Two to Tango? Argentina Looking for New Warplanes
Argentina’s air force is having a hard time maintaining its core Nesher/”Finger” fighters, even as the Kirchner regime seeks to take control of the Falkland Islands and their potential offshore oil reserves. That led Argentina to search for new fighter options, as the most reliable way of projecting power to likely exploration zones. Britain’s defenses are also much more run down than they were in the 1980s, and their complete lack of a carrier force leaves ongoing protection of the islands’ surrounding economic zones to just 2-4 Eurofighter Typhoon fighters, an offshore patrol vessel, and part of a regular navy ship rotation.
Argentina’s window of opportunity will close when Britain’s advanced carrier force enters service in 2020, which has added urgency on both sides as Argentina tries to make a deal. Can Argentina find its partner?
Forces Around the Falklands: Situation Report
The islands’ inhabitants voted overwhelmingly to remain part of Britain during the referendum. Unfortunately, Britain has lost more than just its carrier force in the intervening years since the Falklands War. The Vulcan bombers and Victor tankers that staged ultra-long range bombing raids are long gone. The Harriers bought after the war ended, and modernized for use in Afghanistan, were retired. So were the Tornado F3 aircraft that were bought in the 1980s for long-range combat air patrols. The Royal Navy’s number of serious surface combatants has sunk to just 19, only 1 of which patrols the South Atlantic and West Africa at any given time, and it has readiness issues with its attack submarines.
All this creates a window of opportunity for Argentina – one that will slam shut decisively around 2020, once Britain’s new 65,000t HMS Queen Elizabeth and its F-35B fighters steam into service.
Until then, an Argentinian force with modern jets and enough anti-ship missiles could conceivably open the door for a repeat invasion, by making recapture too risky and difficult. First, however, they’d have to take the island. Britain has extended and considerably reinforced the Mount Pleasant airfield with radars, air defenses, and a rotating infantry battalion. The addition of long-range C-17 heavy jet transports to the RAF makes fast long-range troop & vehicle reinforcement possible, forcing any invader to capture, destroy, or interdict the airfield in order to succeed. Meanwhile, the mere threat of nuclear submarines will continue to keep Argentina’s surface navy, such as it is, out of the picture as always.
That’s why harassment and access denial attempts are far more likely, as Argentina continues to attempt intimidation of any oil & gas companies that will be working in the Falklands’ Economic Exclusion Zone. That sort of gambit is harder to thwart, requiring the British to commit more forces and incur more expense than they would like.
If Britain wants to protect the Falklands this time, the rag-tag state of Argentina’s military is its biggest asset. Their goal is too keep Argentina from acquiring the tools they need to create even a moderately effective anti-access zone. If Argentina gets any new fighters at all, Britain’s goal becomes much harder and more expensive.
Argentina’s Super Etendard fighters, which were used to launch Exocet missiles in the 1980s and still serve, come from France. Its Mirage III/ V/ “Nesher” fighters were originally bought second-hand from Israel and Peru, but they have deteriorated badly. Its A-4R “Fightinghawk” Skyhawk models were sold to Argentina by the USA, and what’s left of those deliveries make up the bulk of their jet fleet.
Despite steadily-worsening relations with Britain under the Obama administration, the USA is not about to sell Argentina jet fighters. British diplomacy has already worked to delay Argentina’s proposed Super Etendard modernization, and also scuttled a reported deal to buy 16 second-hand Mirage F-1M fighters from Spain.
That leaves Argentina’s original source for the Neshers. Israel doesn’t have any of those left, but they do have their own Kfir design that made structural changes to the Nesher blueprints, added a more powerful American J-79 turbojet, and received progressive modifications to its radar, electronics, and weapons. Those upgrades continued even after the Kfirs were retired from Israeli service in the late 1990s, on behalf of customers like Colombia, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka. Kfir C.10/ Block 60s carry modern radars and electronics on par with F-16 Block 40/50s, and have the ability to use beyond visual range aerial weapons, advanced short range AAMs, and a variety of precision strike weapons. Their combat radius is a bit short, and it would take a brave Kfir pilot to face a Eurofighter Typhoon in single combat. Even so, they’re capable fighters with aerial refueling capability, which makes them well suited to intimidation and presence patrols. Negotiations for a sale are in an advanced stage.
