F-16 Fighting Falcons from Eglin Air Force Base fly over a high school football game in Niceville, Fla., Sept. 24, 2021.

F-16 Fighting Falcons from Eglin Air Force Base fly over a high school football game in Niceville, Fla., Sept. 24, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Tristan McIntire

Sell F-16s to Argentina

A 40-year-old war should not give China an arms-supply toehold in Latin America.

On April 2, 1982, the Argentine junta sent heavily armed marines to take possession of the Malvinas Islands, the South Atlantic chain held for a century and a half by Britain. London responded with force and retook the islands in a 72-day war that left 900 dead, material losses on both sides, and a foreign-policy hangover that today threatens to drive Argentina’s defense buyers into Chinese or Russian arms. 

In recent years, various Argentine administrations have tried—and failed—to acquire foreign fighter aircraft to update the country’s aging Dessault Mirage III. But the British government has systematically pressed every Western country to deny the request. This leaves Buenos Aires with only Chinese or Russian options. Forty years after war, and with revisionist illiberal powers gaining influence in Latin America, Argentina must be allowed to join the nations that fly Western combat aircraft.

So much has changed in the last four decades. Argentina left behind its tumultuous history with military dictatorships, and while it still maintains its claim over the islands’ sovereignty, it has consistently made clear at the United Nations that it will only continue to do so through diplomatic means

Even if a future administration threatened to retake the islands by force, the Argentinean armed forces are in worse shape than they were four decades ago. In 1978, Argentina dedicated 4.7 percent of its GDP to military spending, more than doubling the Latin American average. But since the democratic transition, governments have reduced the share of defense spending to the 0.8 percent of GDP in 2021. It would take several decades for the southern country to recover the capabilities that could enable a military action on the islands. Argentina no longer has fighter aircraft, submarines, or an aircraft carrier. Buying jet aircraft would mean no threat to the U.K.

But the situation is pushing Argentina’s military closer to the main adversaries of international liberal order. After London vetoed attempts to buy Swedish Gripens from Brazil in 2015 and Korean FA-50s in 2021—both aircraft have British components in their design—the current Fernandez-Kirchner administration turned to Russian MiG-35s and Chinese-designed JF-17s. In 2021, Argentina’s Secretary for International Defense Relations visited Moscow and met with Rosonboronexport, which makes the MiGs. But the negotiations over the JF-17s advanced more. Last May, a special Air Force Committee travelled to China to test the aircraft and discussed buying at least 12 of them. Still, the Argentinean Armed Forces have expressed concern over the quality of Chinese military technology in the past. That is why negotiations are still open, and Argentinean Minister of Defense Jorge Taiana recently discussed the possibility of buying Lockheed Martin’s F-16s with Gen. Laura Richardson when the new USSOUTHCOM commander visited Buenos Aires last May. 

The United Kingdom’s efforts to deny Argentina basic air military capabilities through the purchase of fighter aircraft are an outdated policy and needs to change fast. Concerns over the Chinese secret space base in Patagonia or over President Fernandez’ recent remarks that “Argentina should be the gateway for Russian influence in Latin America” are justified. The Biden administration should act decisively and try to push for an F-16 purchase. If not, Argentina’s air force might soon have the first western pilots flying Chinese fighter jets.

Santiago Previde is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University SAIS, where he focused on strategic studies in Latin America. He now works as a political risk analyst.