At a glance, cartography of maritime lines of communication, chokepoints and even submarine cables seem to be enough evidence of today’s irrelevance of the South Atlantic in world geopolitics. In fact, apart from some freedom of navigation operation conducted over the past few years, the US Navy’s regular presence in Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) came via Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates until their retirement in 2015, and it has been largely limited to the occasional participation to exercise with South American navies as part of the UNITAS series—US Navy’s longest-running annual multilateral exercise. Nevertheless, a closer look at this vast area tells a different story when considering its economic wealth and situations involving Argentina, such as the illegal massive fishing fleets in its exclusive economic zone, unilateral decisions regarding fishing licenses and hydrocarbon exploration around Malvinas Islands, as well as overlapping claims in Antarctica, all of which could spark conflict if not managed carefully.
On March 2016, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a body established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted a presentation submitted by Argentina to extend its outer limit through the expansion of its continental shelf. Such good news gave the sea its 15 minutes of fame, but the next day Argentineans turned their back to the South Atlantic once again. Now that ‘Pampa Azul’ project has been reactivated—a soft version of the Brazilian ‘Amazônia Azul’, focused on the establishment of marine protected areas—, this strange behavior could certainly reemerge in times when Argentina needs to improve its patrol, surveillance and control capabilities whether by aircraft or ships at sea.
A Navy beyond prestige
Things were quite different at some point in history. With 6 Giuseppe Garibadi-class armored cruisers and 4 Havok-class torpedo boat destroyers among other several naval assets strategically deployed all along Argentina’s coastline and heartland, the Argentine Navy (ARA) rapidly achieved blue water status by the end of the 19th century in an effort to catch up with Chile—a conflicting neighbor whose repeated incursions had previously motivated an expedition to the Patagonian Sea in 1878, in times when the ARA was just a river force conceived to fight Brazil. The arms race stopped briefly due to a peace agreement in 1902, after which Argentina had to get rid of its remaining Garibaldis still under construction, selling them to the Imperial Japanese Navy—renamed Kasuga and Nisshin, decisive in the battle of Tsushima. Nevertheless, before the beginning of the ‘dreadnought race’, the ARA remained an ocean force up to Argentina’s rising power status, as shown by the pioneering rescue mission of the Nordenskjöld expedition in Antarctica in 1903 by the ARA Uruguay corvette, the same year the ARA Sarmiento was visited by Tsar Nicholas II while on its third instruction trip around the world.
The ARA’s prominent role in the country’s foreign policy can be appreciated in operations conducted at the beginning of 1948—which gave the toponym ‘Mar de la Flota’ (Sea of the Fleet) to the Bransfield strait—or in the Bahía Esperanza incident in 1952, where the ARA Bahía Buen Suceso crew opened fire against RRS John Biscoe, which was attempting to re-establish and supply a burnt down British base in Antarctica. In fact, a year later, a retired Rear Admiral who was heading the Senate was sent in Argentina’s representation to the coronation of Elizabeth II with the special mission of buying Malvinas Islands, in times when war was still not seen as the best option to solve the controversy opened since 1833.Moreover, Argentina deployed 2 of its destroyers to join a multinational effort for a naval blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, keeping a clear position in the South Atlantic later on as the Fletcher-class destroyer ARA Almirante Storni opened fire and harassed the survey and science vessel RSS Shackleton some 6 nautical miles off Puerto Argentino in 1976, also deploying its fleet the next year to capture several Soviet and Bulgarian fishing vessels.
The South Atlantic War in 1982 saw two US allies fighting each other amid Cold War with Western arms, in the main naval combat scenario since the Pacific War and the last naval air battle of the 20th century. In less than 3 months, for the first time in history a nuclear-powered submarine (HMS Conqueror) sunk another ship in combat (ARA General Belgrano) and the HMS Sheffield became the first UK sunk ship since World War II. Despite US and Chile provided critical support to the UK, Argentinean pilots sunk and damaged a significant number of British surface combatant units and still claim having engaged the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, a fact the UK repudiates. A more simple-minded general public uncapable of considering events beyond a football match would label this conflict as just a crazy adventure of a dying de facto regime. Instead, the conflict itself exposed the weaknesses of a modern navy and is still considered an excellent case study even for the US Navy, as it prepares for potential fights with the People’s Republic of China over contested islands in the Western Pacific.