The good news for Britain, such as it is, is that Argentina still has to hang weapons on any Kfirs they buy. The FAA must either stick with their existing set of old equipment and forego most of the Kfir’s potential, or buy new weapons from the USA or Israel. Any new weapon sales would be a double escalation, making them sales less likely. The most dangerous sale, of Gabriel 3 anti-ship missiles, would make Britain an outright enemy of Israel’s. That won’t happen. The question is whether Britain can pressure Israel to block the Kfir fighter sale in toto – or have it blocked by the Americans, who control the J-79 engines.
If the Israeli sale falls through for some reason, South Africa has already sold similar Cheetah fighters to Ecuador and Chile. Enough were produced to sell 18 more to Argentina, but the best airframes have presumably been taken already. They’re powered by French Snecma Atar 9K50 engines, instead of the Kfir’s American J-79, which means South Africa would need some level of French cooperation. Given French delays and demurrals around refurbishing Argentina’s French Super Etendards, that cooperation could become problematic.
Chile’s decommissioned Mirage 50 Pantera fighters are similar to the Cheetahs, but Chile isn’t interested in selling any to Argentina.
If those options fail, Argentina faces a shrinking set of choices.
South Korea’s TA-50 and FA-50 light fighters would be more expensive than the proposed Israeli deal, which already strains Argentina’s finances. They also use American F404 engines, requiring US export approval, and can’t mount anti-ship missiles yet.
The only sources free of American or European influence are Russia and China.
Chinese F-8s “Finback-Bs” would be a very cheap used option, presenting no serious threat, but good for harassment patrols and shows of force at range. The question is whether they could be kept in the air. The JF-17 Thunder from China and Pakistan would be a more advanced option and a definite threat, thanks to its ability to carry C802 subsonic and CM-400AKG supersonic anti-ship missiles. Argentina has expressed interest in the JF-17, and has held discussions directly with China.
Russia is the other potential source. They may have used or used/new-build MiG-29S+ multi-role planes to offer, if sanctions over the annexation of Crimea escalate and Putin wants to stick a finger in Britain’s eye. The problem with the MiGs is that even with the extra fuel tanks in recent variants, the fighters have poor range. That makes them less useful to Argentina.
Contracts & Key Events
March 23/14: Kfir. A high-level Argentine delegation has reportedly visited Israel to finalize the sale of 18 Kfir jets. Most sources mention the “Block 60″ version, which is very similar to the Kfir C10 that has been sold to Ecuador and Colombia, and reports also mention the EL/M-2032 radar. Once again, however, this is a proposed deal that comes despite issues with Argentina. Ha’aretz:
“…Kirchner government made [a deal] last year with Iran to jointly investigate the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Buenos Aires Jewish community building that killed 85 people and is widely believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah with Iranian backing.”
That may cause controversy in Israel, and British pressure can be expected as well. On the other hand, Israel was less than pleased by Britain’s recent role in ending sanctions against Iran for its nuclear weapons program. A fighter sale to Argentina would certainly be one way to attach significant consequences to Britain’s actions, without the anti-ship capabilities that would mark a huge escalation. The British do have one big lever left, however: the Kfirs’ J79 turbojets need American approval for re-export. America needs British support regarding Russia right now, so despite past snubs, the Obama administration will find it inconvenient to alienate Britain further.
Finally, note that Ha’aretz is wrong about Kfirs being sold to South Africa. Israeli expertise was likely transferred, but they are not interchangeable in a fleet – Cheetahs use different engines than the Kfirs, and South Africa did modify its Mirages locally. Is basic fact-checking and editorial oversight too much to ask? Sources: Ha’aretz, “Argentina buying 30-year-old Israeli fighter jets” | LU22 Radio Tandil, “Avanzan las negociaciones para la compra de aviones Kfirs Block 60 a Israel”.
March 10/14: Super Etendard. Argentina’s efforts to upgrade 10 of its 11 remaining Super Etendard fighters have hit a bit of a snag in France:
“The Argentine Navy still wants 10 SEM kits for its Super Etendards, but has to date received no indication from France as to how or when this order might be filled.
