Fighter jets are crème of the crop of any air force. They are crucial for protecting a country’s airspace, a thing Argentina learned that the hard way during the Falklands war. But what became of its air force later?
According to British accounts, the Argentinian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Argentina, FAA) was a capable and respected adversary during the conflict that unfolded in the South Atlantic in 1982. It inflicted heavy casualties upon the British task force and operated extremely well in difficult conditions.
Despite that, it barely had a capability to engage British aircraft and suffered losses upon trying to do so. It was mostly due to the lack of aerial refueling capability of their Mirage III and Dagger (refurbished IAI Nesher) fighters, which limited them to an anti-ship role.
Both types of jets were comparatively new at the beginning of the war though, a result of heavy modernization during the 70s. The post-war arms embargo, coupled with war-time losses, left the FAA stagnant. Even more, the UK continued to inflict losses on the Argentinian Air Force even in peace-time conditions, dealing blows heavier than those inflicted by their missiles.
That is when the strangeness begins. At first, unable to purchase any foreign arms, Argentina tried to do what it did numerous times before: design a domestic fighter jet.
It was called the SAIA 90 and designed at Fábrica Argentina de Aviones which produced the Pulqui I and the Pulqui II – South America’s first fighter jets from the late 40s and early 50s. The SAIA 90 was supposed to be a sleek, modern 4th generation fighter somewhat reminiscent of the F/A-18, developed together with the German manufacturer Dornier and built using whatever parts from foreign contractors were available.
A render of SAIA 90 (Image: Sravps / Wikipedia)
As part of grandiose plans to reequip much of its military, the project proved to be more than the country can handle. One by one, other design projects – such as the domestic ballistic missile – were being closed due to the lack of funding, and SAIA 90’s turn came as well.
Its final blow came in the early 90s, as the arms embargo was lifted and it became apparent that purchasing foreign-made jets was cheaper and faster. Without any hesitation, Argentina started negotiations.
The first round was with Israel and the U.S., with possibilities to purchase either IAI Kfirs or General Dynamics F-16s on the table. Neither were successful and only several A-4AR Fightinghawk light attack jets were acquired. They could serve their purpose at least while the Falklands-vintage Mirages and Daggers worked; by mid-2010s, they did not.
Sensing the inevitability to retire the entire fighter jet fleet, Argentinian Air Force went for everything that was available. At first, talks with the French government regarding 16 Mirage F1s began. They fell through. Talks over Spain’s surplus Mirages had the same result, as did negotiations with Sweden over Gripens.
In all those cases, it was not because Argentina could not pay the price or had too high demands; UK, a supplier of at least a fraction of parts to all aforementioned jets, boycotted the sales. Argentina still held no small grudge over the fought-over islands – it never accepted British dominion over them. The possibility of the second Falklands war seemed too real for the UK, and it did everything it could not to allow Argentina to arm itself.
Israel, reportedly unwilling to damage its relationship with Britain, stalled their renewed negotiations for Kfirs without any vetoes. They were renewed at least for a couple of times later, but never really took off. The war was over for two decades, but the cold situation over a mostly-barren piece of rock in the middle of a cold ocean still had profound impact over Argentine military capability.