Argentinian Super Etendard Strike Jets Planned For Transfer To Ukraine: Report

In a highly surprising development, Argentina is said to be working out a plan to transfer French-made Super Etendard naval strike aircraft to Ukraine. Still in its early phases, the unlikely proposal has reportedly been approved by Argentinian President Javier Milei but will still need support from France to progress further. Should it be successful, the result would be Ukraine taking delivery of a combat-proven aircraft known for its anti-surface-warfare capability, thanks to the Exocet anti-ship missile. On the other hand, these are old, subsonic jets that exist in very small numbers. Ukraine investing time and personnel into them could be a questionable move.

According to a report in Argentina’s Infobae newspaper, the plan to transfer five Super Etendard jets from Argentina was crafted by Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Diana Mondino, and Minister of Defense Luis Petri. After Milei green-lit the plan, Mondino and Petri have reportedly been “working for weeks” on negotiations with France, the original manufacturer of the aircraft, which would have to agree to their transfer and assist in making them fully airworthy.

Argentinian President Javier Milei (right) is greeted by his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky after delivering his inaugural speech before the crowd during an inauguration ceremony at the Congress in Buenos Aires on December 10, 2023. Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

The plan has also reportedly been discussed in a Washington meeting between Mondino and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and with NATO officials in Brussels.

The five Super Etendards are among those that were flown by the French Navy until they were finally retired in 2016, in favor of the Rafale M. The five aircraft were then acquired by Argentina, which had planned to introduce them to reinstate a capability lost when the last of its original 14 Super Etendards — which saw notable combat service in the Falklands War — ceased being operational around 2014.

A French Navy Super Etendard takes off from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle at sea off the coast of Toulon, southern France, in January 2015, ahead of the ship’s departure to take part in operations against the Islamic State group in the Gulf. ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

The five aircraft arrived in Argentina in 2019 and underwent engine tests and taxi runs, but never entered service.

An engine test and ground taxi for one of the five Super Etendards transferred from France to Argentina in 2019:

According to Argentine accounts, the main problem in getting the Super Etendards operational has been the U.K. government’s arms embargo on Argentina. In particular, this has prohibited the supply of cartridges needed for the aircraft’s British-made Martin-Baker ejection seats. The jets remain at Comandante Espora naval air base in the southwest province of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Now that Argentina has finally sealed a deal to receive 24 secondhand F-16s from Denmark in a much-needed overhaul of its combat aircraft fleet, including replacing its veteran A-4 Fightinghawks, there is little point in hanging onto Super Etendards that cannot realistically be flown.

With the Super Etendards grounded, but still otherwise apparently in working order, and with additional engines, spare parts, and a flight simulator also available, Argentina decided to try and make them available to Ukraine.

Argentina’s plan reportedly involves handing the jets back to France, which would fit the ejection seat cartridges and otherwise prepare them for service with Ukraine. At the same time, Argentina would buy military equipment — reportedly drones and/or helicopters — from France to cover the costs.

French Super Etendard aircraft lands on aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle at sea off the coast of Toulon, southern France, on January 15, 2015, ahead of the ship's departure to take part in operations in the Gulf. The carrier will support operations against the Islamic State group. France currently has nine Rafale and six Mirage fighters engaged in the campaign -- based in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan -- as part of Operation Chammal launched last September.
A French Navy Super Etendard lands on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

This proposal would ensure that Argentina is not directly providing heavy weapons to Ukraine, while also bypassing the British embargo. For Argentina, it also solves the problem of what to do with five Super Etendards that it still pays to store and maintain, but which are operationally useless.

A sticking point may be the position of the next French government after French President Emmanuel Macron called a snap legislative election after the far-right National Rally won the European election in France by a wide margin. Should the next French government be headed by National Rally’s Marine Le Pen, the country would likely drastically scale back the military support it’s providing to Ukraine.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, welcomes Volodymyr Zelensky, his Ukrainian counterpart, at the Palais Elysée. Photo by Telmo Pinto/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Le Pen, in contrast to Macron, has long called for France to reduce its role in the war in Ukraine and she has long maintained close ties with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

If the transfer does go through, Ukraine will be in possession of a combat aircraft developed by France’s Dassault-Breguet in the mid-1970s as a successor to the previous-generation Etendard IV carrier-based strike fighter.

First flown in October 1974, the Super Etendard was France’s first series-built combat aircraft with an inertial nav/attack system and one of its key weapons was the Exocet missile, a pioneering sea-skimming anti-ship weapon.

