Like the rest of the world, Argentina has been striving to modernize its military, notably its Air Force, for decades. But with its messy military history and unresolved issues with the United Kingdom, the South American nation has been struggling to expand its defense spending. Not to mention the present trend of the global recession that has placed the Argentine economy under more pressure.
Nonetheless, the Argentine government has been working on buying its Air Force some new jet fighters to replace its deteriorating fleet, having to set aside about $684 million in 2021. After a long discussion on what jet fighters to purchase, Buenos Aires has narrowed its limited options between India’s Tejas and China’s JF-17 Thunder.
It’s been a while since Buenos Aires has had supersonic fighter jets, with the last being the Mirage aircraft that was retired in 2015 after more than four decades of service. The Argentine Air Force (AAF) currently maintains a handful of its indigenously-made FMA IA-63 Pampa, an advanced jet trainer with combat capability, and a small fleet of about six to eight Lockheed Martin’s A-4AR Fightinghawk ground attack aircraft, which unfortunately are experiencing severe parts shortages.
However, the prospect of having a new supersonic aircraft in the AAF has been thrown out of the window after Argentine President Alberto Fernandez recently announced that the nation would not be making any “immediate military aircraft purchases,” seemingly postponing arms deal with either the HAL Tejas and JF-17.
In an interview with the Financial Times’ Global Boardroom program last week, Fernandez said, “there are other priorities before buying weapons, definitely,” adding that there are no impending nor looming war problems in the South American nations.
“Argentina has to allocate its resources to more important things than the purchase of military aircraft. We are in an unequal continent, but there are no war problems, and unity among countries is sought,” Fernandez said.
Aside from HAL Tejas and JF-17, the American-made F-16 fighter and Russia’s MiG-35 were also considered by the AAF, with the latter later eliminated. Other disregarded aircraft were Israel’s Kfir jets and French-made Mirage F1 fighters, both secondhand.
Sweden’s Gripen and South Korean-built FA-50 fighters were also considered, but like most of its options, they are outfitted with British-made components, which the UK has barred Argentina from acquiring following the 1982 Falklands War.
Despite the fact that both the HAL Tejas and the JF-17 use Martin-Baker seats, both aircraft manufacturers have offered Buenos Aires alternative ejection seats should the deal materialize.
Following the abrupt stop on purchasing new jet fighters, a defense analyst told Defense News his dismay on the Fernandez decision to abandon the modernization of its Air Force fleet.
“Once more, the Air Force was left to dream about getting a supersonic fighter for a while, dedicating time and resources to inspect, evaluate and study solutions that came to nothing,” said Luis Piñeiro. “Apparently blind to the buildup of air power in neighboring Brazil and Chile, President Fernandez sees only peace in South America.”
Unlike the deteriorating fleet of Argentina, Brazil and Chile has been actively upgrading their military aircraft. According to Defense News, Brazil has a fleet of about 50 modernized F-5 fighter jets equipped with beyond-visual-range missiles, and the first of 36 advanced Saab Gripen new-generation aircraft on order is being delivered. Chile, on the other hand, has 42 F-16s, including Block 50 and MLU variants, as well as 11 modernized F-5s.
Prior to the Argentine President’s discouraging announcement, a top AAF delegation reportedly traveled to Denmark to conduct technical assessments and evaluations of a batch of secondhand Danish F-16 A/B Mid-Life Update (MLU) fighter jets for the procurement process.
The arms deal is under a joint effort by Denmark and the US, which now pitted the secondhand F-16s against the Chinese JF-17 and Indian Tejas.
Argentina’s ambassador to China met with officials from the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) earlier this year, fueling speculation that Buenos Aires was finalizing its JF-17 procurement. Some reports claimed that Beijing had sent a few Chinese-Pakistani-built jet fighters to AAF for evaluation, with the latest assessment done in November.
Consequently, the US reportedly pressured the South American nation to abandon the deal in response to this preemptive news—steering Beijing away from gaining “a foothold in America’s backyard.” Thus, the collaboration effort with Denmark.
Meanwhile, India has been going to great lengths to promote its Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) to Argentina, to which the latter responded by visiting the HAL facilities in India to inspect and evaluate the LCA in person. However, Buenos Aires has allegedly asked for another round to test India’s indigenous fighter aircraft, but the Indian manufacturer deferred “until some time in 2023 for unknown reasons.”