Two to Tango? Argentina Looking Everywhere 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. Worse, 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 fighters they buy. The FAA must either stick with their existing set of old equipment and forego most of the new fighter’s potential, or buy new weapons from the USA or Israel. Any new weapon sales would be a double escalation, making those sales less likely. The most dangerous Kfir-related 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. Cheetahs are powered by French Snecma Atar 9K50 engines, instead of the Kfir’s American J-79. That removes a key American veto, but it also means that 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.
Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighters are the subject of talks with Brazil, but they use American F414 engines and British Martin-Baker ejection seats, to name only the most difficult substitutions. Indeed, about 30% of those planes are traceable to British firms – and Britain has stated that they will block such exports.
The only sources free of American or European influence are Russia and China.
Chinese F-8 “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 Putin wants to stick a finger in Britain’s eye for sanctions over the annexation of Crimea. 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. SU-30 family planes have plenty of range, but they’re more expensive, and may be out of Argentina’s reach unless Russia really wants to make a point by offering subsidies.
Contracts & Key Events
June 27/17: Argentina’s discussions with France over the purchase of six second-hand Super Étendard carrier-borne fighters continue, with Buenos Aries looking to score the fighters for $10 million. While Paris is looking for slightly more—about $12 million in the exchange—the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) said that it would be ready to provide financing to facilitate a cash-strapped Argentina fund the acquisition. Designed by Dassault Aviation for the French Navy and commissioned in 1978, Buenos Aries purchased 12 of the aircraft back in 1979, some of which participated in the Falklands War.
May 22/17: Cash-strapped Argentina has reportedly agreed to purchase seven refurbished Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard fighter-bombers originally used by the French Navy. Included in the talks is the possible sale of engines to power 20 Argentine Pucaras aircraft currently grounded by Buenos Aries, as well as a re-equipment program will also include the construction at the Tandanor yards of four patrol vessels. If concluded, the deal will move away from earlier plans by Argentina to purchase Kfir fighters from Israel and “prohibitively expensive” F-16s from the US.
January 5/17: The previously stalled acquisition by Argentina’s Air Force to buy Kfir Block 60 upgraded fighters from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is back on the table. While pricing remains one of several stumbling blocks that still lay ahead in any talks, a successful deal would see IAI assemble and upgrade 12-14 Kfir fighters for Argentina. The most recent upgrade includes J-79 engines, Elta 2032 active electronically scanned array radar, and an open architecture that will allow the customer to install custom systems. Colombia, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka are all current operators.
March 11/16: After the breaking off of talks between Argentina and Israel over the sale of 14 Kfir Block 60 fighters, both parties are to resume negotiations. The deal had initially been called off in October, just before contracts were to be signed, as a result of elections in Argentina. The fighters had been previously used by the Israeli Air Force, but have been upgraded with the latest systems, including the Elta 2032 active electronically scanned array radar. They will also have an open architecture to allow the Argentinian air force to install other systems.
December 3/15: Argentina has officially said adiós to the last of its serving Dassault Mirage fighters. A large-scale public air show on November 30 saw the fleet decommissioned after over forty years of service. The Mirage had been the jet of choice in Argentina since 1973, after the government was impressed by its capabilities when used by the Israeli Air Force during the Six Day War. The decommissioning will leave a hole in the Argentinian Air Force’s capability as a replacement for the aircraft has not yet been found. An earlier deal to purchase second-hand Kfir Block 60 fighters from Israel has been put on hold indefinitely amid issues over weapons systems and upgrades. The newly elected government of Maurico Macri will be responsible for obtaining replacement fighters subject to available funding.
November 18/15: Argentina’s drive to replace its aging Mirage fighter fleet with second hand Israeli Kfir Block 60 fighters has come under criticism from Argentine Air Force number three, Brigadier Mario Roca. Argentina had planned to purchase fourteen of the fighters (which included two two-seat traners) with the deal to have cost between $220-360 million. The criticisms arose when the first six fighters would arrive within 18 months, but without weapons systems, and all upgrades needed to be completed in Israel. The deal has for now been put on hold indefinitely with Defence Minister Agustin Rossi deciding to leave the deal to be concluded by the next administration. Opposition politicians have stated that if elected, they would look into replacing the fleet independently.
August 20/15: Argentina is formally retiring its fleet of Mirage fighters, which will leave active service in November. The Argentinian Air Force has been looking for a new fighter fleet for a while now, with reports in July indicating that the South American country may be in negotiations to buy second-hand Israeli Kfir Block 60 fighters.
