More than once, online, i've been horrified by comments like "what do we need ASW helicopters for?", "which submarines will they hunt...?" and "why are we building frigates?".
Who's got an interest for military matters can probably cringe at these stupid questions, and know that there are very good answers to all of them.
But today i want to underline a very interesting development that in my opinion configures one of those "alarming news" that should be considered in Defence Reviews, and shape up the requirements of the UK's armed forces. And supply another good reasons for frigates and Merlins.
If Iran's growing submarine fleet and its deployments in the Indian Ocean are not worrisome enough, if China's first aircraft carrier is far away enough not to be a menace, i find that the growing Argentine submarine force certainly configures a menace to keep in consideration, especially since Falklands-related tension is at an all-times high.
For most of the UK's public, the Argentine armed forces are not an issue at all. They are "rusty and weak", in their words, but this is only partially true, and it does not keep track of recent developments, coming with a quite massive uplift in military expenditure. The Argentine defence budget has recorded a strong compound annual growth rate (CAGR) since 2006, reaching approximately US$2.6bn in 2010. According ICD research's 'The Argentine Defence Industry - Market Opportunities and Entry Strategies, Analyses and Forecasts to 2015' report, the country's defence budget is expected to record significant growth, to reach approximately $5.5bn by 2015. Elections this October are an element of uncertainty, but with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, well-known hawk on Falklands and a firm supporter of military modernization, thought favorite for the victory, the Argies armed forces can be confident in money coming.
Notable programmes include the the acquisition of new "transport ships", a worrisome development in itself as a power projection capability would change the scenario radically from the current situation, in which Argentina lacks the necessary strategic lift and shipping for crossing the 300 miles of sea to get to the Falklands. At the moment, they only have the 10.000 tons ARA Bahía San Blas and the modified Type 42 destroyer ARA Hércules, which can carry and deploy 238 Marines, with two embarked Sea King helicopters, each capable of anti-ship duty with a couple of Exocets.
The Navy is also building four 1800 tons patrol vessels at the Tandanor-Alte Storni shipyard in Argentina under a multiyear $600m contract announced in 2010. In May 2010, Defense Minister Nilda Garre announced that the Navy would continue working on a system that would enable the launch of Exocet missiles from the Navy’s P3 Orion aircraft, giving the Argies a reach they have never had before. In addition, the financing of the local development and construction of a coastal Naval defense system that may also be based on the use of Exocet missiles similar to the Excalibur system was also announced.
In the submarine's realm, though, there are the most impressive and worrisome developments.
Currently Argentine has a single german-designed U209 diesel submarine and two german-built TR1700 diesel submarines. The first two submarines were delivered on schedule in 1984-85. The remaining four, planned to be built in Argentina, were suspended due to the Argentinean economic crisis of the 1980s, with work on them stopped in the 90s. Two of the four submarines were partially built, and now the Santa Fe is being completed, but not as a diesel submarine: it will be Argentina's first nuclear submarine. The shipyards have now almost completed a midlife upgrade and refit of one of the two operational subs, the San Juan, and now the effort will be to complete, by 2015, the Santa Fe as a SSN.
Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission and the National Institute for space and nuclear technology apparently have already finished designing the CAREM reactor so that it can be adapted to the prototype of the future submarine. An attempt had already been made in the past, but the programme was halted in 1980. In February 2008, government negotiations to jointly develop nuclear reactors with Brazil failed (Brazil plans to soon start work on its own first SSN, after work on their four new conventionally-powered Scorpene subs will be completed) and Argentina continued on its own.
The Argentine air force, which has been operating obsolete equipment for several years and has many airplanes not operational, is expected to procure new advanced fighter aircraft, helicopters and transport aircraft, and plans to upgrade the army's airlift capabilities. The country has joined the Brazilian KC-390 programme for the development of a medium lift transport aircraft, with Brazilian firm Embraer as the primary contractor.
The government will also upgrade engines on its Pucara and Pampa fighter aircraft, and is in the process of procuring five Bell 206 helicopters and five Mi17 helicopters from Russia.
Modernisation and repairs of its helicopter fleet is also under progress as the government plans to refurbish its Super Puma helicopters and upgrade its Huey-II helicopters.
Will all this have any effect on the British planning, or even the proliferation of SSNs in the area and the acquisition of amphibious assault vessels will not be enough to sound any alarm bell?
Prudence is in order, i think.