Argentina is enduring turbulent times, and as its Independence Day looms large, the latest controversy in the political and economic landscape has accordingly a “patriotic” connotation. Yesterday, the Defense Ministry cancelled the military parade that had been set for Monday, July 9th in the City of Buenos Aires and replaced it with a much smaller one in Tucumán that will be attended by President Mauricio Macri.
But even though the official explanation revolved around the decision of not spending AR $10 million to bring military equipment and 5,600 troops to Avenida del Libertador, the underlying reason discussed by the main political actors was another one: the meager eight percent salary increase the state granted to low-ranking members of the armed forces and the absence of one for high-ranking officials, who would only receive a lump sum in July and August.
The increase was nearly half of the 15 percent increase the state gave to the rest of its employees, including the country’s security forces; less than a third of what the large unions working in the private sectors agreed to with employers – after the economic turbulence the country went through exponentially increased inflation expectations for the year; and a little over a quarter of the 30 percent inflation rate private analysts expect for the year.
After the controversy made the headlines, media reported this morning that the government is set to equate the increase with the rest of the state’s employees and raise it to 15 percent. However, the distortion between the salaries of armed forces’ members and the rest of the country’s security forces – Border Patrol, Coast Guard, Federal Police, for example – is still very much present. A Federal Police officer, for example, earns almost twice as much as an armed force counterpart.
This episode further illustrates the fact that since the return to democracy, the Argentine state has not known what to do with its armed forces. Six military coups in the span of less than half a century, and particularly the last one, made most Argentines lose any kind of trust in the institution.
Since 1983, the army’s financing has been drastically reduced and its reputation as a whole was taken down a few more pegs, especially during the Kirchner administrations, leading to its current state of utter decay. According to a report by the Human Security Center, the military’s loss of stature in the public eye was a leading factor in its drastic budget decrease: “The resources Argentina allocated to defense fell from 4.4 percent of the GDP in 1983 to 1.7 percent in 1994,” the report reads.
It goes on to say that the Néstor and Cristina Kirchner administrations took this further and pushed the military to the bottom of Argentina’s list of spending priorities: Between 2004 and 2013, defense spending represented only around of 0.8 percent of the GDP.
Different events help to understand the extent to which the Argentine forces have reached a limbo where it’s not functional, but the decision to dissolve it has not been made either. For example, British tabloid The Sun “reported ” in 2015 that its government was strengthening military defense in the Malvinas Islands due to fear of an Argentine invasion supported by Russia. The speculation was quickly labeled as crazy and dismissed by the government, but helped to put in evidence the state of absolute decay the Argentine army was in.
According to a report La Nación issued shortly after The Sun’s article, our country couldn’t get an army to the Malvinas even if it wanted to. The 650 kilometers that separates the islands from the mainland represent an impossible odyssey, as there aren’t any ships available at to transport troops at the moment. Today, Argentina can only send an occupation force as far as the Martín García Island. How far is that from the mainland continent, you ask? Wait for it… 3 kilometers.
The Macri administration attempted to take a different approach to the one by Kirchner administration, slightly increasing the country’s military spending from 0.86 percent of the GDP to 0.96 in 2016. The Argentina Project also reported that last year, “the Argentine Air Force received the first four of 24 Beechcraft T-6 trainer aircraft that it purchased in a US $300 million Foreign Military Sale from the United States.” It also approved the purchase of five “Super Etentard” from France in May this year, to strengthen its ability to guard its borders during the G20 summit that will take place in December. The armed forces don’t have possession of the equipment yet.
Una de dos, o tenemos la primera y única clase dirigente en descubrir que un país medio como el nuestro no necesita FFAA o tenemos un serio problema. https://t.co/7pRqsNfEgP
— Fran de Santibañes (@frandesanti) June 19, 2018
However, the disappearance of the ARA San Juan submarine along with its 44 crew members in November last year again brought the discussion regarding what to do with the forces at the forefront of the conversation. The event also prompted Federal Prosecutor Jorge Di Lello to initiate an investigation aimed at determining if any public official is criminally responsible for the forces’ “state of deterioration.”
In conducting the investigation, Di Lello revealed – or illustrated, as it did not come up as a surprise to anyone – that the material with which the three forces operate is obsolete. According to reports submitted by former Defense Ministers and retired military officials, no submarines are suitable to sail, most planes are out of service, there’s not a single operational combat plane; there’s not enough ammunition for soldiers to finish basic training; and most vehicles cannot even be driven on the streets because of how obsolete they are.
Vice Admiral Antonio Torres, for example, said that “clandestine flights” and “illegal fishing” show the country is not even able to control its own terrestrial, maritime, and aerial space.
Moreover, Di Lello made a list of the “accidents” officials have suffered. He found out about at least 78 events involving military planes and helicopters since 1986 and included a journalistic report informing that, since that year, at least 252 people died in similar accidents.
Having armed forces that operate as such or directly follow Costa Rica’s example and dissolve them completely is a debate that, sooner or later, Argentina is bound to have.