Late last week, Argentine Defense Minister Agustín Rossi announced that he’d signed an agreement with the head of SIBAT, the Defense Ministry’s International Defense Cooperation directorate, Brig. Gen (ret.) Michel Ben Baruch.
The deal, worth $111 million, will provide Israeli upgrades for a fleet of 74 Argentine TAM tanks, most of which are around 40 years old.
The contract-signing ceremony was held in the magnificent Salon Belgrano, the Argentine Defense Ministry’s headquarters on the Avenida del Libertador, and was heavily promoted by the ministry with a barrage of press releases and invitations issued to every media outlet in Buenos Aires.
Surrounded by military colleagues, Argentina’s chief of staff, General Ricardo Cundom, underscored “the recuperation of the army’s operational capabilities” and said that the deal is “a source of pride and satisfaction that we are renovating the Argentine military tank and that we will bring it up to the level of the world’s best tanks.”
TAM stands for Tanque Argentino Mediano, or Argentine Medium Tank. In the early 1970s, when the TAM project was initiated, it embodied the hope that Argentine-made weaponry would lead the nation into battle and be sold around the world as an alternative to British, French and American armaments.
But as is so often the case for grand national projects in Argentina, not a single tank was ever exported and none was even used in the country’s last great battle, in the Falkland Islands in 1982. TAM production ceased in 1995 with the tank a virtual relic before it was ever used.
In announcing the contract with Israel, Rossi emphasized that the negotiations for it “were a mission lasting six years.” Ben Baruch mentioned “the joint labor and cooperation of the Argentinian and Israeli teams that brought us to this moment.”
For Israel, the deal represents a small part of its estimated annual arms sales of more than $7 billion.
“Imagine you have an old Fiat 500,” sighed a long-time military analyst in Buenos Aires, explaining the predicament of Argentina’s rusty army. “Someone comes over and starts telling you about Google’s driverless cars. You have absolutely no clue what they are even talking about. What are you going to do? Get into a Google car and see if you can figure it out? No, you’re going to get a mechanic to come over and help you fix that old Fiat 500.”
Argentina has no money. Its economy is stagnating and it is fighting its bondholders in court. Since 2001, when it defaulted on $100 million in sovereign debt, the Argentine economy has become a metaphor for cyclical failure.
In addition, Argentina has no known current scenarios for military engagement – its last territorial dispute with Chile was successfully concluded in the 1990s. Still, its military keeps on hoping. And Israel keeps on playing along.
In February the Argentine air force announced the purchase of 14 repurposed 40-year-old Kfir C-10 fighter jets from Israel. The deal was worth $280 million. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the contract still lies somewhere on the defense minister’s desk.
Hernán Dobry, an Argentinian journalist who reported on the deal, says “I covered the announcement of that accord, and that was the last I heard of it. But you never know, maybe the new minister will show up one morning and just sign the thing.”
General Cundom was appointed by the president in her role as commander in chief of the armed services late last month, after the surprise removal of his predecessor.
Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson Sarit Tolila declined to comment on either of the deals, or to explain where the work on the tanks would be performed, or by whom.
Israel does not have a defense attaché in Argentina, though there is one in Santiago de Chile, next door. Its defense dealings are mostly handled by local representatives of Israeli companies who perform the task of “having a local around to know who to bribe,” in the words of the Argentine military analyst. “Also, you know, at some point we’ll have to buy something. Israel doesn’t lose anything by selling its old stuff, keeping those ties alive.”
While that may be the case, Israel and Argentina are at a low point in relations that have been rocky since the early 1990s, when the Israeli embassy and the Jewish Community Center AMIA in Buenos Aires were blown up by terrorist bombs, leaving over 100 people dead.
Tensions were exacerbated considerably in 2011, when the journalist Pepe Eliaschev broke a bombshell story: the Argentine government was negotiating with Iran to sign a deal effectively “erasing” Iran’s responsibility for the two attacks. Diplomatic ties have not gotten back on track since. The suspicious death in January 2015 of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor who investigated the AMIA bombing and was prosecuting President Cristina Kirchner for her role in the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran, which was deemed illegal by Argentinian courts, has not improved matters.
Speaking with Haaretz, an Israeli former military contractor with wide-ranging experience in South America laughed at the deal to upgrade the decrepit TAM tanks: “Maybe the Israelis got free tickets to the Copa América [soccer tournament] for it? Maybe we’re doing it to give a hand to heavy industry in Israel?”
More seriously, he said, “this is more than about money. It’s about alignments and strategic commitment. You turn them into clients, even if you’re fixing 40-year-old tanks to do it. It’s a way for the countries to maintain ties.”
When it comes to government-to-government contacts, he said, “the money is always there. There are assurances. There’s mismanagement, but the money is somewhere. Anyway, when it comes to these deals in South America, the ego sometimes wins. The generals just want to have a new tank.”