Argentina’s Gripen deal – a threat to the Falkland Islands?
Argentina has launched a bid to acquire 24 Saab Gripen E fighter jets off the back of a deal with Brazil. Some commentators were quick to label the proposal a threat to British interests in the Falkland Islands, but given Argentina's greatly depleted and outdated Air Force fleet, are they right?
As Basil Fawlty warned, "Don't mention the war!" But the very mention of Argentina, especially in a military context, prompts the same knee-jerk reaction from a certain element of British journalism as Germany did on the previous generation.
Argentina has begun negotiations towards potentially acquiring 24 Saab Gripen E fighter jets built under a co-manufacturing agreement with Embraer in neighbouring Brazil, a move which would bolster the ill-equipped Fuerza Aerea Argentina, the Argentinean Air Force. If the deal goes through, delivery of a two-seat version of the jet could begin within five years.
Some defence correspondents were quick to identify the interest as a challenge to Falklands defences, or, more alarmingly, "Falklands War 2". But is there any genuine threat to UK interests?
Gripens a drop in the ocean
There is no doubt the Gripen E has the firepower and the range - it offers a combat range of 1,300km with the centreline 290 gallon tank, while the main Air Force base in Rio Gallegos is just 668km from the Falklands -to launch a formidable attack.
The UK Navy dominated their Argentine counterparts during the Falklands War, but how have these forces fared since that conflict?.
But the potential 24 new aircraft would be just a drop in the ocean towards restoring the Argentinean Air Force fleet to its former glory. A third of its combat aircraft were destroyed during the 1982 war, and despite some upgrades and limited acquisitions much of the fleet is reported to have fallen into disrepair and relies on antiquated analogue systems. The 23 A-4AR Skyhawk attack aircraft bought second-hand from the US, and the 10 Dassault Mirage III, V and IAI Nesher fighter jets currently in service are all considered to be approaching the end of their serviceable life.
Even if there were a will for war, an Argentinean Air Force fielding these new aircraft would prove no match for the Royal Air Force fleet. Five years down the line, the RAF's Typhoons, Tornadoes, Sentry early-warning planes and Voyager tankers will hardly be out of date, and will be joined by the F-35B operated from the new Queen Elizabeth-Class aircraft carriers from 2020
The deal may not even happen - it certainly came as news to Lennart Sindahl, head of Saab's aeronautics business, who told journalists that he "had no information" after the announcement was made by the Brazilian Ministry of Defence. And the economy of Argentina is in such dire straits the government is intervening to prevent a new debt default from triggering a balance of payments crisis, so it could ill afford a significant overhaul of its Armed Forces.
So perhaps we should not only bear Basil Fawlty's advice in mind but add to it that of Corporal Jones from Dad's Army - "Don't panic!"