Rough seas ahead
Shortly after the war and thanks to preexisting contracts, the ARA received several new MEKO 360 and MEKO 140 units, TR-1700 submarines and the rest of the highly efficient battle-tested Super Étendard-AM-39 Exocet system, which were added to its Type 42 destroyers, A-69 D’Estienne d’Orves corvettes, TNC45s and Dabur-class boats already in its inventory. Back then, despite almost 4 decades of service in 3 different navies, several modifications to the Colossus-class ARA 25 de Mayo had enabled her to operate with Super Étendards, something Brazil had been unable to do until it bought a few second-hand Skyhawks from Kuwait and made them fly at the beginning of this century from NAeL Minas Gerais, just before the arrival of her French substitute, Foch (R 99).
In the 1990s, the ARA remained operational far beyond its coastline, adopting an active global role as part of Argentina’s broader foreign policy aimed to align the country with the US, under the influence of an international relations approach known as ‘peripheral realism’. This is the case of its participation in the United Nations Observer Group in Central America (ONUCA)—where Argentina became the first UN member to employ naval forces in this type of mission—as well as in Desert Shield/Desert Storm and Uphold Democracy operations. As a result, and having previously given up on its ambitions on the more controversial nuclear and ballistic fields, the country became the first Major Non-NATO Ally designated after the Cold War and the first in Latin America. Nevertheless, those were the days when Argentina also decided to sell for scrap both its aircraft carrier and tank landing ship without any replacement in sight, inexplicably dismantling its merchant fleet and naval industry, leaving 2 unfinished TR-1700s behind. This was just the omen of the death of its blue water navy. What happened next may not be suitable for all audiences.
The collision course adopted since 2003, which positioned Argentina as a minor-league country in world politics, deliberately undermined the ARA’s ethos and added confusion to its mission due to a myriad of doctrinal and organizational misconceptions. Maybe the most explicit image of this chaotic administration is the detention of the training ship ARA Libertad in Ghana in 2012 due to unpaid sovereign debt. A new president took office in 2015, designated people with no relevant expertise to forefront the Defense Ministry and failed to avoid the comeback of the populist regime.
In February this year, the first of 4 Gowind-class units acquired by the previous administration arrived from France, after being shadowed by HMS Sabre of the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron. A few months later, she was on the news after capturing a Chinese fishing boat and escorting USS Tripoli through Argentinean waters. A closer look at her bow could eventually make someone wonder where the gun is, as it may be well hidden in her stealthy design. The truth is, until its arrival by the end of October, there was no gun nor date for its coming. Considering this, the name of the Argentinean OPV could not be more appropriate. The ARA Bouchard honors a man who made the Argentinean flag wave in Spanish’ Monterrey in 1818, being in command of nothing more than 2 ships and a few brave men as part of an improvised privateering expedition, also exporting revolutionary ideals from Buenos Aires to Central America—making white and blue colors being adopted by several flags in the region—even reaching Hawaii, gaining Argentina’s recognition by Kamehameha I.
What comes next?
Any of the following options will lead to a different scenario, each of them determining the ARA’s fate:
1. Doing nothing or deliberately making decisions tending to increasingly dismantle its naval force, until reaching a point of no return where the ARA turns into another useless bureaucratic branch of its armed forces. This option includes no investment, but just unnecessary revisionist debates based on persecutory delusions, and plans to restructure the institution made out of tons of paper after endless hours of PowerPoint slides.
2. Buying cheap second-hand non-lethal scrap to overextend its service life, fooling itself it keeps the ARA up to its mission somehow. Decisions like this would occasionally be supported by the ARA top military leadership, considering them as ‘better than nothing’, when nothing means another step towards extinction.
