COLUMN | Argentina’s once-proud navy struggles to survive [Naval Gazing]

The US Coast Guard cutter USCGC Escanaba (WMEC 907), Brazlian Navy ship BNS Bosisio (F 48) and Argentinian navy ship ARA Almirante Brown (D-10) move into formation for a photo exercise during the Atlantic phase of UNITAS 52 on May 4, 2011. The formation included a total of ten ships from the US, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Steve Smith)

Argentina’s naval force, the Armada de la Republica Argentina (ARA) has a long and proud history. For many years the ARA vied with the navies of Brazil and Chile for supremacy in South American seas. The ARA order of battle eventually included an aircraft carrier, cruisers, and modern submarines,

The service also wielded considerable domestic political clout. The recent history of the service has, though, been of sharp decline.

“Argentina’s dire economic state and the desire of successive governments to ensure the armed forces remain incapable of staging a coup d’etat have kept the ARA starved of funds.”

Land-based ARA warplanes inflicted significant damage on the British Task Force during the Falklands (Malvinas) War in 1982, but its warships had little impact. The loss of the cruiser General Belgrano, torpedoed by the British nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, caused Buenos Aires to withdraw its Skyhawk fighter-bomber-equipped, potentially game-changing aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco del Mayo from the conflict.

The ARA subsequently lost two patrol craft, a transport ship, and a submarine to British action, while a number of attacks by Argentine submarines on British warships failed.

Following the conflict, and the ejection of the ruling military junta from power, Argentina’s dire economic state and, some say, the desire of successive governments to ensure the country’s armed forces remain incapable of staging a coup d’etat have kept the ARA starved of funds.

Also, sensitivity to ongoing tensions between UK and Argentina over the Falklands have caused some nations to decline to supply military equipment to Argentina. The combined effect of these factors upon the ARA has been disastrous.

The ARA continues, for the time being at least, to maintain some deep-sea presence, to take part in exercises with other navies, and to provide seagoing training for some officers of the landlocked Paraguayan and Bolivian navies.  Its decline as a viable blue water naval force seems set to continue, though, with some analysts predicting it will eventually become a middle water force, with limited combat capability.

“This erosion of Argentine naval capabilities has impacted upon the regional balance of power.”

According to recent reports, many of the ARA’s ships are incapable of putting to sea due to unserviceability. Numerous weapon systems are inoperative due to lack of spares and maintenance. One of the ARA’s four 3,500-tonne, 1980s-vintage MEKO 360H2 Almirante Brown-class destroyers, ARA Heroina, is inoperative, and reportedly in such poor condition that it will be scrapped.

The Type 42 destroyer ARA Santisima Trinidad capsized and sank alongside a jetty in 2013.

The Argentine Navy’s Espora-class corvette ARA Gomez Roca during Exercise Southern Seas 2010 (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Barker)

Of the service’s six MEKO 140A16 Espora-class corvettes, two are reportedly inoperative, while only one of the three French-built Drummond-class corvettes is active.

Argentina currently has no operational submarines. This is a major blow to the ARA’s viability as a combat force. Two German-built TR1700 subs, ARA Salta and ARA Santa Cruz, are laid up, while sister boat ARA San Juan was lost at sea with all hands in 2017.

There is an active proposal for the ARA to receive four surplus Tupi-class submarines from Brazil. Progress is awaited; the funding of essential refit and upgrade work is proving to be a stumbling block.

Important units known to be still active include the ex-French replenishment tanker ARA Patagonia and the British-built destroyer ARA Hercules, sister ship to the ill-fated Santisima Trinidad. Hercules has been converted in Chile from an air defence ship to a Special Forces support vessel.

The icebreaker ARA Almirante Irizar is often deployed in support of Argentine interests in the Antarctic.

One country still willing to furnish the ARA with equipment is France, and the commissioning in 2019 of ARA Bouchard, a modern, former French Navy 1,450-tonne helicopter-capable patrol ship, provided a boost for the service’s morale. Three newbuild ships of the same type are due to be delivered by the end of 2023. Paris is reportedly underwriting the cost of the project.

Russia has sensed political and financial opportunity, and in 2015 supplied the ARA with four 1980s-vintage, Polish- built 2,800-tonne, 81-metre, multi-purpose offshore support vessels. Their duties include maintaining the integrity of Argentina’s sea areas, search and rescue, salvage, and conducting Antarctic patrols. They have little combat capability.

Russia is now reportedly proposing a barter arrangement to supply the Argentines with second-hand Kilo-class submarines.

This erosion of Argentine naval capabilities has impacted upon the regional balance of power and Argentina’s international standing, and a revival of the fortunes of the ARA does not seem likely any time soon.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.