NEWS: Argentine Gripen Acquisition A Threat To The Falklands?

Argentina plans to buy up to 24 JAS.39 Gripens (left) to challenge the dominace of the RAF's Typhoon

Argentina plans to buy up to 24 JAS.39 Gripens (left) to challenge the dominance of the RAF’s Typhoon (right)

On 21st October during a visit to Brazil, Argentina’s defence minister Agustin Rossi announced plans to purchase up to 24 examples of the highly capable SAAB JAS.39 Gripen multi role fighter in what is the biggest aircraft acquisition the country has undertaken since the end of its military dictatorship. Going beyond a simple defence acquisition, Rossi explained that Argentina and Brazil planned to eventually open up a local production line most likely in Brazil to support the aircraft and build license examples of the type for export to Uruguay and Ecuador among other potential customers in the region. With the current higher than normal tensions between London and Buenos Aires one can’t help but wonder what this could potentially mean for the contingent of British forces guarding the Falkland Islands.

RAF Typhoon FGR.4s of No.1435 Flight

RAF Typhoon FGR.4s of No.1435 Flight

Since the islands were repatriated following Argentina’s failed military invasion in 1982 under the leadership of Leopoldo Galtieri the British armed forces have maintained a permanent military presence on the island in what has often been dubbed as “Fortress Falklands”. Key to these defences has been the RAF’s No.1435 Flight that have provided the main air defence shield around the archipelago. In the immediate post war period RAF Harriers operated out of Port Stanley airfield supported by Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS.1s (a fighter that proved vastly superior to anything in the Argentine air force during the conflict) operating off HMS Ark Royal at sea. A flight of Phantom FGR.2s under the guise of No.1435 Flight then operated off the islands initially at Port Stanley airport and then at the newly opened RAF Mount Pleasant. The Phantoms were replaced by Tornado F.3s in 1992 and these were in turn replaced by Typhoon FGR.4s in 2009. The exact number of aircraft No.1435 Flight operated was initially a secret but was then revealed to only be four aircraft. These were backed up by ground based defences of the RAF Regiment. While numbers weren’t on their side the RAF always had quality in buckets. The Argentines have had nothing that could come close to comparing to the Phantom, Tornado or Typhoon in over 30 years and some of their current fleet of fast jets are nearly identical to those that flew in 1982!

So will a Gripen buy dilute this balance; perhaps even tip it in the Argentines favour?

FAA1

Argentina’s Air Force still operates the same aircraft it flew in 1982

The short answer is yes it does. The JAS.39C Gripen is really up there with some of the premier fighters in the world. It is highly manoeuvrable and can carry a good payload of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. It is not just a weapon in its own right but part of a much larger weapon system that its home country Sweden exploits fully. The type is truly netcentric meaning it can distribute and share vast amounts of data with other assets to help build a complete picture of the battlefield; something not even the prized USAF F-22 Raptor can achieve. The Fuerza Aerea Argentina (Argentinean Air Force) needs this fighter desperately. While it has undertaken some very limited modernization programs over the past 30 years such as the A-AR Fightinghawk the bulk of its aircraft are getting extremely tired and old. Where once the air arm was one of the top dogs in Latin America now it is merely a shadow of its former self. The trouble has been that since democracy came to Argentina politicians have been afraid of military programs for fear of angering the people many of whom still resent the military and for fear of a strong military seizing power yet again. Clearly this policy is now being reversed or is at the very least addressed.

Just how capable would Argentine Gripens really be?

Just how capable would Argentine Gripens really be?

