By Girish Linganna
Even though, in the August of 2022, the Indian government admitted in its Parliament that over seven countries have been keen on procuring its indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, its manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), struggles to finalise an export deal. Amidst the hype around the Malaysian interest in fighter aircraft, Argentina’s South American nation has been engrossed in a peculiar situation. The Argentine-HAL predicament is fast becoming the classic TV trope, will they or won’t they?
Falkland Fault Lines
Off the Argentine coast lie the Falkland Islands. The group of islands have been a contentious issue between Argentina and the United Kingdom (UK). Initially, the islands were French settlements. However, later on, the British settled a part of it. Their stint on the Falklands was cut short by the Spaniards from whom the Argentines claimed their independence.
Given that the Spanish controlled the Falkland Islands at the time of Argentine independence, Argentina claimed the islands. However, the British never relinquished their claim to the same when the Spaniards drove them out. This contention led to military action by Argentina in 1982. However, the Falkland Islands War culminated in the Argentine surrender.
This has underscored the UK-Argentina relationship wherein the UK actively restricts any sale of defence equipment that carries any part made by a British firm. Mr Javier Garbarino, a journalist from the Argentine YouTube channel, Plusquambellum, highlighted that the Swedish Saab offered a tempting deal on the table. However, the UK again blocked the Gripen deal, given British origin components and its embargo.
The Great American Dream
In 2020, specific reports claimed that Argentina would award the contract to China for its JF-17 fighters. Reportedly, it has come out that the American government quickly influenced the Argentine deal and prevented Chinese defence dealings in its backyard.
While the United States (US) has quickly checked Chinese headways in South America, it is also trying to contain the UK. To this effect, the US has provided no alternative yet. Instead, under its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, the US offered sans weapons and pods, F-16 fighters from Lockheed Martin that were initially provided to the Danish air force. Under this deal, Argentina can procure 12 aircraft. However, it has asked to receive a further offer for air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, as well as at least one Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, to ensure air-to-air refuelling of the fighters.
“The Danish F-16 complicates the future regarding wanting to get newer versions because the British blockade will prevent it. And the LCA Tejas would be a perfect option. Further, if there is a collaboration with Fadea, that would be very tempting”, shared Mr Garbarino.
In conversation with Mr Garbarino, he reported that the Argentine side has struggled to fly its Russian arsenal given the Russo-Ukrainian war and the sanctions on Russia. Due to a lack of spare parts, he shared that two Russian Mi-171 helicopters have been grounded for over a year due to a lack of spare parts.
Argentina has been pondering over increasing its purchase from Russia, but given the current global context, it opted for CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the American manufacturer Boeing. This deal replaces the South American country’s agreement with Russia to procure Mi-26 helicopters.
In light of these developments, Mr Garbarino has underscored the Argentine hesitation in acquiring any aircraft that may contain Russian equipment that goes against any sanctions. He further highlighted that this rules the purchase of Mig-35 for Argentina. However, India’s relationship with the West and Russia and HAL’s recent offer to Malaysia, wherein it services their Russian fleet, gives confidence to Argentina. If a deal materialises, India will not only equip Argentina with credible fighters but also resuscitate its Russian helicopters.
Doldrums: HAL’s LCA Tejas Export to Argentina
Earlier, it was learnt that HAL would replace its various British-origin components to accommodate Argentina’s embargo concerns from the UK. From its tyre to its ejection seat, HAL has reportedly been working on manufacturing a win-win. However, the leader in ejection seats, Martin Baker, a British manufacturer, was said to be replaced by a Russian ejection seat.
In light of the Russian sanctions and their impact on defence exports, India would likely have to innovate or seek yet another manufacturer for the ejection seats of the LCA Tejas. According to Mr Garbarino, the deal may progress if India partners with the American ejection seat manufacturer, Collins Aerospace, a part of Raytheon Technologies. However, he has his reservations about such an arrangement.
Recently, Mr Sunil Raina, MD, Customer & Account Management, Collins Aerospace, India, shared the company’s eagerness to work with HAL on the LCA Tejas’ Mark 1A variant, which is HAL’s export variant for other countries, including Argentina. According to reports, Collins Aerospace’s legacy ejection seat, the ACES II, might be refitted into the Tejas for its Argentine variants. The ACES II has equipped the global fleet of F-16s. HAL will need to modify its Emergency Escape System Sequences and move for recertification trials.
Argentina can be an important market for the export of HAL products. However, Argentina is between a rock and a hard place. It must pacify the US, steer clear of the UK and watch its relationship with Russia while doing the best for its citizens and sovereignty. India’s foreign solid policy must activate itself to work for a stronger bilateral relationship. HAL’s helicopter line-up and other services can be helpful to the South American nation.
The author is Aerospace & Defence Analyst.
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