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Argentina Will Take Another Look at the JF-17 Thunder

In an interview with Pucará Defense, the Chief of the General Staff of the Argentine Air Force, Brigadier Xavier Isaac, revealed that the country will reconsider the JF-17 Thunder.[1] The disclosure follows Buenos Aires’ inability to secure the F/A-50 from Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). The F/A-50 uses six key British components which required the United Kingdom’s approval for third-party transfers. KAI could not get those approvals for Argentina due to the country’s marred relationship with the UK.[2] Brigadier Isaac stated that the air force’s interest in the JF-17 is part of its wider look at non-Western fighter platforms.

Argentina started its pursuit for a new-generation fighter aircraft in 2013. It had originally sought Spanish Air Force Dassault Mirage F-1s. However, that deal fell through because of a lack of funding and technical issues with the program. Argentina then requested Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Kfir fighters, but lack of certainty regarding the health of those airframes scuttled that route. In 2014, Argentina had broadened its look to include both Chinese and Russian fighters, but at that time, it still sought a Western fighter.

By 2016, Argentina began serious negotiations with Israel for the IAI Kfir Block-60. With the Kfir Block-60, IAI overhauled the fighter’s J79 turbojet to zero hours and upgraded it with modern subsystems, including the EL/M 2052 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Argentina was in talks with Israel for 12-14 aircraft, but in 2017, the Argentine Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced it suspended those plans.

In 2019, reports started emerging of the Argentine Air Force entering serious talks with KAI for the latter’s F/A-50. The F/A-50 is the multirole fighter variant of the T-50 lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT) platform. This solution would have provided Argentina with both an advanced training platform and an adept lightweight multi-role fighter. However, according to Brigadier Isaac, when the prospect of a sale took on momentum (with Argentina arranging funds), KAI was unable to seriously commit due to the British-origin parts of the fighter. Brigadier Isaac said that Argentina was expecting the deal to fall through due to this issue.[3]

The Argentine Air Force has had a chequered experience seeking new combat aircraft to replace its legacy fleet, which are made up of aging A-4ARs. The A-4AR is an advanced variant of the A-4M Skyhawk built on a number of onboard electronics from the F-16, such as the AN/APG-66v2 radar, among other subsystems. It is unclear how many of Argentina’s original 36 A-4ARs remain in service, though one report claims that the Argentine Air Force is operating as six aircraft as of 2020.[4] If this situation is accurate, then Argentina lacks a credible air warfare capability in both the present and the future.

Argentina is working to generate movement towards its new fighter program in 2021, and in that vein, it will consider a variety of options, including non-Western solutions. The Argentine Air Force is planning for 12 new aircraft, and Brigadier Isaac said that it is considering the JF-17 Block-III an option. In fact, Brigadier Isaac revealed that Argentina had sent a commission to Pakistan about the JF-17 in 2017. However, it is currently interested in the JF-17 Block-III, which Brigadier Isaac says is “quite another plane” compared to the variant (likely Block-II) it had examined several years ago.

In all likelihood, Argentina is following the development of the PAF’s specification, which will center on an AESA radar and new long-range air-to-air missiles (AAM) from China. There is no other option in terms of electronics that could work for Argentina. The closest alternative, i.e., the Leonardo Grifo-E, likely draws on British technologies from Selex. Thus, there is no realistic scenario where Argentina would get a hybrid, ‘Westernized’ JF-17; rather, a move to the JF-17 would mean a total shift to non-Western technologies.

Is Pakistan the Best-Suited Supplier for Argentina?

While it may seem like the dark horse candidate on paper, a careful look at the reality shows that Pakistan could actually be the strongest candidate to supply the Argentine Air Force’s new fighters.

This argument stems from three facts.

First, Argentina’s economic and geostrategic realities limit its ability to buy fighters from a mainstream supplier, especially in the West. This issue is well past theory – Argentina has failed to secure a new fighter through these avenues. In fact, the F/A-50 chapter shows that Buenos Aires cannot even acquire a shorter-ranged (albeit well-equipped) trainer from a source in the West (or Western sphere of influence).

Second, Pakistan can draw on Chinese credit to finance the sale of JF-17s, which helps lower the barrier of procurement. However, Pakistan can also offer the JF-17 on a ‘layaway’ basis wherein Argentina simply signs on for the number of aircraft it can afford with cash. Like Nigeria, it can opt to order the fighters on an incremental basis without taking on a loan. If the configuration is close to the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) specifications, Pakistan can absorb the risk (or Argentina being unable to pay for the aircraft) by allocating them to the PAF fleet. Finally, the JF-17 also has a lower price-tag compared to analogous Western aircraft, such as the JAS-39 Gripen, F-16, or the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas.

Third, Pakistan is in the unique position to fully understand the circumstances of the Argentine Air Force. In a way, Pakistan suffers from most of the same limitations as Argentina when it comes to securing new fighters or technologies, be it in terms of fiscal restraints, or supply-side reluctance. Thus, not only is the current JF-17 relatively well-isolated from those influences, but as its long-term upgrade and development track and the PAF’s next-generation fighter program, Project Azm. In other words, not only can Pakistan offer Argentina fighter for its needs today, but it also offers a similarly sanctions-free route for Argentina’s air warfare future through its own next-generation fighter (which will be an ITAR-free solution).

The second and third aspects (i.e., flexible financing and sanction-proofing) would provide Argentina with both near-term accessibility and long-term security/assurance. Granted, the latter is not as tangible as the JF-17, but it is already rare to find an active next-generation fighter program outside of the West.

Pakistan’s Air Warfare Pedigree Also Counts

Pakistan also wields a fourth advantage, and that would be its air warfare experience drawn from both its real-world operations (including an air-to-air encounter with India) and multi-national exercises.

The two aspects count because with (reportedly) six operational fighters, the Argentine Air Force could require re-training and re-equipping to bring it up to modern standards. Pakistan can provide that training to Argentina at all levels, right from the basic flight training (which may not be necessary) up to command experience through Combat Commanders School (CCS) and operational deployment training via Airpower Centre of Excellence (ACE). Basically, not only would Argentina secure a modern fighter, but it could draw on a wealth of recent expertise from the PAF, and an environment to fine-tune it at CCS and ACE.

These are not superficial benefits. The PAF can impart the full spectrum of expertise, i.e., precision ground strikes, stand-off range strikes, anti-ship/maritime missions, and long-range air-to-air warfare. Pakistan is also a place where Argentina can get full exposure to network-enabled warfare applications, i.e., airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, electronic countermeasures (ECM) assets, and datalinks. The Argentines could learn from these elements using the exact same aircraft as the PAF, i.e., the JF-17. Thus, it could implement what it learns in Pakistan without necessarily facing a technology deficit at home.

[1] Interview with Brigadier General Xavier Isaac, Chief of the General Staff of the Argentine Air Force. Santiago Rivas. Pucará Defense. 27 November 2020. URL:

[2] Gareth Jennings. “UK bars South Korea from selling FA-50 to Argentina.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 30 October 2020. URL:

[3] Pucará Defense. 27 November 2020.

[4] Clement Charpentrueau. “Argentine A-4AR fighter jet crashes near Cordoba, pilot dead.” Aerotime Hub. 06 August 2020. URL:

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