The U.S. State Department has signed off on Argentina’s proposed purchase of four ex-U.S. Navy P-3C patrol planes.
The $78-million acquisition, should Buenos Aires follow through on it, would continue the slow regeneration of Argentina’s air power.
The P-3C deal, which the State Department approved in late December 2019, includes the four airframes plus spare engines and all the electronics and support systems the turboprop P-3s require. The U.S. Navy has nearly finished replacing its hundreds of Lockheed Martin-made P-3s with a force of around 120 more-capable P-8 patrol planes.
The used P-3Cs would replace six older P-3Bs in Argentine naval aviation. None of the P-3Bs are operational, the State Department noted.
The situation is similar across the Argentine military. As recently as 2017, the Argentine fleet on paper operated around 40 warships together displacing around 120,000 tons of water. These included three submarines of 1970s- and 1980s-vintage, four 1980s-vintage frigates and nine corvettes dating from the ‘70s, ‘80s and 2000s.
But many of the ships were in poor repair and rarely sailed. The destroyer Santisima Trinidad, a survivor of the Falklands War, in 2013 sank at her moorings. Engineers refloated her in 2015, but the 40-year-old vessel was in no condition to return to service. In 2017 the submarine San Juan sank following a battery fire, killing all 44 people aboard.
Then in July 2019 the Argentine navy announced it would scrap the frigate Heroina and the corvette Rosales, potentially shrinking the fleet to just a handful of operational warships that increasingly are suitable only for coastal, “brown-water” missions.
Many of the air force and navy’s planes and helicopters are non-operational for a lack of maintenance, crews and money. The troubles began with the 1982 Falklands War. British forces shot down around a third of Argentina’s 400 warplanes, but in subsequent decades funding woes and mismanagement exacted an even greater toll.
By late 2015 Buenos Aires could muster fewer than 250 warplanes including a few Vietnam War-vintage, subsonic A-4s and equally aged, but supersonic, French-made Mirages. Even the planes that could fly lacked modern systems.
“The entire air force fleet lacks modern avionics and systems, and still uses analog equipment,” Santiago Rivas wrote in a 2015 edition of Combat Aircraft magazine. “Aircraft have missed out on self-protection equipment, including radar warning receivers, chaff/flare dispensers and so forth.”
The Mirages left service in mid-2015. By 2018 Argentina also had retired all of its A-4s. The flying branch had wanted to upgrade the fighters to serve until 2022, but a lack of spares rendered them unflyable. By 2019 the only fighters in service were around two dozen subsonic IA-63s.
To rebuild its fighter capability, Buenos Aires considered buying new Gripens from Brazil, old American F-16s, second-hand Mirage F.1s from Spain and new FC-1s from China and used Israeli Kfir Block 60sIn 2019 the Argentine air force finally settled on the South Korean FA-50 light fighter.
The air force could acquire as many as 10 FA-50s, according to Argentine media. The 12-ton fighter retails for around $30 million per copy, tens of millions of dollars less than a new F-16 or similar, heavier fighter.
Meanwhile, the Argentine navy bought five used French navy Super Etendard attack planes as part of a $13-million deal.
The purchase wasn’t without complications, Scramble reported. “All five were scheduled to be offloaded on May 9, 2019, but this turned out to be impossible due to a strike in the harbor at the multipurpose dock of the company Patagonia Norte, in Ingeniero White.” The delivery finally took place a short time later.
The Argentine navy previously operated 14 Super Etendards, acquiring five of them in time for service during the Falklands War. Argentine Super Etendards firing Exocet anti-ship missiles sank two British vessels, a destroyer and a cargo ship. By late 2017 none of the original Super Etendards were flightworthy, according to Flight’s 2018 survey of world air arms.
With fresh P-3s and Super Etendards and new FA-50s, Argentina slowly is rebuilding a basic air combat capability. This handful of warplanes fall far short of the aerial firepower Buenos Aires possessed in 1982, but they’re a start.