of China trying to stop any attempt by Argentina to purchase European naval technology.

The first scenario – choosing the F-16 – would benefit all concerned, even if there is no clear sign of the UK government changing its position about weapons delivery to Argentina. The second scenario would only help a small group of narrow-minded Argentineans, and China’s geopolitical position. The best part of an F-16 deal is that even in the context of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK, the Biden administration could claim that the plane is not subject to any UK vetoes, showing a sign of goodwill to the Argentine military despite the Argentinean Joint Chief of Staff favouring a closer relationship with China. The best part is that moderate voices in Argentina would be in a better position to counter the veto argument by showing that in Argentina's case, it has frequently been used as a stalling tactic to cover successive administrations’ unwillingness to spend more on defence modernisation.

Where Will the Money Come From?

Any analyst who understands Argentinean defence policy knows that it receives little money or attention in the current political situation. The government has created several slogans and published dozens of papers about how well it has managed defence, without any significant modernisation programme except those inherited from the previous administration such as the RBS-70 anti-air defence missile. But it has done one thing: it passed a law and forged a congressional agreement on defence procurement known as FONDEF.

Of course, the respective financing must accompany the Indian, Chinese or US aircraft proposal. However, the US proposal has a critical advantage over the Chinese one. The Excess Defence Articles and Foreign Military Financing programmes are well known, and both have helped to maintain the military relationship between the US and Argentina. Between 1950 and 2020, Argentina was the third-largest recipient of US military equipment in the region, benefiting from US financial support.

The real question is whether Argentina will maintain its military relations with Western countries regarding doctrine, capabilities and capacities, or end up tied to the Chinese-Russian military complex like Bolivia or Venezuela

Any reader unaware of the Argentinean armed forces' critical situation should consider the following: US direct military assistance to Ukraine has totalled around $70 billion since 2021. Meanwhile, for approximately $400 million, the US would be able to maintain closer ties with a country which may be a ‘strange bedfellow’ for US policy, but which desperately needs support for its military given how constrained it is by a lack of capabilities.

If anyone thinks that even that sum of money is too big, they should think again, this time looking at a map of Argentina's position in the South Atlantic, with the risk of the Chinese being able to do whatever they want from its territory as a part of their logistical support for a country transitioning from a Western-equipped military to a Chinese one. Argentina's military could instead pay for offshore patrol vessels acquired from France and other materiel, and there is a cross-party commitment not to cut an already low defence budget. There will be a debt, but it is one that the military will be able to pay.

A Cooperative and Capable Air Force

Looking to the future, Argentina will inevitably need to modernise its armed forces. The money will of course be an issue, but the political situation may play a more important role than the availability of funding.

The real issue is whether Argentina will maintain its military relations with Western countries regarding doctrine, capabilities and capacities, or end up tied to the Chinese-Russian military complex like Bolivia or Venezuela. China's ‘sharp power’ is growing in Argentina, and it is working hard within the military and the Peronist party in support of its bid; other possible buyers may follow Argentina's decision, and the Chinese are betting on this. If that happens, part of the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the US and the UK. Argentina is a significant country as a G20 member and a developer of technologies such as satellites, radars, communications equipment and cyber, and it would be better to integrate the country into the Western military complex rather than the Chinese-Russian one.

The fighter decision will restore the sense of a force trying to remain on a par with its regional partners like Chile and Brazil. Also, it will mean that the Air Force is capable of protecting Argentina’s sovereignty and air lines of communication. Looking at the South Atlantic and the UK–Argentina relationship, it would provide a new venue where the two countries would share a common interest, maintaining their respective political positions but with a hope for a better future without grievances. Some lessons have been learned; the war was one.

Finally, for a young generation of pilots, it would mean the opportunity to have a professional career and the possibility of maintaining the legacy of a vibrant, combat-capable organisation long into the future.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Juan Battaleme

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