The passing of the second full month since the November 15 vanishing of the ARA San Juan submarine, with the third nonews month now in sight, leaves us with a catalogue of questions that go further than the immediate concern for the loss and bereavement of the families and friends of the 44 crew-members. These questions go to the quick of the Armed Forces, running to their budgets today, their symbol as a mechanism of national defence and the domestic politics that go into their management. Add to that the complex ways in which the Armed Forces are used across the political spectrum, by all parties.
Following information about allegedly faulty repairs on the ARA San Juan three years ago and the damaging effect of the loss of the submarine to society as a whole, the first stop in any inquiry should be the economies of the services and the way their monies are handled. This will obviously be extensive, involving the national border guard (Gendarmería), the coast guard (Prefectura), the National Police, the relatively new Air Security (Seguridad Aeroportuaria) founded in December 2010, the Federal Police with branches in all provinces, and the all-purpose so-called intelligence agency – formerly the Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE) founded on 4 June 1946, the day Juan Perón started his first presidency. SIDE has now closed to make way for the FI (Agencia Federal de Inteligencia), which created by Congress in February 2015. None of these agencies are seen with wholly friendly eyes in Argentina today.
A prime question, beyond the policy issues, is how society feels toward the military after nearly a century of change and upheaval. A comparative timeframe might start with the admiration expressed for the training of the Prussian Army in World War I by the Argentine Army and climax in the last military dictatorship (1976-83). Historically, it was the middle classes who liked the Navy (now a force of 18,500 men and women). This was in spite of or because of the anti-Peronism felt in the Navy, which climaxed in 1955 when the naval elite was primary in the action to bring down Perón. This is still a point of reference for many who wish to ventilate their prejudices against the naval institution as a whole. Social sentiment has its ups and downs, of course. This was in evidence with the outflow of sorrow and indignation when the ARA General Belgrano battleship was sunk by a British torpedo during the South Atlantic conflict in 1982, with the loss of 323 lives, more than half of Argentina’s losses in the Malvinas War. The lost men were regarded as war heroes. The bloodiest regime in the 20th century was still in government.
A strong feeling of “hero status” toward the Navy came back once again with the more recent sinking of the San Juan submarine on November 15, about which there is hardly any evidence and much suspicion. The country was moved to great sorrow, eventually watered down by Argentina’s persistent source of all evil: corruption. The suspicion of bribes and faulty repairs came to the surface in the first month after the sinking. Today, with little news in the search for the missing submarine, there are three technically equipped ships still involved on the high seas in the search for the submarine, two Argentine and one Russian.
The Argentine Air Force, with military members totalling 14,600 and 6,900 civilian personnel (figures dated in 2010) and what appears to be a limited number of flight units for transport and attack, had their greatest moment in the history of the service since its foundation in 1945 in the South Atlantic conflict. In fact, the Air Force emerged as the single successful fighting force during the 1982 war, mainly with the French-made Dassault-Breguet Super Etendard fighter jets, which first flew in 1974. These planes had been taken out of service, in Argentina and France, but last year it was confirmed that the government would contract the French builders for the modernisation of five Super-Etendards.
In popular terms, however, the Air Force is seen much as a technical force, a mystery service that attracts a class of servicemen interested in the mechanics and miracles of modern flying machines. It is obviously the smallest of the three services, seen in recent history as having less participation in the counter-insurgency activities of the 1970s.
And then there is the Army, the most politicised of the services. Historically a force able to remove governments at will. Recent available figures show a standing army of men and women and civilian staff of 80,000 souls, with a not very impressive list of 650 tanks, 850 pieces of heavy artillery and 150 helicopters. Traditionally, the Army was a career-opening, especially for a lower middle and climbing class and one that actively thought in terms of NCO ranks opening the way to better social conditions, and also the paving of a path to university careers for their offspring. It lost much of its shine with the outrages of the 1970s.
The Army chiefs had secured presidential rulings under general Juan Carlos Onganía to court martial rioters in 1969 following the “Cordobazo.” However, constitutionally the Army was barred from actions within national borders. It was in September 1975 when President María Estela Martinez (Isabelita) Perón signed a security law that authorised the “annihilation” of the ERP guerrillas in Tucumán and subversive elements elsewhere. The law gave the Army unlimited power, but eventually it would mark the beginning of the end of the idea of a “friendly army.” In the 1980s, Argentina witnessed one of its most painful stages in history with the trials of the military leaders of the 1970s. Again, the country was torn apart. And it was not until the 1990s that the Army chief, general Martín Balza – who served eight years in the job, the longest term held by a commander – began the building of a professional army for men and women. The Army became a middle-class career setting once again.
The new government has taken cautious budgetary and professional steps towards a more efficient and useful Army. Whether or not this creates a new atmosphere in civilian-military relations is still very hard to guess.
(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007)