Pakistan Air Force JF-17’s armed with air to air and air to ground munitions. Photo Credit: Pakistan Air Force
Last month, local Argentine newspapers leaked news that the Argentinian government intended to purchase 12 Pakistan-Chinese manufactured JF-17[i] Block III ‘Thunder’ fighter aircraft and supporting equipment. This is not new. Argentina’s plan to purchase Chinese fighters has been long in the making. In 2013, the Argentinian government held talks with co-manufacturers of the JF-17, the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, to coproduce 12 aircraft in Argentina.[ii] Two years later in 2015, the Chinese and Argentinian governments announced a “comprehensive strategic partnership” that included an “Argentine-Chinese Joint Committee on Cooperation in the field of Defense, Technology, and Industry.[iii] Chinese talks included the Argentinian purchase of as many as twenty JF-17 aircraft and associated equipment.[iv] Ultimately, the deal floundered following the electoral defeat of Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner’s in the 2015 Argentinian election. Argentine President Alberto Fernandez’s current plan to purchase Pakistan-Chinese aircraft has the potential to heighten tension in the South Atlantic and expose the increasing flow of Asian arms to Latin America.
The Long Shadow of the Falklands War
Put bluntly, the Argentine Air Force or Fuerza Aérea Argentina is in shambles. Following Argentina’s defeat in the 1982 Falklands conflict, the Fuerza Aérea Argentina has been continually beset by declining budgets, obsolescent airframes, and a chronic shortage of spare parts. Previous attempts to remedy this ailing force have come to naught, largely due to the United Kingdom’s informal arms embargo on Argentina post-1982. During that conflict, Fuerza Aérea Argentina Super Étendard and A-4C Skyhawks inflicted devastating losses on British forces, sinking two Royal Navy Destroyers, two frigates, and three supporting vessels. Britain’s ability to successfully maintain the embargo relies on diplomatic pressure in blocking the sale of aircraft that use British manufactured subcomponents. British pressure and threats to withhold British manufactured components have proven repeatedly successful, squashing Argentina’s recent attempts to acquire Korean FA-50’s, French Mirage F1Ms, Israeli Kfirs, Swedish JAS 39 Griphens, and other aircraft over the past few decades.[v]
The purchase of Pakistani-Chinese manufactured aircraft allows Argentina to bypass this informal British embargo. Firstly, the components of the JF-17 feature are sourced predominantly from Pakistan, China, and Russia.[vi] The only British manufactured subcomponent on the aircraft, its Martin-Baker ejection seat, is substitutable for comparable Chinese manufactured equivalents.[vii] This lack of dependence on British sourced components allows for the export of aircraft without London’s approval. Secondly, British diplomatic pressure on the Chinese over the sale of JF-17’s has proven ineffective historically. Whitehall’s protests, for example, did not impede prior negotiations to license produce the aircraft in Argentina, a far more worrying development for Britain than the outright purchase of aircraft. In the short term, Argentina’s acquisition of the JF-17 has the potential to intensify the unsettled Falklands dispute. Previous Argentinian attempts to acquire aircraft have led to Britain’s official review of its Falklands defense policy and investments in defense infrastructure on the islands.[viii]
Asian Arms in Latin America
The potential sale of the JF-17 to Argentina reflects the broader increase in Asian arms sales to Latin American countries over the past few decades. For Pakistan, the sale of the JF-17 would constitute its first-ever arms export to a Latin American country and its first arms sale outside of Asia and the Middle East. While China is a more established player in the Latin American defense market, most of its defense exports, around 85% by value, have been to Venezuela.[ix] The successful sale of the JF-17 to Argentina could thus serve as a bridge for future Chinese arms exports to the region as countries look to replace aging aircraft fleets.
Asian arms prove attractive to Latin American countries for their affordability and accessibility. For example, a single JF-17 costs approximately 30 to 40 million dollars per unit while comparable Western or Russian higher-end aircraft can cost upwards of 50 million dollars a unit. While not necessarily as sophisticated as European or Russian aircraft, even a small number of relatively up-to-date and affordable airframes can have an outsized effect on the South American balance of power. Justin Bronk, of the Royal United Service Institute, argues that “any replacement fighter would be a potentially transformative boon for Argentina’s Fuerza Aérea after more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts to replace its Mirage III and V fleets.”[x]
The Chinese have also demonstrated a willingness to finance the purchase of the JF-17 through commodity-backed loans.[xi] This is an enticing proposition for cash-strapped countries like Argentina whose fiscal woes have historically made modern combat aircraft inaccessible. Furthermore, because the JF-17 is manufactured outside of American and Western supply chains, countries like Argentina can skirt embargoes or intervention by third parties.
The United Kingdom has no reasonable chance of successfully blocking the Argentina purchase of JF-17s. Should Argentina successfully purchase Pakistan-Chinese manufactured JF-17’s, tensions will increase in the South Atlantic. Britain may once again review its Falklands defense posture and force composition on the islands in response to the Argentine purchase. More broadly, other Latin American countries, inspired by Argentina’s successful procurement, may in turn increasingly look to the Chinese and Pakistani manufacturer rather than their traditional American, European, or Russian suppliers for affordable and accessible combat aircraft.
[i] Also known as the FC-1 model
[ii] Richard D Fisher Jr, “Argentine Officials Confirm Joint Production over China’s FC-1 Fighter,” IHS Jane’s Defence Industry, 5/23/13, https://web.archive.org/web/20131106081623/http://www.janes.com/article/23497/argentine-officials-confirm-joint-production-talks-over-china-s-fc-1-fighter
[iii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman of Argentina Chair First meeting of Standing Committee Between Two Governments,” 2/4/15, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1235611.shtml
[iv] Jordan Wilson, “China’s Military Agreements with Argentia: A Potential New Phase in China-Latin America Defense Relations,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report, 11/5/15, p. 7. https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/China’s%20Military%20Agreements%20with%20Argentina.pdf
[v] Usman Ansari, “Could Britain Stop Argentina from Buying the JF-17 Warplane,” Defense News, 9/28/21, https://www.defensenews.com/global/the-americas/2021/09/28/could-britain-stop-argentina-from-buying-the-jf-17-warplane/
[vii] “Escape 2008” Martin Baker Co. Ltd., https://web.archive.org/web/20120403190614/http://www.martin-baker.co.uk/getdoc/62678197-340b-46f4-84b5-2d801b21a11a/MB_Escape_20.aspx
[viii] Wilson, China’s Military Agreements with Argentina, p. 12
[ix] China Power Project Team, “How Dominant is China in the Global Arms Trade,” China Power Project, April 26, 2018, https://chinapower.csis.org/china-global-arms-trade/
[x] Ansari, Could Britain Stop
[xi]Wilson, China’s Military Agreements with Argentina, p. 5