New thinking on the armed forces after Argentina loses a submarine

ARGENTINES have given up hope of finding alive the 44 crew aboard the ARA San Juan, the most modern of the navy’s three submarines, which disappeared on November 15th. On November 23rd the navy said an explosion had been detected in the area where the submarine is thought to have been.

The apparent tragedy has started a debate about the role of Argentina’s 105,000-strong armed forces and the money spent on them. Since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983, a year after Argentina’s failed attempt to wrest the Falkland Islands from Britain by force, successive governments have reduced military spending. It has dropped from 3.5% of GDP in 1978 to less than 1% last year. Argentina spends a lower share of GDP than any of its neighbours on its armed forces (see chart).

Little of the money goes towards arms and equipment. The defence ministry spends about 70% of its budget on salaries and pensions (about a third of the United States’ defence spending is on personnel). Argentina compounds stinginess with inefficiency: the army, navy and air force run separate bases in Antarctica.

Austerity has often caused embarrassment. In 2013 the destroyer Santísima Trinidad keeled over in harbour; the navy took three years to refloat her. In 2014 the submarine fleet spent just 19 hours under water. In 2015 Mirage fighter jets could not fly on cloudy days because of problems with their instruments. Next year, when Argentina will host the G20 summit, the government may rent fighter jets from Brazil.

Argentines speculate that corner-cutting or corruption contributed to the loss of the San Juan. The navy insists she was in “perfect condition” when she set out, but there is evidence to the contrary. In 2011, after an overhaul, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was then president, declared the submarine fit for “another 30 years’ service”. But an investigation by the defence ministry, reported on November 26th this year by La Nación, a newspaper, suggests that the bidding process for the contract to replace batteries contained “irregularities” to favour certain suppliers.

Argentines now think that the armed forces need reform, but they do not agree on what form it should take. First, the country needs to decide what its foreign-policy goals are, argues Santiago Rivas of IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy.

Argentina’s cold-war-era weaponry is designed to counter conventional threats that no longer exist. Despite sabre-rattling, Ms Fernández pursued its claim to the Falkland Islands through diplomacy. Argentina is on good terms with its neighbours. In 1985 Raúl Alfonsín, then Argentina’s president, concluded a “treaty of peace and friendship” with Chile, ending a long-running border dispute. The risk of conflict with Brazil was reduced by the creation of Mercosur, a regional trade bloc, in 1991.

Most defence experts agree that Argentina, the world’s eighth-largest country by area, needs fighter jets, ships and submarines to deter potential enemies. Some say the armed forces should also deal with drug-trafficking, terrorism and illegal fishing. That would require a change in the law. In 2006 Néstor Kirchner, Ms Fernández’s husband and predecessor, decreed that the armed forces could only confront “external aggressions”. The aim was to prevent another coup. The current president, Mauricio Macri, argues the rule is too restrictive.

Expanding the armed forces’ role might require spending more than the government can afford. It is trying to cut the budget deficit, which was 4.6% of GDP last year before debt-service payments. The search for the San Juan goes on. The hunt for a military strategy and armed forces to match it will take longer.

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