Dec 1/14: What Now? In the aftermath of Argentina’s short-lived, clumsy attempt to procure aircraft with British parts through Brazil, analysts review what both Argentina and Brazil may do next.
On Argentina’s side, a history of failed negotiations to acquire used aircraft with France, Spain and Israel will make it tough to revive talks with these parties. One possibility would have been to buy the 12 used Mirage 2000s acquired by Brazil from France in 2005 and retired by the Brazilian Air Force at the end of 2013. This may buy time for Argentina but they would need to reinvest in these aircraft, and also find more elsewhere. But it is reportedly because of high maintenance costs and problems with parts availability that Brazil decided to retire aircraft that sported 10,000+ flight hours each. Add the fact Brazil would have needed to secure resell rights from Dassault, and that is a long list of hurdles for Argentina to clear even if the seller is a friendly neighbor. See DID’s coverage of Brazil’s FX-2 program, Aug 5/13 entry.
Another option is to procure used or new jets from China or Russia, and even though the Argentinian Air Force would prefer Western aircraft, Both China and Russia are likely to be more flexible on financing and/or payment in kind than Western countries would, especially as long as Argentina’s financial situation has not been fully normalized on global markets. Fabrica Argentina de Aviones (FAdeA) held initial talks with China about the potential local production of FC-1 fighters back in mid-2013. Meanwhile Argentina and Russia have been getting cozy on diplomatic and energy matters. See the “Argentina’s Efforts” section above for a more detailed discussion of the available options.
Meanwhile Embraer is reportedly worried that the Brazilian government’s decision to develop a strategic partnership with Argentina may curtail technology transfers from Saab and even lead to reprisals by Western suppliers. That the alliance was announced as a government-to-government affair may only partly shield the company from consequences. Is getting along with its weaker, chronically ill southern neighbor worth potential diplomatic and business problems for Brazil? Sources: DefesaNet: “Full of uncertainty, strategic alliance with Argentines can bring damage to Brazil” | Defense News: “Argentina’s Jet Fighter Replacement Options Narrow” | FP: “Keeping Putin’s Hands Off Argentina’s Oil”.
Nov 9/14: Gripen NG. Argentina may want to do a deal with Brazil (q.v. Oct 22/14), but Britain has now publicly said “no.” To be more precise, they reiterate the continued existence of a ban. A spokesperson for the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills:
“We are determined to ensure that no British-licensable exports or trade have the potential to be used by Argentina to impose an economic blockade on the Falkland Islanders or inhibit their legitimate rights to develop their own economy…”
About 30% of the JAS-39E/F will be British, from the ejection seats to the radar, landing gear, and a number of electronic systems. Embraer could try to downgrade and substitute, but Argentina lacks the money to finance such an ambitious effort. Now add the fact that a newly-Republican US Senate and House would block export’s of GE’s F414 engines. As knowledgeable observers expected, Argentina will have to look elsewhere. C4ISR & Networks, “Argentina Buying Gripens? Brits Say ‘No Way'”.
Oct 22/14: Gripen NG. During the Embraer KC-390 medium jet transport’s rollout, Argentina and Brazil sign a formal “Alianca Estrategica em Industria Aeronautica.” Argentina is already making parts for the KC-390, and they need a larger partner for a number of other reasons. The FAB’s releases add that Argentina is also thinking of buying JAS-39E/F Gripens from Embraer, whose Brazilian factory will assemble at least 36 of the advanced Swedish fighters under the pending F-X2 program:
“El Gobierno nacional decidio iniciar una negociacion con la administracion de Dilma Rousseff para la adquisicion de 24 aviones Saab Gripen dentro del programa denominado FX 2…”
Regional export rights are also expected to be part of the $5+ billion deal, which is signed on Oct 24/14. That could get interesting, because the Gripen has systems from the USA and Britain in it. You might be able to replace electronics, but it’s expensive – and ejection seats and engines are a lot tougher. Sources: FAB NOTIMP, “Argentina quiere comprar 24 cazas supersonicos”.
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”.
Super Etendard modernization stalls
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 them receptive to Argentina’s request, Spain could lose much more if relations with Britain become problematic. Sources: IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, “Argentine Mirage F1 buy reportedly stalls”.
No Mirage F1s
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”.
Mirage F1 deal
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.
Readers with corrections, comments, or information to contribute are encouraged to contact DID’s Founding Editor, Joe Katzman. We understand the industry – you will only be publicly recognized if you tell us that it’s OK to do so.
- 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.