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Argentina’s Military Decline

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security.
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  • August 30, 2016

    In March 2016, President Barack Obama made an official visit to Argentina where he was feted by the recently elected President Mauricio Macri. The visit was not without controversies, coinciding as it did with the 40th anniversary of the March 24, 1976 military coup that plunged Argentina into years of a repressive dictatorship. Another controversy got buried in the furore over the timing of the visit – the fact that the Argentine Air Force did not have a single operational fighter to escort Air Force One.

    Following the grounding of its subsonic A-4R Fightinghawks – fewer than half-a-dozen out of 33 surviving airframes being airworthy – and with the 16 Mirage III interceptors being withdrawn without replacement in 2015, Argentina was left with a total of seven operational combat aircraft of dubious value in modern warfare.1 Not willing to entrust the security of Air Force One to Argentinian designed and built FMA IA-58 Pucara turboprop Counter Insurgency aircraft and FMA IA-63 Pampa armed jet trainers – both of which types are subsonic and incapable of even reaching the operational ceiling of Air Force One – the US Air Force deployed four F-16s to escort the Presidential aircraft.2

    During the 1982 Falklands War, Argentina was able to deploy several squadrons (perhaps totalling some 120) of reasonably capable combat aircraft – Mirage IIIs, Mirage Vs, IAI Daggers – plus a strike force of A-4 Skyhawks and Super Entendards. The Argentine Navy fielded a carrier battlegroup with a strong escort of modern destroyers and frigates and possessed a submarine force that was treated with wary respect by its adversaries. These forces, in particular the Argentine Air Force and naval aviation wing, inflicted severe casualties on the Royal Navy and earned the respect and admiration of the British. Now, the Argentinian Air Force has been reduced to virtual impotence, the Navy has long lost its carrier and its surface assets are languishing for want of ordnance, and the Army has been reoriented towards UN peacekeeping operations.

    It is no exaggeration to say that the Argentine military is in very poor shape, brought upon partly because of the precarious state of the economy – which in 2014 defaulted on its debt for the eighth time.3 Between 2012 and 2013, for example, the Argentine Navy suffered the triple ignominy of having the ARA Libertad seized in Ghana over the issue of Argentina’s debt, the ARA Espora being stranded in South Africa for 73 days after repairs were halted due to unpaid bills and the decommissioned destroyer ARA Santisima Trinidad sinking in port.4 In 2012, it was reported that three naval vessels experienced problems due to lack of maintenance and human error.5 By 2014, the situation had not improved and the grounding of the submarine ARA Santa Cruz on June 15 of that year demonstrated that routine maintenance on the submarine’s hull was poor.6 It has been reported that because of acute shortages of ordnance, target practice in the Navy has had to rely on ammunition from the 1950s in certain cases.7 Despite the fact that the submarine force has been refitted, only 19 hours – as opposed to the stipulated 190 – of immersion training has been undertaken by the crews.8

    The Air Force is in even worse shape with an acute shortage of airworthy aircraft being compounded by drastically reduced maintenance and operational budgets. In 2015, shortly after the withdrawal of the Mirage III from service, daily orders with effect from 18 August 2015 cut the air force’s working hours to only between 0800 and 1300 hours and imposed rationing on food and electricity. Moreover, it was also revealed that aircraft taken out of service would not undergo maintenance.9 Several efforts to replace the Mirage III fleet – ranging from the procurement of new Gripen fighters to attempts to procure second-hand Mirage F.1s and Kfirs all fell through. In an unusual move, even Chinese FC-1 fighters were considered but to no avail. The Army may be in slightly better shape, having taken delivery of upgraded TAM medium tanks and refurbished Huey helicopters, but seems to be orienting itself towards participation in peacekeeping operations as opposed to conventional combat.10

    While this desperate state of affairs can be partly blamed on the country’s economic woes, a substantial portion of the blame must fall on the somewhat tense relationship between the military and the civilian government. In 2006, it was revealed that a naval intelligence unit was conducting surveillance and maintaining dossiers on several union leaders, journalists and politicians, including the then Defence Minister Nilda Garre.11 This scandal ultimately led, in 2012, to then President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner compelling no fewer than 36 high-ranking officers into early retirement.12 In addition, a drug smuggling scandal in 2005 compelled a purge of the Air Force leadership, further lowering the image of the military in the eyes of the public.13 It is therefore not surprising that despite increased rhetoric over the Falklands, neither Cristina Kirchner nor her predecessor (and husband) Nestor Kirchner, were friends of the Argentine military. And, between 2004 and 2013, Argentina’s military expenditure averaged around 0.8 per cent of GDP, placing the military at the bottom of the country’s priorities. Add to this devaluations of the Argentine peso, artificial exchange rates and the fact that between 78 and 90 per cent of defence spending goes towards personnel costs, and the scale of the underfunding of the military becomes evident.14

    However, this tension between the Executive and the military has contributed to the virtual decimation of the country’s capability to protect its airspace and even conduct the most basic surveillance of its maritime domain. Argentina’s maritime domain now totals six million square kilometres. To protect this space, the nation can muster only 12 ships of dubious serviceability and a single P-3C Orion – five others being unserviceable, though plans exist to refurbish three of these.15 Much more serious, however, is the feeling of neglect leading to indiscipline in the military, with rifles, ammunition and even TOW anti-tank missiles disappearing from arsenals and Argentina emerging as a major source of weapons for criminal gangs in South America.16

    The election of President Macri offers the prospects for a reversal of this pattern of neglect. But there are no easy options. On 1 February 2016, with the grounding of the A-4Rs, the Macri administration placed a high priority request for replacement engines and other spares for the aircraft with the hope of restoring the fleet to some degree of operability.17 However, even if such a step were to come to fruition, it would merely delay the inevitable. Neglect over two decades has meant that the entire military is facing bloc obsolescence and Argentina’s precarious economic state makes a re-capitalization of the armed forces a daunting prospect. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that despite its extreme difficulties, Argentina’s military is blessed with a core of well-trained personnel and its domestic arms industry has been able to produce such products as the TAM tank, the Pucara and Pampa aircraft, and MEKO 140A16 corvettes – a capability which still exists. This combination of trained personnel and domestic arms production capability augurs well for the recovery of Argentina’s military, provided sufficient funds are made available to meet urgent requirements. It is however poignant to see a military that dared to challenge a NATO member in battle now reduced to relative impotence.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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