According to the Brazilian defense website Poder Aereo, the Argentinian government received a proposal from Paris for the acquisition of between 20 to 24 second-hand Dassault Mirage 2000C fighter jets. Assuming the veracity of the report, the deal will join a long and contrived story, as Buenos Aires has been attempting to find a new fighter jet for its Air Force for several years now.
In the early 1980s, the Argentinian Air Force boasted a respectable fighter force, comprised of a mix of French and American models, all of them developed during the 1950s. Defensionem suggests that, at the time, the service was seen as one of the best in Latin America, maybe even the world.
The French-built Mirage IIIs and the IAI Daggers, Israeli versions of the former, formed the air defense component, while the diminutive American-made Douglas A-4 Skyhawks took the tactical strike role. Furthermore, the Navy used the French Dassault Super Etendard naval strike fighter.
However, during the Falklands War of 1982, this fleet took serious casualties at the hands of the British sea and land-based defenses and the Sea Harrier naval jets.
From that point on, the Argentinian jet fleet has been slowly growing older, marred by international sanctions, budget constraints, and political issues. This happened even though the country has the second largest economy in South America, after Brazil.
In order to avoid the total obsolescence of its fighter force, Argentina has been attempting to find a new type to replace the older models. The Mirage 2000 is the most recent addition to the now long list of possible new acquisitions.
During the 1990s, Buenos Aires settled for modernizing the existing A-4s to the A-4AR Fightinghawk standard. In total, 36 of such machines were added to the arsenal, but these were simply older airframes with modern avionics.
However, even these fighters are becoming increasingly harder to maintain, and the fleet was for the most part grounded last year, the U.K. Defense Journal reported. The Argentinian Air Force also halted the maintenance for all grounded aircraft and cut work hours for the Air Force personnel.
Still, seven A-4s are currently able to fly, and several others still require spare parts, which are difficult to come by, and expensive besides. The current plans expect the remaining Fightinghawks to operate until 2021.
Additionally, the venerable Mirage IIIs were all decommissioned in 2015, which means that the Argentinian Air Force has no supersonic interceptors available.
Potential options for the replacement of the older jets came from all corners of the world.
One of the earlier possibilities came from Spain, which offered second-hand Dassault Mirage F1 fighters that had served in that country’s air force, the Portuguese defense blog Pássaro de Ferro reported in 2013. Such deal never came through.
The same happened with the option of buying IAI Kfir jets from Israel. The type serves with other Latin American nations, specifically Colombia and Ecuador, and some modernized versions are quite capable, although growing long in the tooth.
Alas, economic and political concerns also thwarted that deal. Furthermore, the United Kingdom boycotted all attempts to find a new jet. This is due to the sour relations between the two nations since the war and the century-old Argentinian claim over the Falklands, known as the “Malvinas” in Latin America. Promising to reclaim the islands has been a recurring strategy for consecutive Argentinian leaders.
The U.S. will generally side with the U.K., which means that if an aircraft has components manufactured in those nations, it will essentially be outside of Buenos Aires reach, Defense Industry Daily reports.
This very issue shot down the possibility of Argentina acquiring Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen jets, which include many parts manufactured in Britain and North America.
In 2014, a new potential vendor appeared. According to the Aviationist, Russia offered up to 12 Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bombers to Buenos Aires. These large swing-wing aircraft are also getting old but remain quite capable. This possibility seems to have prompted the British military to review the defense of the Falklands.
Again, nothing came out of the deal. More recently, the Mikoyan MiG-29 became another option, but the limited range of the model would make it less useful for Argentina.
China would be the last major purveyor. Buenos Aires has seemingly shown interest in the Chengdu JF-17 Thunder, a development of the MiG-21/J-7 series. However, this acquisition would only provide limited capabilities to the Air Force.
In the meanwhile, Argentina has also been developing an indigenous trainer aircraft, the FMA IA-63 Pampa. The small jet has secondary strike and air defense roles, but it does not replace a proper fighter.
On the political side of things, though, the international pressure seems to have lessened somehow since President Mauricio Macri was elected in 2015. Less belligerent regarding the Falklands issue than his predecessors, Macri aims at making Argentina an important member of the international community.
A certain optimism arose when the Navy managed to negotiate the acquisition of five modernized Super Etendards from France. The airplanes were in storage since their decommissioning from the French Navy in 2016 and will replace the Argentinian Super Etendards, which are no longer operational.
— Poder Naval (@podernaval) October 4, 2017
This deal may have been what sparked the discussion regarding the Mirage 2000 for the Air Force. Apparently, the units being offered are in French stocks and would be delivered in two tranches of 12 aircraft each between 2019 and 2020.
However, the economic factor remains relevant, as Argentina has yet to recover on that front. The Mirage 2000C, the basic fighter variant of the Mirage 2000 series, is considered too expensive to maintain. It is also behind the times in terms of systems and weapons but would still represent a qualitative leap for the service.
Given the history of the Argentinean fighter jet procurement and the budgetary restraints, it is reasonable to assume that this deal, too, won’t come to fruition.
Nevertheless, the deal Paris proposes fits neatly in the current schedule for the withdrawing of the A-4s, allowing for the introduction of the new type to occur concurrently. Furthermore, the Super Etendard deal offers some prospect of future French-Argentinian cooperation.
The truth is that the Argentinian Air Force is but a shadow of its former self. A new fighter would help to revitalize the service, but the odds are against such a deal.