Argentina offers its five second-hand modernised Super Etendard strike aircraft to Ukraine

 17. 06. 2024      Category: Air force

Argentinian president Javier Milei approved a plan to support Ukraine's war effort against Russia, which launched an illegal war in Europe to fulfil Vladimir Putin's imperial dreams, with five modernised Super Etendard strike aircraft. There are questions to ask.

Picture: A Super Etendard for the Argentine Navy | Martín Otero
Picture: A Super Etendard for the Argentine Navy | Martín Otero

It is one thing to give Ukraine military equipment to help it counter Russia's invasion of its territory. But the equipment delivered must have real operational value. Hence the doubts about the Argentinian Government's plan to hand over to the Ukrainian Air Force the five Super Étendard Modernisé assault aircraft Argentina bought second-hand from France for €14 million in 2017. At the time, the purchase seemed like a good deal. Recently withdrawn from service by the French Navy, these aircraft were equipped with a "Saturn Have Quick" encrypted station, a Video Rover feed transmitter, a VHF/FM radio for communicating with troops on the ground and a Fightacs navigation board. Above all, they could carry a Damocles laser designation pod as well as GBU-49 250kg and GBU-58 125kg guided bombs.

At the same time the UK vetoed, due to understandable historical reasons, any sale of British components to Argentina, such as the Martin Baker Mk 4A ejection seats fitted to the Modernised Super Etendard. The good deal was in the end a fiasco, with the aircraft purchased unable to fly. And Argentina's anti-corruption office launched an investigation into the conditions of the purchase. In any case, even though an alternative could have been found, notably in the United States, the Argentine Ministry of Defence decided to remove the Super Étendard Modernisé from the Aviación Naval Argentina's inventory.

Now, according to information from the Argentinian online media InfoBae, Buenos Aires is considering selling the five aircraft to Ukraine: "Javier Milei approved a plan designed by Luis Petri (defence minister) and Diana Mondino (foreign affairs minister) to support Ukraine's war effort against Russia, which launched an illegal war in Europe to fulfil Vladimir Putin's imperial dreams. The idea is to send Volodimir Zelensky's Government five Super Etendard fighter jets that have been mothballed because of Britain's embargo against Argentina as a result of the Falklands War," says InfoBae.

Obviously, the agreement of the French authorities is required. But that's not all: according to the plan, it would be up to Paris to refit the five Super Etendards. Buenos Aires would also ask for military equipment in exchange: "Argentina would make a swap with France: the Super Etendards for other military equipment – drones or helicopters, according to the proposal – and Emmanuel Macron's administration would be in charge of fitting the new cartridges to the ejector seats so that the jets would be in a position to fight against Russia." According to InfoBae, the issue was raised by Ms Mondino at a meeting with Stéphane Séjourné, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, in February. It was also raised at a "secret meeting with NATO" in Brussels and during an exchange with Jake Sullivan, US President Joe Biden's national security adviser.

Is such a plan realistic? The Argentinian Super Étendard Modernisés haven't flown for eight years, so what state are they in? Secondly, quite apart from their intrinsic qualities, five aircraft will add practically nothing to the F-16s and now the Mirage 2000-5s promised to Kiev. All the more so as their support and therefore their supply of spare parts will have to be considered, which will inevitably be too costly in relation to their operational value. Not to mention the training of pilots and technicians.

The first Super Etendard modernised to Super Etendard Modernisé standards (new radar, increased payload capacity, modernised weapons system, etc.) was delivered in 1993, and a number of improvements were added until its final withdrawal in 2016. It can carry an ATLIS and then Damocles designation pod, smooth or guided bombs, rocket-launching pods, two AS-30L air-to-ground missiles, Matra short-range air-to-air missiles and an AM39 Exocet anti-ship missile. In a context of high-intensity warfare, with the resources currently held by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, it is highly unlikely that these aircraft will be seen on the front line.

Yet since one of the tasks of these aircraft is anti-ship warfare, and the Royal Navy still remembers the loss of HMS Sheffield in 1982, it might eventually be conceivable that the Ukrainians could use them against the Russian Black Sea fleet. Except that they don't have much left to sink there; surface vessels that were not sunk by the Ukrainians yet are withdrawn by Russia to safer positions. Also there is currently no question of delivering Exocet anti-ship missiles to Ukraine, and in any case, Ukrainian surface naval drones have already demonstrated their effectiveness, including cost effectiveness.

Since the integration of non-Soviet/Russian missiles and bombs on MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighters, Su-24 Fencer tactical bombers and Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft, it is of course possible that the Super Etendard Modernisés, if delivered, can also be modified to carry weapons not originally planned by Dassault Aviation. However, they were designed in a NATO environment, simplifying any possible modification. It should be noted, however, that the aircraft is a fighter with more limited capabilities than the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In terms of maximum take-off weight, the Super Etendard Modernisé can reach 11.9 tonnes, compared with 17 tonnes for the F-16AM.

While we wait to find out more about this project, President Milei is expected to be the only South American head of state to attend the peace summit for Ukraine in Switzerland on 15 and 16 June. In any case, this potential delivery does not appear to be to the advantage of either Ukraine or France. It would be to the sole advantage of Argentina, which would receive functional UAVs or helicopters in exchange. France would be better off concentrating technical and training resources that might be more useful for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s or for training pilots and mechanics, as well as possible maintenance, in the case of Mirage 2000-5Fs.

 Author: Peter Bass