In mid-September 2021, numerous defense sources started publishing stories claiming that Argentina is about to acquire the JF-17 Thunder, a light fighter jet produced jointly by the Chinese Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).
The sources claiming so include the UK Defence Journal, The Express Tribune, as well as numerous other international, Pakistani, and Argentinian websites.
The news can be traced to the AEROSINT Division PSF Twitter account, managed by a Pakistan Strategic Forum – a thinktank that publishes Pakistani Experts’ opinions on global news and events, focusing on defense and geopolitics.
The tweet in question claims that “the Government of Argentina has officially included $664 million in funding for the purchase of 12 PAC JF-17A block III fighters from Pakistan in a draft budget for 2022 presented to its Parliament.”
In the same thread the account also tweeted what appears to be an excerpt of a budget proposal that indeed includes an entry mentioning $664 million and the JF-17 fighter jet.
ARGENTINA SELECTS PAKISTAN’S THUNDER JET— AEROSINT Division PSF (@PSFAERO) September 17, 2021
The Government of #Argentina has officially included $664 Million in funding for the purchase of 12 PAC JF-17A Block III fighters from #Pakistan in a draft budget for 2022 presented to its Parliament.
Such a decision might appear plausible: ever since 2013 Argentine officials have been conducting talks in regards to the purchase of the JF-17. As a matter of fact, the news that Argentina has already agreed on buying the JF-17 was published as early as 2015, but nothing of sorts happened.
Argentine efforts to modernize its air force are a story in itself. Following the Falklands war the country has been unable to obtain modern fighter jets: its domestic fighter development fell through, while talks with Spain, Israel, France and South Korea were all blocked by Britain.
Reportedly, there were talks with Russia, USA and India as well. According to PSF, those were discarded in favor of the Pakistani offer.
The Argentine part of the deal
There are certain problems with that explanation. First, the JF-17 is a Pakistani-Chinese co-production, with 42% of parts reportedly being manufactured in China, and 58% of manufacturing performed in Pakistan. Other buyers, primarily Myanmar and Nigeria that also field the jet, were conducting their purchases through Pakistan, although the Chinese side participated in the negotiations as well.
However, through the last year the country has been conducting its talks without Pakistani participation. The CATIC (China National Aero-technology Import & Export Corp.) which provides JF-17’s Chinese parts to Pakistan for final assembly, negotiated with the Argentine government directly, the last round of talks being conducted in Summer 2021.
Internationally, the talks have been met with skepticism: the JF-17 includes several British-made components, primarily the PK16LE ejection seat manufactured by Martin Baker. Previously, Argentine attempts to acquire Dassault-Breguet Super Etendard Modernisés from France and KAI FA-50s from South Korea were stopped over the same issue.
However, according to Argentine media, this time can be different. In May 2021 Argentine aviation news website Fullaviación.com claimed to have exclusive information that CATIC promised to equip their JF-17s – or FC-1s according to the Chinese designation – with Chinese-made HTY-5D ejection seats, also present on Chengdu J-10 fighter jets.
The aircraft would also be assembled at Área Material Río Cuarto, an Argentine Air Force workshop that maintained fighter jets previously owned by the service. The South American country’s interest in performing at least a part of the production domestically is obvious: not only would that make it less dependent on foreign imports, it would also have a potential to revitalize its own aviation industry.
Famously, the Argentinian aviation plant – Fábrica Argentina de Aviones – is responsible for South America’s first domestically produced jets, and has been at the forefront of the national industry for decades. Recently it stopped manufacturing anything but light trainers, although one of its projects for an advanced fighter jet – the SAIA 90 – came quite close to fruition.
So, there is a high chance that if Argentina strikes a deal for the JF-17/FC-1, the Pakistani involvement in its production will be smaller than usual. Thus, calling it a purchase from Pakistan is not entirely correct.
But what about the other claim, the one involving the allocation of money?
The budget issue
PSF claims the Argentine government has allocated $664 million to the jet. Previous Argentine publications support the number: according to Fullaviacion.com, the CATIC offer involves 12 aircraft (10 single-seaters and 2 two-seaters), $50 million each, plus additional equipment and services.
AeroTime News has been able to obtain what appears to be an authentic budget draft of the Executive branch of the government of Argentina.
The document includes the full list of projected military spending, including the purchase of the equipment, maintenance, personal expenses, etc. However, among those purchases, the JF-17/FC-1 is absent.
The name of the jet is mentioned just once, in the section of Public credit operations (Operaciones de credito público), on page 61 of the Annex to the Article 39. The name of the section is also visible in the picture attached to the original tweet by the PSF.
The section does not involve the money allocated for purchases; rather, it lists requests for funding from the National Treasury. Which means that the government has not allocated the funds: it just requested them for the project.
In conclusion: the PSF tweet and the articles based on it have some basis in reality. It appears Argentina has really selected the JF-17/CF-1 over the jets offered by other countries. However, the negotiations are not conducted with Pakistan and the involvement of the country is – most likely – going to be small; moreover, the funding for the purchase is absent from the firm budget for the coming years. However, the government requested the funding and if the deal goes through, the jet may very well appear among the country’s military purchases
UPDATE 09-22-2021, 14:00 (UTC +3): On September 21, 2021, Argentine Defense Ministry published a statement denying that a budget for the purchase of the jet has been allocated, and that a particular aircraft has been selected.