Of the 14 Super Etendards initially acquired by Argentina, only four were available at the time of the 1982 Falklands War, but these accounted for the destruction of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Sheffield and the merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor. Super Etendards loaned by France to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War also achieved some notable successes against shipping in the Gulf.

The French Super Etendard fleet was continually upgraded during its service, eventually being brought up to Super Etendard Modernisé (SEM) standard, which featured a new radar, improved cockpit including night-vision goggles, enhanced self-defense capabilities, and a targeting pod compatible with various precision-guided munitions. French Super Etendards saw combat in Lebanon, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, and finally against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

While five aircraft is only a token force, it wouldn’t be the first time that Ukraine has been offered a handful of fighters to help rebuild its air force. Last week, President Macron disclosed plans to transfer Mirage 2000-5 fighters to Ukraine. It later emerged that, as it stands, France has only six examples ready to deliver to Kyiv and a more meaningful contribution would require contributions from other nations with the jets: Greece and Qatar would be the most likely candidates. The Super Etendard is somewhat different, with the only other possible sources being long-withdrawn and less-advanced Argentine jets or any others — perhaps no more than 10 — that still survive in French storage.

Nevertheless, for Ukraine, a niche air-launched anti-ship capability of the kind offered by the Super Etendard and Exocet missile, even with such a small fleet, might be interesting.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Black Sea Fleet has been squarely in the sights of the Ukrainians, with a string of successful attacks on surface combatants, submarines, and support craft that have involved cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and various types of drones.

The air-launched version of the Exocet — a weapon not so far transferred to Ukraine — has a range of up to around 45 miles, depending on the altitude and speed of the aircraft. This allows the launch aircraft to remain outside the range of at least some medium-range enemy air defenses.

A French Navy Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft, or ATL 2, launches an Exocet. MBDA

Although subsonic, the missile is optimized for low-altitude attack, and it can be launched under the target ship’s radar coverage before approaching at wave-top height, complicating its detection and interception by naval air defenses.

For Ukraine, adding this element to its anti-surface warfare armory would provide another means by which to take on the Black Sea Fleet and continue its process of pushing the Russian naval threat further away from Crimea. It is also conceivable that the Super Etendards could work in conjunction with Ukraine’s forthcoming Saab 340 AEW&C aircraft, which offer a significant capability to detect maritime targets at long range.

An air-launched Exocet is prepared for loading on a Rafale M aboard the French Navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. MBDA

As of February this year, the Ukrainian Armed Forces was claiming that 33 percent of the Black Sea Fleet’s warships had been disabled or destroyed, including 24 ships and one submarine.

Sustained Ukrainian attacks have already forced the large-scale redeployment of the more valuable Black Sea Fleet assets away from Crimea.

As well as putting more pressure on the Russian occupiers in Crimea, this strategy also helps protect Ukraine’s vital grain exports out of its Black Sea ports.

While anti-shipping strike is the best-known Super Etendard role, these aircraft are more than capable of attacking ground targets, too. In their last years of service, the French SEM version made extensive use of 500-pound dual-mode GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II and 250-pound GBU-58 Paveway II laser-guided munitions, which have the ability to hit moving targets. Operating these weapons is achieved using a digital kneepad, providing the pilot with rapid and easy access to targeting pod video and digitally annotated maps.

A 500-pound Paveway series precision-guided bomb is prepared for loading on a Super Etendard aboard the Charles de Gaulle in the Indian Ocean in May 2006, during operations in Afghanistan. Photo by Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

On the other hand, the subsonic Super Etendard doesn’t have a robust air-to-air capability and there is no existing training pipeline that can be tapped into. The jets were showing their age years ago, with serious questions about how much useful airframe life might be left, especially among those in storage in France. Supporting the jets could be problematic, as well. All these factors make it questionable whether even the capabilities from a full squadron of these jets would be worth the burden for Ukraine, especially as dozens of F-16s are set aside for them and more modern and capable Mirage 2000s appear to be on the way as well. Other types may be in the works too, like the Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

On the other hand, Ukraine could gain Exocet capability with the Super Etendard, but possibly even more importantly, an additional launch platform for some of the variety of Western weaponry that is now equipping its Soviet-era air combat fleet.

While Argentina’s plan to put Super Etendards into Ukrainian hands might make sense for Argentina, at least, there remain several obstacles still to be overcome. Aside from questions over the utility of the jets for Ukraine, the delicate political situation in France could threaten to derail the plan as well as alter the course of future French military support to Kyiv.

Contact the author: