Sad and Hopeful Tales of Extinct Air Forces
Argentina’s air power wastes away as The Philippines revives its own fighters
Air power is tough. All the world’s air forces work hard to maintain old warplanes and acquire expensive new ones and still fund adequate training—all in the context of national strategy and air power doctrine that can be complex, confusing, even self-defeating.
So it should come as no surprise that, sometimes, countries fail to do air power right—or at all. Case in point, Argentina, which once possessed one of Latin America’s leading air forces but now is on the verge of entirely losing its jet fighters.
Fortunately, extinction isn’t always forever. Just ask the air force of The Philippines, which lost its own fast jets in 2005 but is now steadily acquiring new fighters.
Some countries never really possessed meaningful air power. Haiti, for instance. Others voluntarily gave up entire categories of aerial capability for budgetary or policy reasons.
New Zealand, for example, grounded its A-4 Skyhawk fighters in 2001 and never replaced them, figuring that its geographic isolation adequately protects it from airborne attack. Today the island nation is one of the few industrial states without an armed fast-jet force.
But Argentina does need fighters. The country aspires to be a regional power. Buenos Aires claims several surrounding territories that Chile and the United Kingdom also claim.
For all that, the Argentine government can’t seem to maintain an air force. On the eve of the brief, bitter Falklands War with Great Britain in 1982, Argentina possessed one of Latin America’s most powerful air arms, with more than 400 warplanes including no fewer than 111 fairly modern fighters.
The Brits shot down or blew up on the ground as many as a third of Buenos Aires’ warplanes during two months of bloody fighting. Amid civil strife and economic hardship, after the war Argentina struggled to sustain its fast jet fleet.
Santiago Rivas of Combat Aircraft magazine has covered the Latin American state’s martial woes better than anyone. “The Argentine military suffers from the government’s lack of attention and very poor planning,” Rivas wrote. In 2011, military spending accounted for around .75 percent of GDP, a small fraction of what most countries spend.
On paper, the Fuerza Aérea Argentina and Armada Argentina possess around 60 fighters, almost all of them of 1970s-vintage—20 Mirages, some 30 Skyhawks and 10 Super Etendards.
In reality, perhaps only a dozen or so of the planes are airworthy, according to Rivas. “Just a few Mirages are now in flying condition,” he wrote. “Most of Mirages’ systems are non-operational.”
Of the 33 Skyhawks, just a “few” are operational and half are grounded as a source of spares. All of the Super Etendards are grounded.
In 2015, the air force plans to retire the Mirages and “recover” a few of the non-flying Skyhawks to replace them. But the A-4s themselves “are approaching the end of their service lives,” Rivas warned.
The navy wants to buy French Super Etendards once Paris retires them and pillage the decommissioned planes for components to upgrade the Argentine planes. But the French birds might not be available until 2016 or later.
Buenos Aires has floated vague plans to acquire 24 new Gripen fighters from the assemble line that Brazil is setting up. But if Argentina can’t afford to repair an A-4 from the 1970s, it’s hard to see how it can spare a billion dollars for Gripens.
The end result is that in coming years “the air force will likely lose it combat aircraft component altogether,” Rivas wrote. Argentina will join Haiti and New Zealand as fighter-less countries.
But not because it necessarily wants to do so. Buenos Aires just can’t seem to match ambition, planning and resources.
Now consider The Philippines, which has suffered its own economic and political woes and currently spends roughly the same percentage of its GDP on the armed forces that Argentina does.
But in contrast to Argentina, The Philippines has responded to escalating territorial disputes with an aggressive China by modernizing. Eight years ago, Manila grounded its last airworthy F-5 fighter. Now the government is rebuilding its fast jet force in a determined way.
In 2012 the Philippine air force selected South Korea’s FA-50 light fighter as its new fast jet. The two governments signed a $300-million contract in early 2014. The first two FA-50s will arrive in September 2015, followed by six more in 2016 and another four the following year.
In late 2014, the air force tapped three veteran pilots to travel to South Korea for training on the FA-50. The three will become The Philippines’ new fast-jet instructors as the country aims to restore its high-end air-combat capability in around three years’ time.
“Suffice it to say, we’ll be back to supersonic again,” said Philippine air force colonel Ernesto Miguel Okol.
Somewhere in the conceptual middle, Argentina’s and The Philippines’ air arms will meet—one fading into extinction, the other clawing its way back from the brink.