A document claimed to be an official paper from the Argentine government has recently been made public. It is a response to a question raised in the lower house of the country’s parliament

by Girish Linganna

According to the document, the Argentine government has formally revealed the specifications for its next supersonic fighter acquisition programme and the aircraft under consideration. These include the Lockheed Martin F-16, the Mikoyan MiG-35, and the HAL TEJAS.

Argentinean defence officials were responding to an official questionnaire regarding the $664 million allocated for purchasing 12 new JF-17Cs. The document reveals that they stated that the offer includes not just the 12 warplanes but also transport, spare parts, simulators, facility, and infrastructure modifications system. Additionally, the deal would offer maintenance equipment (including electronics and composite materials), training, spare engines, weapons, and ammunition.

Argentinian authorities also said that a knowledge transfer might be included in the contract for extra money. This would allow Argentina to manufacture JF-17 components indigenously.

The document also records the officials disclosing the criteria set by the nation’s Air Force- Fuerza AĆ©rea Argentina (FAA)- for its new fighter. Its requirements include multirole capability, supersonic flight, AESA radar, and tactical data link. The service also needs in-flight refuelling capacity compatible with the FAA’s refuelling aircraft. Of course, the cost per hour of each aircraft is also under consideration. FAA estimates suggest that the price would be $7,600/hr for JF-17, $10,000/hr for F-16, $12,000/hr for TEJAS, and $18,000 for MiG-35.

According to the official report, the weapon system of the JF-17 would consist of “short and medium-range Chinese missiles for integrated aerospace defence,” or the PL-10E and PL-12 missiles. The paper adds that none of the fighter’s components, including the ejection seats, are of British origin. This is crucial for Buenos Aires since the UK has often sabotaged defence deals for Argentina by embargoing important British components that go into exported equipment.

The investigation concludes that 90% of Chinese-made JF-17 components are interchangeable with Pakistan-made JF-17s and that there are no “restrictions on acquisitions from Pakistan.”

Argentina’s Interest In TEJAS

The media stated on 15 September 2021 that the Argentinian draught budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022 included $664 million for procuring twelve JF-17 Thunder Block III aircraft. The government refuted that it had decided to purchase the JF-17.

In a surprise announcement in August 2022, India acknowledged that the Government of Argentina had shown interest in the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) “TEJAS” built by the state-owned giant Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). If the sale goes through, HAL must modify the TEJAS to meet South American specifications.

During his two-day official visit to Argentina in August this year, External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar also discussed TEJAS. During his talk with Argentine Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero, EAM Jaishankar spoke about continued collaboration in vital areas such as Defence, Nuclear Energy, and Space.

EAM, recognising the South American nation’s interest in TEJAS- a Made-in-India product- for its Air Force, emphasised the proposal’s significance in improving the bilateral relationship’s strategic dimension.

The British Components

It is well known that Argentina has been unable to procure fighter aircraft from other countries due to the restrictions imposed by the UK government. JF-17 thus appears to be a “compromise choice” as it has no British components. Theoretically, the JF-17 is a perfect candidate for the Argentine Air Force requirement. Still, the country seems hesitant to buy it from China and is exploring its options to buy it from Pakistan instead. The document suggests that Buenos Aires is not too happy with the situation. The Argentine government has been exploring the possibility of purchasing alternatives.

Amid this uncertainty, the Indian government has assured that HAL can deliver the TEJAS by substituting the British components with alternatives. Better choices can be arranged from the rest of the world instead of the Chinese parts that Argentina is reluctant to buy.

TEJAS contains between 60 and 75 per cent indigenous content based on the quantity of line replaceable units (LRUs). The Argentine Air Force has raised concern over the British LRUs. The United Kingdom is the source of 15 to 17 LRUs out of 360.

A Radome is an electromagnetically transparent protective barrier that encloses the antenna and mmWave Radar sensors. It provides a structural, weatherproof shell that shields the mmWave antenna and electronics from external environmental impacts such as rain, sunshine, and wind. The TEJAS featured a Radome manufactured by Cobham Limited, a British aerospace company. Probably, the indigenous Uttam radars will replace it.

Additionally, Cobham provides the in-flight refuelling probe for TEJAS, which can be sourced from non-British manufacturers.

Dunlop, a Scottish manufacturer, provides TEJAS tyres. MRF Tires, an Indian company, is supposedly replacing Dunlop.

HAL is exploring new indigenous solutions from the Indian sector, including several Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), such as Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), to clinch the Argentine contract.

Ejector seats are an essential safety element and component of fighter planes. Martin Baker, a British company, manufactures ejection seats for more than 90 air forces worldwide. The TEJAS has a Martin-Baker ejection seat. Martin Baker invented the ‘zero-zero’ ejection seat, which guarantees the safe extraction and landing of the whole crew at zero velocity and zero altitude. To assure the completion of the Argentine order, HAL must undertake the demanding process of identifying a suitable alternative without concessions.

HAL is now negotiating with the Russian producer of ejection seats, NPP Zvezda. The K-36 ejection seat competes with the Martin Baker model. NPP Zvezda was once on the verge of securing contracts for the F-22 Raptor and the Joint Strike Fighter. Currently, the K-36 is installed in Russian fighter aircraft like the MiG-29, Su-27, Su-30, and Su-57. K-36 is an identical zero-zero ejection seat to Martin Baker.

Argentina’s Expanded Opportunities

Argentina suddenly has three options, besides the JF-17, to procure fighters. The Indian TEJAS, the US-made F-16, and the Russian MiG-35. TEJAS and MiG-35 present more potent alternatives to the JF-17. Both aircraft are powerful and more capable than the Chinese-Pakistani aircraft. The repeated mention of the JF-17 appears to be more historical than practical. JF-17 Block-III is a technologically outdated aircraft and an obsolete design. The Chinese have been developing more advanced versions of the JF-17, but it remains an ancient design. JF-17 and J-10s may appeal to Pakistan due to the strategic autonomy it requires from the US, but Argentina has no such issues other than what stems from the British government’s restrictions. Argentina need not restrict itself to buying only Chinese aircraft as now it can procure from other countries. It is a fact that only Pakistan is happy with the Chinese weapons systems. With a trade and technology war between the Chinese and the US looming, the republic may find it challenging to sustain diplomatic and economic relations with Washington.

Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defence at Frontier India