According to Flight Global, the Argentine Air Force is reequipping. The local English-language press doesn’t seem to have the news; with the black market exchange rate now at fifteen pesos to the dollar (it was one-to-one when I lived there in 1998), there are more pressing issues to cover. But if the report is accurate, Argentina is buying 14 Kfir Block 60s from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for about $500 million. I have two immediate reactions: the first is that this purchase alone probably doesn’t change the balance of power over the Falkland Islands. The second, though, is that the sale may signal a trend towards more retrofits in the combat aircraft market.
The Kfir, it must be said, is a highly derivative concept. It’s more-or-less an IAI Nesher with a General Electric J79 engine instead of a SNECMA Atar. The Nesher, in turn, is an Israeli derivative of the Mirage V, which itself is the ground attack version of the Mirage III. That plane first flew in 1956. You’d know so looking at it—the manned-missile delta-wing look almost screams Buddy Holly. What’s different is that the Block 60s will be totally rebuilt aircraft with Elta EL/M-2052 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. On The National Interest yesterday, Dave Majumdar wondered whether the Israelis would be throwing in some helmet-mounted cueing systems and Python-5 high off-boresight missiles. That’s like putting satellite radio and GPS navigation in a Ford Fairlane—anachronistic, perhaps, but a sweet ride.
The aircraft, once they arrive, will fill a looming gap. Also according to Flight Global, the entire Mirage fleet—basically the entire 6th Air Brigade—is being retired this month. That’s an impressive-sounding wing-level title, but its whole operational force now consists of only about 8 Mirage IIIs, 4 Mirage 5s and 4 Neshers. Those 16 aircraft are not quite half the fighter-bomber force. Argentina has five airbases around Patagonia from which those Mirages could reach the Falklands—if they were airworthy—but their loiter time once there is (and was in 1982) unimpressive. They also can carry just two air-to-air missiles on a strike. The 14 Kfir 60s are meant to replace the 16 Mirages, but as two-missile airplanes with short-range missiles, they wouldn’t bring any more aerial firepower over the islands.
The other (more than) half are the 22 A-4AR Fightinghawks of the 5th Air Brigade. Thirty-six A-4ARs were assembled in Palmdale and Córdoba in the late 1990s, from kits supplied by Lockheed Martin—including avionics matching those of contemporaneous F-16s. Just 22 are said to be left in flying condition, but they have plenty of endurance for lingering over Port Stanley. The problem, again, is their armament. With just two Sidewinder-M missiles each, they are a questionable match for the four Typhoons at RAF Mount Pleasant, with AMRAAMs and ASRAAMs. Both missile types greatly outrange the Pythons, and a Typhoon can carry about eight of them. The math does not look good for the ingressors, and that’s without reinforcements flying down the Atlantic.
IAI has been offering refurbished aircraft with modernized electronics for some time, but no one expected that lead sleds from the ‘50s could give good account against fly-by-wire machines from even the ‘80s. Fairly, even refurbished engines and rebuilt airframes won’t make these new delta-winged planes better dogfighters, but that’s beside the point. As John Stillion of the CSBA showed in his study of Trends in Air-to-Air Combat, almost no one merges to a dogfight anymore. There are no tail-chases with modern missiles and radars: the successful fighter pilot just shoots the other guy in the face from beyond visual range (BVR) before he realizes he’s toast. If Argentine pilots could get a BVR missile, those new AESA radars could make them much more formidable opponents. They may not. The British government will work hard to ensure that no NATO country exports one, and integrating a Russian missile could be a serious engineering challenge.
In theory, though, for just $36 million each, the Fuerza Aérea Argentina is getting like-new fighter jets with BVR combat capability. They can’t carry many missiles, and they may not get BVR missiles at all. Those AESAs may or may not be able to detect Lockheed’s stealth fighters at a useful range. Regardless, most potential combatants will not, for a long time, find themselves fighting those, so similar retrofits offer to even the score in many places around the world. This sale, then, may signal a trend. When choosing between a tricked-out hot rod and a Joint Strike Fighter, if your geopolitical circumstances are right, one-quarter the price could be hard to beat.