BUENOS AIRES — After considering and discarding the procurement of Chinese/Pakistani-built JF-17s and Saab Gripen NG fighter jets to replace its fleet of Mirage combat aircraft, Argentine authorities are now negotiating the purchase of a batch of second-hand, refurbished Israeli-built Kfirs, local military sources here told Defense News.

The Argentine Air Force is heavily pressed by the need to replace its older Mirage aircraft, which are the only higher performance machines in its inventory. Those aircraft should have been replaced around 2002, but fiscal and political difficulties prevented a purchase.

With their replacement overdue, the Mirages today are not only technically obsolete and diminishing in total numbers and operational availability — fewer than 10 are ten in the flight line — but they are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and operate.

Argentina Air Force officials have been interested in the Kfir for several years, but it was at the 2013 Paris Air Show that delegates met officials of Chengdu Aircraft Corp. (CAC) and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, (PAC), the Chinese-Pakistani partnership that produces the JF-17 fighter jet, the sources said. 

The Chinese-built machines were of interest to Argentina because of their relatively low cost and the possibility of being locally assembled at the Fabrica Argentina de Aviones, (FADEA), the former FMA industrial plant at Cordoba.

Using Chinese-supplied components at the beginning, the local assembly offered the possibility of locally manufactured parts at a later stage, opening the way to licensed production and even the development of a version specially tailored to Argentina's requirements.

Negotiations for the acquisition and assembly of the JF-17 in Argentina started soon and were promising, but the increasing demands by Argentina for Western avionics and modifications increased the cost of the aircraft.

The integration work needed to accommodate the new avionics also delayed the process and in May 2015, after almost two years of negotiations, the Argentine authorities discarded the JF-17.

The procurement of the Saab Gripen NG, proposed by the Brazilian government and to come from Brazil's future assembly line, had also been considered in parallel with the JF-17. According to the military sources consulted by Defense News in Buenos Aires, the Gripen NG was a more interesting option to the Argentine Air Force than the JF-17.

But in late 2014, the UK government, concerned by a potentially bigger threat to the Falkland Islands, leaked to the media that it would veto the transfer to Argentina of any Gripen component that is British made or designed.

The Gripen NG was not immediately discarded by Buenos Aires because after a request from the Brazilian authorities, who were eager to sell the jet to Argentina, Saab agreed to explore the feasibility and cost of replacing the British components in the aircraft with non-British equivalents.

The replacement of components was found technically feasible, but it was going to require a long and expensive modification of the airframe, as well as integration and testing of the replacement components. The higher cost for these modifications was more than the Argentine authorities were willing to pay, so they also discarded Gripen.

The only solution currently under consideration now is purchasing second-hand Kfirs. To that purpose, the Argentine Air Force's chief of materiel, Gen. Exequiel Gil, held several meetings during June's Paris Airshow with officials from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) as well as from other companies that would be involved in an eventual Kfir deal, according to a source close to the issue.

Eliana Fishler, vice president for media relations at IAI, said, "it is IAI's policy not to disclose any details regarding deals in process."

The Argentine Air Force wants to acquire up to 18eighteen Kfirs as a short-term solution to cover its requirement for higher performance combat aircraft over 10-12 in a time frame of ten to twelve years, local military sources explained.

"It is what the country can afford and can get at this moment. … But it will also mean that the search for a new solution, that hopefully would be a long-term one, will have to start in eight years," one of the sources said.

"As by then, Argentina will probably be facing the need to replace its A-4AR Fighting Hawk attack bombers, there will be a requirement for at least 36 thirty-six advanced, new generation multirole fighter jets," the source concluded.

Email: jhiguera@defensenews.com

José Higuera is a Latin America correspondent for Defense News.

More In Air Warfare