Skip to content Skip to footer

Argentina Weighs its Fighter Options: Is the JF-17 Still on the Table?

In mid-June, Lt. General Juan Martín Paleo, the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Argentinian Armed Forces, paid an official visit to Islamabad, Pakistan.

While Lt. Gen. Paleo’s visit was to encourage Argentinian-Pakistani defence ties in the general sense, his visit initiated a wider a discussion about Argentina’s new fighter requirement.

Towards the end of 2020, the Argentine Air Force’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier Xavier Isaac, had revealed that the country will consider the JF-17 Thunder. Since then, Argentinian officials assessed the JF-17 and spoke to both Pakistani and Chinese officials on various matters tied to a potential deal.

Moreover, the Argentine government allocated $664 million US in funding for the purchase of 12 modern fighters in its draft budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022.

However, despite seemingly positive signs towards an Argentine JF-17 order, it is unclear if Argentina will ultimately order these aircraft. Besides the country’s now perennial difficulties with committing to a new fighter order, Argentina must weigh the JF-17’s technical gains with its potential geo-political blowbacks.

Replacing an Aging Fleet

Today, the Argentine Air Force reportedly flies six Lockheed Martin A-4AR ‘Fightinghawk’ fighters. This is a steep fall from the original fleet of 36 A-4ARs. Prior to the A-4AR, Argentina had Dassault Mirage IIIs and Mirage 5s, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Neshers, and Douglas A-4 Skyhawks. By the 1970s and 1980s, Argentina had one of the largest air warfare capabilities in Latin America.

Argentina’s been trying to acquire a new fighter to replace its aging A-4ARs since 2013. Over the years, it weighed a number of options. These options had ranged from buying ex-Spanish Air Force Dassault Mirage F-1s, IAI Kfir Block-60s, and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) F/A-50s.

However, Argentina could not secure any of those aircraft. In the case of the KAI F/A-50 in particular, KAI could not close the sale due uncertainty about the fighter’s British-origin parts and subsystems.

In the end, the Argentine Air Force had to start looking at its peripheral avenues, notably China. Argentina had originally dismissed the JF-17 because it did not use a Western radar or Western avionics.

This was an understandable condition for Argentina, which is used to operating Western-origin equipment (indeed, even Pakistan preferred the same for the JF-17 in its initial years of development). However, by 2020, Argentina seemed to have changed its tone on this issue.

The Argentine Air Force set its eyes on the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III. It is arguably the lowest cost option for an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar-equipped fighter with both modern long-range air-to-air missiles (LRAAM) and stand-off range air-to-surface weapons.

Moreover, and as importantly, the JF-17 Block-III is accessible. Due to either cost or Britain’s participation in various defence consortiums, alternatives like the Gripen, Typhoon, and Rafale are not available to the Argentine Air Force. Thus, the only other supplier who could stand in for China is America.

On this note, Denmark is offering its surplus F-16A/B Mid-Life-Update (MLU) fighters. For Argentina, while this alternative option does not present the same technology gains as the JF-17 Block-III, it does provide a modern replacement for the A-4AR while also ensuring Washington’s amicability.

Negotiating Geo-Political Challenges

Thus, for Argentina, the challenge is not just a narrow technology issue, but a broader geo-political matter.

From a foreign relations standpoint, ties between Washington and Beijing are increasingly getting colder. Outside of NATO and its core Pacific Ocean allies, the U.S. is not pressuring countries against Chinese arms like it is with Russia (e.g., CAATSA). However, that challenge may eventually arrive.

Argentina may be facing more specific pressures. It will need Washington’s support for its chronic debt or deficit financing issues. Buenos Aires must also weigh its trade interests with Washington so as to create or grow a potential pathway to a more stable economic situation.

Weighing Technical Flexibility with Geo-Politics

When it comes to the Argentine fighter program, one must accept that the U.S. matters. The latter is the key valve for Argentina’s trade growth opportunities, monetary relief, and traditional defence interests.

There is always an incentive to keep amicable ties with the U.S.

However, like Pakistan, there could be a time that Argentina has to come to terms with the possibility that ‘sticking’ with the U.S. may lead to compromised or less-than-optimal defence outcomes.

One need only look at the option competing against the JF-17 Block-III offer. The F-16A/B MLU is a capable asset, but it is not cutting-edge. It is functionally a ‘modern past-generation’ solution.

The F-16A/B MLU can be effective. However, even the most ‘basic’ new fighters – like the JF-17 Block-III – have new generation subsystems, like AESA radars. Not only that, but China is also more likely to supply the LRAAMs, long-range anti-ship missiles, guided glide bombs, and other key munitions.

Of course, one can point to the fact that even the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) would love acquiring the same F-16A/B MLUs. However, there is a critical difference in the case of the PAF and the Argentine Air Force.

The PAF already has the infrastructure in place to absorb more F-16s, so adding them is a low-cost way of shoring up its fleet. But for Argentina, it would mean investing in a new set up for an old aircraft. It would be more sensible to invest those resources towards a genuinely new fighter.

This fact leads to another point. If the U.S. is genuinely concerned about Argentina’s defence interests, it should create a pathway for the Argentine Air Force to acquire a modern fighter. Doing so gives Argentina a modern solution that can support its needs for decades while keeping China out of the Americas.

To date, this support has not been forthcoming. Washington has put a lower ceiling on Argentina’s needs.

With China, the ceiling will be markedly higher. In fact, it is not just that the JF-17 Block-III is a compelling solution, but Argentina can also look at the J-10CE, a credible medium-weight 4+/4.5-generation fighter. However, China is also working on the next-generation J-35. This design will likely have an export variant and, in all likelihood, will be the most cost-effective and accessible fighter of its type on the market.

As it stands today, China is the only country outside from the U.S. that can design and build modern fighter solutions on a turnkey basis and help with financing. The Europeans work through consortiums which, in some cases, can be comparable. However, Argentina’s tenuous relationship with the U.K. dampens most of that benefit. Thus, as it stands today, China is Argentina’s most compelling option for vastly advancing its defence interests in the near and long-term.


Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment