TAIPEI — London's successful blocking of the Gripen fighter sale to Argentina appears to have done little to stop Buenos Aires' determination to replace its aging attack and fighter fleet. Nor has it halted its threats to use force to "liberate" the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands from British control.
In October, Argentina's Defense Minister Agustin Rossi announced plans to procure 14 Saab Gripen fighters to replace its single-engine Dassault Mirage III/5, which saw combat during the 1982 Falklands War.
However, London quickly killed the deal. When that was nixed, Argentine's President Cristina Kirchner traveled to Beijing, Feb. 2-5, and announced Argentina and China were creating a working group to facilitate the transfer of a variety of military equipment, including fighters. To further sweeten the pot, China takes Argentina's position on the Falkland Islands and has compared the dispute to China's sovereignty claims over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.
Two types of Chinese fighters are candidates: The FC-1/JF-17 and the J-10, both built by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC).
The JF-17 is the Pakistan-built variant of the FC-1. Both fighters have their advantages and disadvantages, said Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The Chengdu FC-1 represents the cheaper and less-capable combat aircraft, he said. Argentina could purchase significantly more FC-1s, "although in capability terms this would not represent as great an increment in overall performance compared to the J-10," he said.
The Argentinean Air Force could face difficulties acclimating to non-Western equipment, but "we should understand that such a sale will have a special political importance for the Chinese. It brings prestige and opens doors to new combat aircraft sales to the region," said Vasily Kashin, a China military specialist at Moscow's Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. "They will likely provide good financing conditions and will probably pay special attention to subsequent maintenance and training work."
Logistics and follow-on support is still a question, and China's reputation with past fighter exports is dubious, said Roger Cliff, nonresident senior fellow, Asia Security Initiative, Atlantic Council. He said Argentina might have no choice in the matter since London will no doubt block any Western fighter sale. Russia could also be a contender, but also has a poor history in fighter support, Cliff said.
However, China's JF-17 fighter program in Pakistan has proven a reasonably successful test bed for joint fighter production programs. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and CAC developed the JF-17 and CAC's FC-1 in a joint program begun in 1995. Like Argentina, the Pakistan JF-17 replaced its Mirage III/5 fighters.
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow with the US-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, said that in 2013 CAC was in discussions with the Argentine aerospace company Fabrica Argentina de Aviones to co-build the FC-1 in a similar fashion as the CAC/PAC deal. Fabrica did not respond to requests for information on the issue.
China has been working hard to placate Buenos Aires. In 2011, Fabrica and the Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC) signed a co-production deal for the CZ-11 single-engine light multi-purpose helicopter.
Future cooperation could cover co-production with China's Norinco for 100 eight-wheeled VN1 eight-wheeled armored personnel carriers, and joint development with China's Shipbuilding Corp. for five corvettes modeled after the P18 (to be dubbed the Malvinas-class after the Falklands dispute).
These agreements could complicate London's ability to protect the Falklands from another invasion.
Fisher said that with aerial refueling, which will be available from Argentina's new Embraer KC390s, "the FC-1 is able to carry two CM400AKG-derived hypersonic anti-ship missiles out to a reasonable strike range." With the element of surprise and a minimum of 20 fighters, "there is the potential they could launch up to 40 of these missiles at the likely single aircraft carrier that Britain would send to defend the Falklands from a second attack."
London does not have an aircraft carrier that can operate fixed-wing aircraft. The famed AV-8 Harrier jump jetss that made their name during the Falklands War were retired in 2010. However, two 70,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are under construction, with the first to be completed in 2017 with an air wing operational in 2020, Cliff said. The carriers will be equipped with short take-off and vertical landing F-35B joint strike fighters. "So the UK might be especially vulnerable at the moment, but that situation will not last long."
Fisher said the issue is more complicated today than it was during the war.
The other new element is that Argentina and China are now partners in space cooperation. China is building a strategic Southern Hemisphere tracking and control facility, and Argentina could get access to China's growing surveillance satellite network.
The scenarios Fisher paints are dark. "What if Venezuela gave Argentine aircraft base access to mount an early strike against a British task force? This could become a realistic option with Chinese ISR. This Chinese-Argentine military relationship is just beginning to blossom. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, over-the-horizon radar, and submarines could quickly join the list of possible Chinese exports.
"Look, there does not have to be a second war," Fisher continued. "If China sells Argentina enough weapons, a future British government could opt for a lengthy face-saving Hong Kong-like transfer. But in Latin America, such a 'surrender' would be viewed as much a Chinese as an Argentine victory."
The political and economic consequences for Argentina of making another grab for the Falklands would be severe, and even threatening to do so would not be in the country's interest. But that does not mean it could not happen, "as people in the country are still passionate about the issue", Cliff said.
"Argentina made things pretty dicey for the UK back in 1982 and probably could do so again, especially if they prepared carefully for it."