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Analysis: Why the JF-17 is the Right Choice for Argentina

On 15 September 2021, the Government of Argentina allocated funding for the procurement of 12 JF-17 Thunder multi-role aircraft from China. According to Jane’s, the total procurement cost of the program was set at $664 million U.S., with $20 million U.S. budgeted towards infrastructure.

This heralded significant hope for the Argentinian Air Force who, for the last few decades, had been left without any credible fighter capability. Instead, it has been relying on a handful of unserviceable A-4R Fightinghawks.

After a long, complex process, the budgetary release was a breath of fresh air for the force that has been unable to meet its needs due to a mixture of economic woes and sanctions.

Interestingly, the Argentinian case is almost similar to Pakistan’s T129 ATAK fiasco. Turkey was unable to deliver the T129s to Pakistan due to the engines being subject to ITAR regulations.

Similarly, Argentina had opted for the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50 as their new multirole fighter aircraft in Summer 2019. However, due to the significant use of British inputs in the FA-50, the British government denied export licenses to KAI. The FA-50 deal was cancelled in October 2020. 

Had the FA-50 deal gone through, it would have been a significant win for KAI – sort of. The KAI FA-50s fills the same niche as the JF-17. Potentially, the FA-50 might even be competitive from a pricing or cost standpoint. 

Both also excel in their own specific ways. The FA-50, for example, leverages a superior engine in the GE F404 compared to the JF-17’s RD-93. The JF-17, on the other hand, offers a far better weapons and sensor load out.

Overall, the FA-50 and JF-17 target different markets. 

In a way, the FA-50 is better positioned for NATO or NATO-aligned air forces. 

The JF-17, on the other hand, caters to countries that need a NATO-standard fighter tailored for NATO tactics in mind, but minus the restrictions of a NATO fighter. Moreover, the JF-17 also aims to be budget-friendly.

These attributes make the JF-17 the perfect match for Argentina. The JF-17 gives Argentina an aircraft that has modern avionics, an adept munitions inventory consisting of both modern long-range air-to-air missiles (like the SD-10 and PL-15E) as well as stand-off range weapons (SOW), and a modern sensor and electonics suite. 

Moreover, the JF-17 – being designed with the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) needs in mind – has in-flight refueling, emphasis on ease of maintennace, and credible performance in all climates, be it hot and high to extreme colds, such as those in northern Pakistan. 

Currently, the competition for Argentina’s next fighter have boiled down to two options: The JF-17 and the F-16.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) had entered the race with its Tejas. However, in a discussion with the Fuerza Aérea Argentina’s (FAA) Commander-in-Chief, it was gathered that the FAA is not interested in the Tejas. The FAA had cited key issues such as the large amount of British components, among other challenges.

The FAA does favour the F-16, but at the same time, it is not opposed to the JF-17. Rather, the FAA is impressed with the sensors and weapons package of the JF-17, according to officials involved in the selections process.

In fact, the F-16 deal thus far does not include a munitions package as of yet. Moreover, it will likely be subject to British lobbying to limit the types of weapons available to Argentina, thus limiting the FAA’s choices. On the other hand, no such restrictions or blocks exist in the JF-17 offer.

So, why is the JF-17 the better option for the FAA? The simple answer is that no other country can interfere with choices of the Argentinians when it comes to configuration and munitions. 

The JF-17 carries a measure of strategic autonomy that other options do not offer. In fact, even to this day the fallout of Falklands War lives on in the minds of both British and Argentine policymakers. 

Moreover, Argentina also remembers that the U.S. had supported the U.K with significant assistance in the war and, in turn, basically helped contribute to Argentina’s loss. In conflict, Washington cannot be trusted to supply spares or munitions consistently or reliably in a case of war, especially one that does not align with its own interests. 

In fact, would Washington supply ‘sensitive’ munitions to Argentina? Can the FAA realistically expect to procure the AIM-120 AMRAAM, for example? Or the Harpoon anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM)? Or would they be forced to just accept an Egypt or Iraq-style agreement where they are denied access to modern munitions?

Ultimately, the F-16 does offer impressive value, especially on the second-hand market. However, only key U.S. allies will see the benefit of that potential. The U.S. does not view countries like Argentina or Pakistan as important enough for its interests. Moreover, the U.S. has to maintain a delicate balance with other stakeholders, such as the U.K., in the mix. Washington will not do anything to agitate London in regards to Argentina.

That said, if Argentina selects the F-16, it will get a capable platform. However, the U.S. will also benefit from the costly support and overhaul contracts while, strategically, freezing China out of its backyard in Latin America.

On the other hand, the JF-17 would give Argentina a more flexible option. The JF-17 Block-III already on offer to the FAA, for example, already comes with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and China’s latest series of air-to-air missiles (i.e., PL-15E and PL-10E). Not only that, but the JF-17 Block-III will also come with an array of SOW options, such as the Range Extension Kit (REK) series of precision-guide bombs (PGB), hypersonic anti-ship rockets, a subsonic anti-ship cruising missil and potentially more, such as an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). 

Finally, the JF-17 would give Argentina more strategic autonomy. It will not suffer capability limitations due to the interests of the U.S. or the U.K. In fact, if Argentina can summon the funding, it could drive more customizations or capabilities from the Thunder. 

Overall, Argentina stands to benefit greatly from Pakistan’s experiences, especially with the geo-political moves of the superpowers, like the U.S. In fact, through the development of the JF-17, the PAF had to guard itself from the impact of Western sanctions and supplier restraints. For example, the PAF had to drop the idea of buying a radar and weapons package from France. These experiences all contributed to the current form of the JF-17.

Today, the JF-17 is a fighter designed to work within a NATO-type doctrine, but with an AESA radar and cutting-edge air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions free of Western restrictions. This is a unique package that is not available with other platforms.

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