Argentina is about to enter a new era. President-elect Mauricio Macri will assume power this December 10, putting an end to twelve years of Kirchner rule. And foreign policy analysts, myself included, are wondering about both Macri’s foreign policy towards the rest of Latin America and as the future of U.S.-Argentina relations. In an interesting development, the U.S. Congress approved the sale of four Bell helicopters to Argentina this past month. While the sale will not transform the South American nation into a regional military power, it can be viewed as a sign of good faith between the two governments and perhaps an early example of things to come under Macri.
According to a November 18 press release by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense that deals with weapons sales), the sale will constitute “four 412EP helicopters and associated equipment, parts and logistical support for an estimated cost of $80 million.” The aircraft will be utilized for search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping support, and scientific operations in the Antarctic.
As the press release explains, it is important to note that “the proposed sale … will not alter the basic military balance in the region.” Indeed, the sale in itself is not particularly impressive as the helicopters are not armed. In other words, the aircraft will not alter South American geopolitics, nor will any of Argentina’s neighbors feel threatened by them.
Additionally, the sale is not a sign of things to come, at least no in the sense of future sales of heavier military equipment. One reason is that the Argentine military does not have the budget to procure brand new weapons from any foreign supplier. A quick look at its recent initiatives highlights to what extent Argentina relies on modernizing old equipment or manufacturing its own. Moreover, the country’s air force recently retired its Mirage warplanes, the cornerstone of its air defense. This development is problematic as the air force does not have a replacement for the decades-old warplanes. In other words, we will not see Buenos Aires attempting to buy F-35 warplanes anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the few purchases that have occurred in recent years are designed to carry out basic operations like patrolling. Case in point, the four Russian vessels – they were purchased in 2014 and two of which recently arrived in Argentina – will be utilized for search & rescue operations. Furthermore, even if Argentina had the budget for modern military equipment, the U.S. would not be its main supplier as arming Argentina would be unwelcomed by the United Kingdom due to the dispute between London and Buenos Aires over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. (Personally, I do not view another war over the islands as a realistic possibility but there are occasional media reports about this scenario).
What the helicopter sale does signify is that we will likely witness a rapprochement between Washington and Buenos Aires once President-elect Macri comes to power. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was well known for having a non-friendly relationship with Washington. For example, former President Nestor Kirchner, the late husband of the current head of state, supported Venezuela’s bid to join MERCOSUR. Meanwhile, President Kirchner has maintained a close friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin while occasionally critiquing Washington. On the other hand Macri is known for being pro-business and pro-investment, and he will likely look for U.S. money to reboot the country’s economy. In other words, a change of leadership in Buenos Aires is looked upon with happy eyes in Washington.
The helicopter deal, should it indeed come to pass, will likely be the first step towards significantly improving relations between the two extremes of the continent.