3. Buying a few Western arms or upgrading the ones it still has in service—MEKO’s modular design was particularly conceived to ease this process—, compromising the ARA’s ability to successfully accomplish its mission due to embargoes every time the UK sees a threat to its interests 8,000 miles away from 10 Downing St. Bearing this in mind, the potential acquisition of the Norwegian Ula-class may not be the most intelligent option after the tragic loss of ARA San Juan, considering its submarine acoustic signature could be well known by British forces after decades of NATO interoperability. A way to mitigate the mentioned risk could be to indigenously design, develop and upgrade its weapons systems. Argentina is certainly up to this challenge, both inside and outside the ARA.
4. Providing itself with an affordable proper deterrence at sea through a no-strings attached arms deal with an extra-regional power, or jointly agreeing to design and develop weapons up to the ARA’s mission with countries outside NATO. Though widely preferred, weapons made in the U.S. and Europe are no longer the only reliable options on the market. Other alternatives could become a game-changer in the South Atlantic, specially the Chinese one. There is a comprehensive strategic partnership between Argentina and China, which could go beyond the provision of combat uniforms, as the Chinese Space-Monitoring Base placed in Neuquén shows.
Would the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic be the perfect excuse to postpone once again the need of a naval force in line with the threats and challenges Argentina faces, in order to survive in an anarchic international system? Taking into account it took 10 years to put Argentina’s icebreaker ARA Irizar back into active service after a major fire in 2007, and based on the fact the Defense budget has been under 1% of Argentina’s gross domestic product over the past decades, one could assume that, despite the Congress’ recent approval of the Fondo Nacional de Defensa (FONDEF), there will be no key investments in order to strengthen its naval forces but only a number of projects, rumors and announcements which will be nothing but smoke and mirrors—i.e., the Defense Minister said in 2010 a nuclear submarine was going to be build, apparently out of an unfinished TR-1700 covered in rust after almost 2 decades in a shipyard.
Meanwhile, even though the entire ARA’s active personnel graduated after the return of governmental power to civil Argentine authority in 1983, an outdated and biased legislation was resuscitated in June this year where the role of the ARA is strictly limited to fight aggressions from third state armed forces, far from any involvement in dealing with violence and instability caused by transnational criminal organizations. Whatever course of action with a positive outcome in mind for Argentina should consider maritime domain awareness (MDA) requires both ARA and Coast Guard operating together as a single fleet towards a common goal.
Lessons are out there in the Southern Cone. Once Argentina’s rivals, Brazil and Chile see their respective navies as institutions beyond circumstances at any given time in history. They see the importance of their naval forces in a strategic horizon, as their most recent acquisitions show—with the limitations inherent in developing countries—, and no one takes them too seriously to the point of labelling them as part of an ‘arms race’, but just as an effort to adapt their fleets to the challenges in the years to come.
Improvisation has always been part of naval operations. In fact, those leading to the sinking of the HMS Sheffield, HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope and SS Atlantic Conveyor were all carried out by a land-based naval aviation amid the South Atlantic War. Not to mention the fact a MM-38 Exocet incredibly launched from shore slammed into HMS Glamorgan.Nevertheless, when it comes to foreign policy, there is no room for improvisation.
While British military operations continue to take place in waters claimed by Argentina, the quest of support to its cause through multilateralism has failed so far to seriously meet Argentina’s expectations regarding Malvinas, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. Why keep walking exclusively on this path when a possible collapse of the Antarctic Treaty System could make sovereignty claims reemerge in the White Continent? Would Argentina be able to defend its interests relying on the power of words in the Southernmost part of the Atlantic after more than 100 years of continuous presence in Antarctica? Neither naval power nor the ability to succeed in combat can be achieved overnight. Maybe putting things this way, Argentina finally recovers some maritime consciousness and stops excluding hard power once and for all when it comes to thinking about a strategy towards the South Atlantic.