So if the short answer is bad news for the RAF on the Falklands then what of the long answer? This is where things swing back to the RAF. Firstly the real question is how much capability would an Argentine Gripen be bestowed upon. At present there are several versions of the aircraft each with varying degrees of performance that are tailored to the user’s specific needs. It is not simply a case of the Argentineans buying 24 Gripens and then challenging the RAF over the Falklands. They will also have to acquire the weapons and support infrastructure to go along with them. The RAF Typhoon FGR.4s are armed with AIM-120D AMRAAM medium range missiles and AIM-132 ASRAAM high agility dogfight missiles. The Argentineans will need to match these weapons with equally costly types if they want to seriously challenge the RAF. Typhoons of the Spanish Air Force operating with similar weapons frequently descimated USAF F-15C Eagles that were armed with the previous generation AIM-9M Sidewinder in simulated dogfights so not just any weapon will do. If the Argentineans wanted to take full advantage of the type’s netcentric warfare ability in any conflict over the Falklands then this would require the purchase of at least two Erieye Airborne Warning and Surveillance (AWACS) aircraft also but so far there are no plans to do so. As good an aircraft the Gripen is it does have one real problem from an Argentine stand point and that is its short range. This was the curse of the Argentine Air Force and Navy pilots in 1982 who often had just a few minutes to find and bomb a target before turning for home for lack of fuel. Tankers can alleviate this problem to an extent but unlike in 1982 when the few Argentine tankers operated out of the range of the Sea Harrier any future sconflict would see Typhoons sent to intercept them as priority targets. Another possibility is that Storm Shadow missiles could even be employed to shut down their bases keeping the tanker and the Gripen itself on the ground.

This whole discussion could remain purely academic however. One rather large grey cloud hanging over the whole affair is whether Argentina can afford them at all despite the announcement. Argentina’s economy is hanging on by a thread in 2014 and there shows little sign of that changing anytime soon. The real question is how much Brazil will put in to the project on Argentina’s behalf. As I explained the Gripen needs a large support infrastructure to truly be a threat and while it is possible that an aircraft acquisition will take place it is highly unlikely that they will be top of the line models at least not for some time.

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15 responses to “NEWS: Argentine Gripen Acquisition A Threat To The Falklands?

  1. An interesting discussion here. It seems world wide that the debate, at the moment, is between the Typhoon and the Gripen, at least until the next generation fighters come into service. If Argentina were to buy these, and the necessary support network, then there would be a real threat to the islands and their defence. As you say, can the economy withstand such a purchase?

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  2. Even if Argentina had these 24 aircraft at their disposal now, I doubt if they would be a major threat to the Falklands because the island would be reinforced with more Typhoons and destroyers. Don’t get me wrong, the Gripen is a formidable fighter but you need the weaponry, pilots and support to go with it. The RAF even though a much smaller force to what they once were still have one of the best fighter jets and weaponry in the world with some of the best pilots in the world.

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  3. As for how big a threat to the British an Argentine Gripen acquisition would be in political and/or military terms, I can’t say. I would however like to set a couple of things straight:

    1. The Gripen deal which Brazil now has finalized with Sweden is about 36 JAS-39E/F – which is a different breed entirely, and also addressing what’s been considered shortcomings of the JAS-39C/D. Therefore, any Argentine purchase from a Brazilian production line would be the 39E version. Not the 39C which this article is referring to.

    2. The matter of which aircraft being superior to the other is often misleading. In 1982 the British aircraft (i.e. Harrier) was immensely successful when compared to Argentine fighters. This, however, is only basis for the conclusion that the British military organisation was superior to its Argentinian counterpart. It does say surprisingly little about the virtues and shortcomings of the aircraft involved.

    3. Which leads up to another conclusion, already stated by many others commenting this article: The JAS-39, C/D, E/F or otherwise, will be utterly useless without the training and organization necessary to utilize it. As would have been the case with the Harrier in 1982, had the British not known how and when to use it.

    Furthermore, personally I think that Argenina has little or no intention to threaten Great Britain with military means. For a number of reasons, the conflict in 1982 being one of them.

