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.
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?
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.
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.