Moreover, military relations between the two states have cooled due to a deal last year between France and the UK that could create roadblocks to France’s selling the kits, and an updated version of the Exocet missile, to Argentina…”
Sources: IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, “Argentine Super Etendard modernisation hits major snags”.
Jan 23/14: Kfir. Argentina has reportedly opened discussions with Israel about selling up to 18 refurbished Kfir fighters. The proposed deal is reportedly worth about $500 million, with 6 jets to be refurbished in Israel. Another 12 would be shipped to Argentina along with modernization kits, for local assembly under Israeli supervision.
“Brazilian journalist Roberto Lopes, who specializes in defense issues was the first to reveal that Israel/Argentina deal negotiations caused concern in the government of PM David Cameron and allegedly representatives from the UK Defense ministry asked their Israel counterparts “for a detailed description of the electronic systems and avionics” of the 18 Kfir…. London fears the aircraft could be used to track and intimidate vessels involved in the Falklands oil and gas industry development…. Lopes also reveals that “the issue is being monitored since the end of 2013 by Brazil’s Itamaraty (foreign ministry) and defense ministry”.”
IAI’s offer had reportedly been made earlier, but the proposal was reportedly pursued only after Spain declined to pursue the Mirage F1 deal any further. Sources: MercoPress, “Argentina after Israeli fighter planes; concern in London and Brasilia, says defense expert”.
Jan 2/14: Mirage F1. Argentine sources tell IHS Jane’s that the Spanish Mirage deal has stalled and could be cancelled.
“Local media reports indicated that the Argentine Air Force (FAA) has begun analysing other options, including second-hand Dassault Mirage 2000s from France or Brazil, but appears to be leaning towards an Israeli offer of 18 IAI Lahav Kfir Block 60 multi-role fighters for USD500 million, with a possible delivery date some 15 months after a contract signature.”
While Spain’s economic situation made then receptive to Argentina’s request, could lose much more if relations with Britain become problematic. Sources: IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, “Argentine Mirage F1 buy reportedly stalls”.
Oct 6/13: Kfir. IAI and even the Israeli Air Force begin to talk about the new “Block 60″ Kfir variant, which is based on Colombia’s refitted C10 aircraft:
“The Kfir Block 60 offers a robust and versatile Mach 2+ multi-role jet fighter, carrying 5.5 tons payloads on nine hard-points under the wings and fuselage. The weaponry is enhanced to include Python 5 and Derby. Kfir Block 60 has also completed the integration of RAFAEL Spice autonomous guided weapon, (second platform offering that capability, after the F-16). Conforming to NATO standards, Kfir Block 60 supports Link-16 datalink protocol. The aircraft has combat radius of 1,000 km (540 nm) unrefueled. With refueling the aircraft can fly to a range of 1,100 nm.”
Whether or not Israeli Kfir C2s could carry Gabriel Mk.III anti-ship missiles, Argentina doesn’t have any, and any sale by Israel would have serious diplomatic repercussions. Refurbished Kfirs are reportedly restored to 8,000 safe flight-hours hours under warranty, meaning the plane can easily serve for 20-30 years. “Sources: Defense Update, “At 40 Years of age, Kfir Turns into a “Networked Fighter”” | Israeli Air Force, “Roaring Back”.
Oct 1/13: Mirage F1. After several months of advance reports, Argentina has reportedly come to an agreement with Spain to buy 16 used Mirage F1s. Iraq’s F1EQ-5 jets were modified to carry the Exocet anti-ship missile, but they required modifications. Spain upgraded their F1Cs to F1Ms, but it isn’t clear whether their planes ever added Exocet capability.
The deal is something of a surprise, given the Argentine government’s 2012 seizure of Spanish oil major Repsol’s majority stake in Argentina’s national YPF oil company. Respol’s international legal claim is for $10 billion, but the Spanish government is facing depression-level economic conditions, and has few other options to sell those planes. Sources: MercoPress, “Argentina buys 16 Mirage F 1 from Spain; half have air-refuelling capacity” | UPI, “Argentina goes for second-hand jets for air force”.
