Over British objections, the United States is selling Argentina 36 A-4 Skyhawks with advanced radar to replace some of the jet attack planes lost by the Argentines in their 1982 war against Britain over the Falkland Islands.
Argentina will get the used American planes cheap--$200,000 to $300,000 each, according to one source--but it will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to have them refurbished and refitted.
The work will include installation of a Westinghouse radar system, classified as sensitive military technology, which Washington authorized despite the British opposition. Lockheed Aircraft Service Co., an Ontario-based subsidiary of the Lockheed Corp., is offering to do a major share of the refurbishing, as well as operate an aircraft manufacturing and maintenance plant in Argentina.
The Skyhawk deal signals growing U.S. trust in Argentina nearly 12 years after it invaded the Falklands, claiming sovereignty over the islands, which are a British possession.
Since taking office in 1989, President Carlos Saul Menem has emphasized a policy of harmony with the United States and its Western allies. Argentina has participated in U.N. peacekeeping missions, dismantled its only missile plant and signed the Tlatelolco treaty against nuclear arms in Latin America.
Menem has also pledged repeatedly that Argentina will never again use force to back its historic claim to the Falklands, which Argentines call the Malvinas.
Argentina lost 60 to 70 aircraft, mostly Skyhawks, in the two-month war. For the last two years, it has been negotiating with the United States for the 36 replacement planes, A-4M Skyhawk IIs.
The A-4M is a sub-sonic, single-seat aircraft with a Pratt & Whitney jet engine. An upgraded version of the A4A first built in the 1950s by McDonnell Douglas, it can be fitted with 20- or 30-millimeter cannon and can carry 10,000 pounds of bombs, rockets, missiles or torpedoes.
Argentine officials say they want the planes and radar mostly for training purposes. U.S. officials say they will help Argentina respond to "legitimate defense needs" without upsetting the military balance in southern South America. Brazil and Chile, Argentina's biggest neighbors, have expressed no concern.
Last year, Argentina invited McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed and British-based Smiths Industries to submit bids for refurbishing the planes, which had been used by the U.S. Marines. Smiths won the competition and planned to contract the work under U.S. Navy management.
Total cost was estimated at $250 million. The planes are to be given new engines, avionics systems and radar fire-control systems.
In early February, Argentina said it wanted to give Lockheed a new chance to participate in the refurbishing. The Argentines are hoping to combine that deal into a package that would include reviving a military airplane factory at Cordoba, 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires.
The Cordoba plant had been building Pampa jet trainers, but with no current sales contracts, it has fallen idle. Lockheed has proposed using the plant not only for refurbishing Skyhawks, but also as a permanent regional maintenance and repair center.
For example, Lockheed might use the plant to service more than 100 C-130 Hercules transport planes operated by South American armed forces. Argentine officials also hope that they eventually can sell Pampas to the U.S. armed services.
Argentina's New Weapon
At $200,000 to $300,000 each, according to one source--the American A-4 Skyhawk come cheap. But Argentina will spend hundreds of millions to have them refurbished and refitted.
A-4 SKYHAWK Introduced: 1956 Speed: 670 m.p.h. Crew: One Range: 2,400 miles Length: 41 feet Wing span: 28 feet Builder: Douglas Aircraft, a division of McDonnell Douglas Mission: Light, single-jet aircraft is used in attack squadrons. Well-suited to destroying surface targets in support of landing force.
Source: U.S. Marine Corps