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    • Thank you for your response and taking time to read my article. On the first point that was my mistake regarding the JAS-39C/D/E/F. I stand by remark however that just because JAS-39E Gripen-NG has enormous potential there is no certainty that the Argentine version will fully exploit that potential. An historical example of a good paper aircraft not being given its full potential was the West German Luftwaffe’s F-4F Phantom II which on paper could have a beyond-visual-range engagement capability however the Germans never acquired the weapons and instead just gave their aircraft within-visual-range weapons. Later the F-4F would receive upgrades and longer ranged weapons but for over 15 years the aircraft was inferior to a large number of aircraft in Europe including other Phantoms. If the Argentines can cough up the money to buy the aircraft then I expect that the Gripen will have a similar life as the F-4F being a good aircraft but one that won’t reach its full potential for a long time by which point the Typhoons of No.1435 Flight will have probably been replaced by the latest F-35 Lightning IIs.

      As to your last point however I agree there is little stomach in Argentina for another war over the islands. However it is important to note that before 1982 there was little stomach for it also. The islands were invaded purely as a way of rallying the country and when it was clear that Britain wasn’t going to give them up without a fight many people in Argentina (and Britain too) thought to fight was unnecessary. However the situation today is different with no military dictatorship in power, a struggling military and a very anti-war sentiment. However who is to say the situation won’t change again overnight as in 1982? Also Venezuela has taken an interest in the islands recently and as such it is possible that sabre rattling from the Venezuelans might force Argentina to take a stronger stance and from then patriotism could take over and thats how wars break out.

      Thank you again for reading and your feedback.

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  4. Hi Tony. I was really impressed by your piece and I’d like to run it as a guest post on Big Jet. Contact me on Holz10400@aol.com if you’re interested.

    Anyhow fantastic article. Personally I doubt many in Argentina care that much about the Falklands today but the government seems to think it’ll detract attention from their chronic mishandling of the economy. It would be really interesting if Argentines respond as badly to the idea of buying Gripens as some Brazilians have.

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  5. Reblogged this on Big Jet and commented:
    Big Jet marks another milestone with its first guest post today. Tony Wilkins over at Defence of the Realm has written this excellent post about Argentina’s intention to buy SAAB Gripens. With the Argentine government continuing to rattle the sabre over the Falklands to distract from their poor performance on the economy, it remains to be seen if they can actually afford the Gripens. Nevertheless such an acquisition would constitute a clear threat to Britain’s defence of the islands given the current poor relations between our two countries.

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  6. Argentina have no intention of invading the Falklands, even they are not stupid enough to try and repeat their past mistakes. Take into account how fast we could reinforce the troops and ground based missiles, the Voyger keeping our typhoons airborne 24/7 and extending their range.
    No I think they will wait until we have built the oil rigs and infastructure and when the oil starts to flow they will have nurtured a belief in the hearts of the rest of the world that they have some legitimate claim to the Falklands. Geopolitics will kick in and China, Brazil and Russia will support Argentina. Brazil with weapons and aircraft “loans”, China with its knew carriers coming online will offer no fly zones over Argentina removing our ability to strike Argentinas airfields. If we did get into a conflict with Chinese aircraft it would be gloves off and China would strike the Falklands. Argentina could offer China a share of the oil, after all what’s good for us in the Middle East is good enough for oil hungry China.
    Safe from retribution Argentina would strike Tankers and Oil rigs forcing us to the negotiation table while China blockades the Falklands.
    Depending on oil discoveries in the South China Sea China may do a deal with the USA for a free hand in their home waters China will Back down in the South Atlantic leaving America to choose a side.
    The big question is this time who will America back, with a rising Latino population backing us will be political suicide.
    I think we should be getting cash rich China to fund the infastructure and give them a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

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  7. Since Saab Military Aircraft and British Aerospace (BAe, now BAE Systems) announced the formation the joint-venture company Saab-BAe Gripen AB with the goal of adapting, manufacturing, marketing and supporting the Gripen, it is highly unlikely that the Gripen will be sold to Argentina. The British Government will not ratify the sale of the Gripen to Argentina. The Gripen NG is $90 million, Argentina recently pulled out of a deal to purchase 24 Sukhoi 24M Fencer bombers at $30-35 million per aircraft due to an unprecedented economic crisis in the region, it seems unlikely for both political and financial reasons that such a deal should ever go ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

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