In a frankly startling move, Argentina may have reached an agreement with Russia to acquire a number of Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” strike aircraft. Exact details are as yet unclear but it is believed that 12 aircraft will be leased to the Argentine air force possibly as a stop gap measure until it can fund JAS-39 Gripen fighter-bombers the country is hoping to build jointly with Brazil which was announced earlier this year. In exchange for this loan Argentina is paying in trade rather than cash due to its poor economy. This is being undertaken primarily in the export of beef and other perishables and is believed to be the result of EU sanctions placed on Russia in light of the fighting in the Ukraine and Crimea.
The Su-24 was designed as an ultra-low altitude strike aircraft capable of penetrating NATO’s defences by flying under the radar at high supersonic speeds. Despite being over 30 years old the aircraft is still regarded as highly capable and this has sparked a review of British defences around the Falklands despite repeated Argentine claims not to have any military ambition to seize the islands. That does not mean to say however that they could be used to intimidate the British forces in the South Atlantic.
But just how worried should the British garrison be?
Here are some key points to consider;
- The acquisition of these aircraft does not necessarily signify any military intent but rather may simply be a way of keeping the Argentine air force credible while the long term plan for the Gripen is secured. The current Argentine inventory of fast jets are ancient.
- While the Falkland Islands are perhaps the most public dispute Argentina has in the region it is also in dispute with Chile over a series of islands along the southern border of the two countries. It would not take much to spark a conflict here and with new jets the Argentines may be feeling bold.
- Despite being very fast at low level the Su-24 will have to cross an expanse of featureless ocean to reach the Falklands. With no terrain to hide behind (as was the case in Europe) it could be picked up on radar and intercepted long before it could get in range with its weapons.
- If intercepted by an RAF Typhoon FGR.4 it would stand almost no chance of defending itself.
- With 12 Su-24s this force would outnumber the Typhoons by three to one however the Typhoon can be armed with up to ten air-to-air missiles and can engage up to four targets at a time. The Typhoons are also backed up by ground and naval surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.
- What weapons will the aircraft have? If only free-fall bombs then this would require near-suicidal direct attacks on targets in the Falklands.
- Any military action taken against the Falklands would probably incur a political backlash against Argentina especially if there was loss of life.
- Despite all their passion for their claim to the islands the Argentinians themselves have little taste for war.
Certainly British military planners should take in to account the effect this aircraft will have on the situation in the South Atlantic but it is highly unlikely to change anything at this stage.