Aug 5/13: Mirage F1. Spain is reportedly working on a deal with Spain for its recently-decommissioned Mirage F1 fighters, which have been replaced in Spain’s service by the Eurofighter:
“The only real hard news and from Spanish defence media, is that Spain is effectively decommissioning the last eight Mirage F 1 –which have been on service for 35 years–, to be replaced by the Eurofighter, and is looking for buyers and among the countries named are Argentina, Egypt and Ecuador…. The Argentine air force currently has an estimated 25 Mirage 5 and Mirage III with over thirty years in service…. However according to Argentine sources the aircraft are virtually out of use because of lack of spares and an adequate maintenance.”
Depending on how one counts, it has been more like 22 years of service since their deep modernization to F1M status. The RAF won’t give an on-the-record response, but British newspapers are told by unnamed sources that “If the Argentines start playing games and escalate the tension we will see more RAF aircraft being deployed to the Falklands.” That would help prevent a takeover, but unless Britain adds a lot of fighters, it may not quite stop intimidation flights against energy companies working in the Falklands EEZ. MercoPress, “Falklands and the Mirages: playing with the Islanders worst memories” | Daily Express, “Jet fighter threat to the Falkland Islands” | Daily Mirror, “Falklands alert as Argentina strikes £145 million deal for 20 Mirage warplanes” | Israel’s Globes, “IAI selling upgraded Kfir jets for $20m”.
June 27/13: JF-17. Argentina is reportedly in talks with China concerning the FC-1/ JF-17 fighter, a joint project with Pakistan whose performance lies somewhere between a Mirage F1 and an F-16. It can use radar-guided air-to-air missiles, but its most important asset is the CASIC CM-400AKG supersonic anti-ship missile, with a range that’s longer than France’s sub-sonic Exocets. Its is also shown at air shows like Farnborough with China’s C802 sub-sonic anti-ship missile, which is very similar to the American Harpoon.
“Speaking at the Paris Air Show in mid-June, officials from Fabrica Argentina de Aviones (FAdeA) told IHS Jane’s that the company has had multiple discussions with Chinese officials over co-producing the fighter in Argentina. Although the FC-1/JF-17 is already jointly built with Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, FAdeA officials stressed that they are dealing solely with the Chinese…. While discussions are said to be far from over, if realised they will open up a wide panoply of Chinese weapon systems to Argentina…”
Sources: IHS Jane’s Missiles & Rockets, “Fighter talks may afford Argentina advanced Chinese missile systems”.
Up above, DID asked of Ha’aretz, “Is basic fact-checking and editorial oversight too much to ask?” Sometimes, that comes back to bite. Thanks to readers who wrote in to us about local defensive measures and options in the Falklands that we had not covered. We had good discussions, but the plain fact is that some of the omissions were important items. They have been added to the article, with our thanks – and our apologies.
- Wikipedia – Argentine Air Force.
- Airforce Technology – F-21 Kfir Fighter Jet, Israel. F-21 was the American designation for used Kfirs flown by its Aggressor training squadrons. Some private firms, like ATAC, still use it for this purpose.
- ACIG – Kfir C.10. In service with Ecuador and Colombia, and the base for the “Block 60″. Kfir C.12s don’t have the EL/M-2032 radar.
- DID – Cheetahs and Mirage 50s for Ecuador.
- DID – Pakistan & China’s JF-17 Fighter Program. If Britain blocks the Kfir sale, could they be setting themselves up for something worse?
- RAC MiG – MiG-29/MiG-29UB/MiG-29SE.
- Wikipedia – Dassault Mirage F1.
News & Views
- MercoPress (March 22/14) – The Falklands/Malvinas: Brazil’s next regional headache? Stability in the region has been a key goal for Brazil.
- Defense Update (Oct 6/13) – At 40 Years of age, Kfir Turns into a “Networked Fighter”. Kfir Block 60.
- Israeli Air Force (Sept 25/13) – Roaring Back. Includes information about Colombia’s C10/C12 upgrades, and makes vague references to the Block 60.
- Globes (Aug 6/13) – IAI selling upgraded Kfir jets for $20m.