Where is Argentina’s defense heading?

Blurring the distinction between defense and public security, Mauricio Macri’s government is now planning to use the armed forces for fighting organized crime and other “new threats”. Español

Rut Diamint
20 October 2016

Soldiers of the Granaderos de San Martin regiment fold the Argentina's flag at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, Argentina. AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd. All rights reserved.

Last June it was reported that Argentina is negotiating with the French government the purchase of more than 12 second-hand fighter aircraft which the French Air Force decommissioned in June 2014. In August, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) informed that Argentina had requested 24 T-6C Texan training aircraft, besides engines, communications equipment and other components, for an approximate value of $ 300 million. In 2014, the Argentine-Chinese Joint Cooperation Committee in the Fields of Defense, Technology and Industry was established, making both countries comprehensive strategic partners. Despite what might have been assumed considering the current Argentine government’s approach towards the United States at the nuclear summit last April, President Macri and Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed their strategic alliance. Argentina also pledged to form a strategic alliance with Russia during the visit Defense Minister Julio Martínez made to that country in September. In addition, a non-confirmed piece of news points to a meeting of Vice Minister Angel Tello at the Pentagon in which it was agreed that the US would open military bases in Ushuaia and Misiones.

The Argentine Air Force, by the way, is in dire need of modernizing its fleet, which has practically been ground to a halt since the decommissioning of its aircraft began in June 2013 - it is expected to end in 2018 with the deprogramming of the A4-AR Fightinghawk fighter-bombers.

Argentina is negotiating with the French government the purchase of more than 12 second-hand fighter aircraft which the French Air Force decommissioned in June 2014.

All of this should not come as a surprise. Equipping the armed forces is normal procedure in every country that has an army. In this particular case, however, the above news reveal several problems of the Argentine defense. First, it is not known what air or defense plan developed by the current government determines that these purchases are the best strategic decisions. Second, it is not known why other options have been rejected, such as Israel’s Aerospace Industries’ or China's Chengdu Aircraft Industries Corporation’s Kfirs, which would certainly have deserved a parliamentary debate. Third, and this is the most complex point, no clear defense policy missions have been established for the Argentine armed forces and, thus, neither have the weapons required to perform those functions.

Concern about these events has to do with the function and destination of the acquisitions. The DSCA mentioned that Argentina has embarked on an ambitious modernizing plan for the training of its pilots to perform border control duties, especially over the country’s porous North. Likewise – the DSCA added - the Argentine Air Force will also boost the pilots’ capabilities to deter illegal activities.

Coincidentally, the Secretary of Logistic Services for the Defense and Emergency Military Coordination of the Argentine Ministry of Defense, Engineer Walter Ceballos, stated that there is a "strong commitment to fight drug trafficking and international terrorism", a matter which is not a legal competence of the Ministry of Defense.

Why is it not a competence of the Ministry of Defense? Argentina established a clear distinction between defense and public security as a foundation of its democracy. Argentina's defense is regulated by Law 23554 of 1988, passed during President Raúl Alfonsín’s tenure. In 1991, the Internal Security Act 24059 was passed under the presidency of Carlos Menem: it complemented the provisions of the former Defense Act and prohibited the intervention of the armed forces in public security matters. In 2001, during the presidency of Fernando de la Rúa, the National Intelligence Law 25.520 was sanctioned, and later amended in 2016. These three laws make up the legal framework that restricts the use of the military in domestic affairs.

Since the early nineties, however, some sectors of the armed forces, together with their political allies, have sought to expand military missions to encompass the fight against drug trafficking and other “new threats”. The reasons they gave were that the afore-mentioned laws responded to a specific situation - the then unfinished democratic civilian control of the armed forces, which no longer applied -, and that new threats had emerged that require military involvement. These sectors argued that the military needed a scope for action in the context of the declining threat posed by the country’s neighbours, which was the traditional conflict hypothesis in the past. They also imagined that it would be possible to update the military’s equipment by alleging its possible use for purposes of public security. And they believed that benefits would ensue from synchronizing with US positions.

Since the early nineties, however, some sectors of the armed forces, together with their political allies, have sought to expand military missions to encompass the fight against drug trafficking and other “new threats”.

Already at the time of Eduardo Duhalde’s government, combined military training exercises with other countries’ armed forces were undertaken, to face a hypothetical conflict related to narco-terrorism, a term that was provided by the Southern Command. In the following years, the transformation of the armed forces stalled. In 2011, however, possibly for reasons related to the congressional and governorship elections, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government green-lighted the Northern Shield and Fortín I and II operations, for the control of the northern border in conjunction with security forces such as the Gendarmerie and the Naval Prefecture.

Recently, addressing an armed forces fraternity dinner, President Macri stated: "In this new stage, we intend to achieve zero poverty, defeat drug trafficking, and unite the Argentines. In all these premises, the Armed Forces will play a leading and participatory role”.  What is the role that the president envisions for the military, for example, to achieve zero poverty? The Minister of Defense announced a series of measures to deal with new threats, such as enacting a Plane-downing Law, which has resulted in so many unjust actions in the countries that have adopted it. He also decided to extend the North Shield operation until December 2016, and to instruct the military attaches to collect information on drug trafficking and terrorism in the countries where they are destined.

The record of using the armed forces for fighting organized crime is, from the experiences we know, a negative one. In several Latin American states, it has resulted in corruption, excesses, repression, assassinations, and the limitation of civil liberties. It should be remembered that the armed forces are prepared and equipped to counter the action of an external enemy. The police, by contrast, are equipped and trained to enforce the law – or, at any rate, this is what they are expected to do.

It is quite clear that, throughout Latin America, insecurity is among society’s highest concerns. It is understandable, and desirable, that the government should seek ways to address it. Most countries in the region have opted for quick, ineffective solutions. All they have achieved is delaying the problem. Getting the military involved in internal security results not only in a de-professionalization of the military officers, but it also fails to improve the security forces which, overwhelmed and corrupted, end up being an expensive and useless tool.

The record of using the armed forces for fighting organized crime is, from the experiences we know, a negative one.

The armed forces do not have a well-defined mission in Argentina. After so many years of democratic transition, the preparation of the Defense personnel has not been formalized. Unlike other ministries – such as Economy, Education or Foreign Affairs – which count on trained personnel for the posts, Defense officials usually come from other fields and are largely inexperienced. Defense, which requires high technical know-how, has been left exclusively to the expertise of the military. And those who have specialized in something in the exercise of their functions, usually leave their posts when ministers, whose rotation has been all too frequent, come and go.

In addition, the current administration has resorted to serving and retired military personnel for senior posts in the Ministry, further weakening the civilian leadership of Defense. While civilian supremacy has been consolidated after many years and has progressed through a wide range of measures, decrees, regulations, and directives, the mandates have not been institutionalized and have thus left a nefarious vacuum. And with all these comings and goings, the military have recovered some degrees of autonomy – which, considering the long and painful Argentine experience with military dictatorships, is something that it would be preferable to avoid.

The use of the armed forces in internal affairs entails risks both for the military as an institution and for democracy. The military do not possess the required preparation and aptitude to deal with organized crime, natural disasters, or the criminalization of social protest. Restoring the operational capacity of Defense does not imply that they should themselves define and control their duties. The progressive militarization of public order – as the experience in other Latin American countries has shown - undermines the rule of law and weakens citizens' rights.

In short, in so many years of democracy in Argentina, Defense has not been considered a public state policy. It has been left to the vagaries of the ministers and the neglect of the presidents. That indolence is what makes it possible now to resort to the military to perform police duties, thus putting at risk the democratic fabric of the country.

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