The possibility was studied of replacing all of the remaining Argentine Air Force A-4Bs, A-4Cs, Mirage IIIs and Dagger/Fingers with McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornets or General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons.
Called the “Tinker Toy” because of its diminutive size, the A-4 Skyhawk bore the brunt of Naval Aviation’s strike effort during the Vietnam War. A-4s provided the US Navy and Marines and friendly nations with maneuverable, yet powerful, attack bombers that had great altitude and range capabilities, plus an unusual flexibility in armament capacity.
The Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron flew the A-4 Skyhawk II from 1974 to 1986. Skyhawks have also been used by the armed forces of Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Argentina.
By 1982, the backbone of the Argentine combat aviation, both in the Air Force and the Navy, was formed by three batches of Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, with the A-4B and C of the Air Force and the A-4Qs of the Navy.
Despite their age, being a model almost 30 years old at the time of the war, and lacking protection, they took on the overwhelming struggle to fight the British Task Force that opposed the Argentine forces on the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The Skyhawks were responsible for inflicting the greatest damage upon the Royal Navy, sinking HMS Coventry, Ardent, Antelope, RFA Sir Galahad, and LCU F-4, while damaging many other ships and striking ground targets. They also suffered heavy losses, with ten A-4Bs, nine A-4Cs and three A-4Qs lost in combat, with 18 pilots being killed.
The experience of the Skyhawk during the war was another addition to the legend the model had become over the skies of Vietnam and Israel.
The age of the fleet was meanwhile causing problems: while up to 4,800 hours were flown annually by Fuerza Aèrea Argentina (FAA, Argentine Air Force) A-4Bs and A-4Cs in the early 1980s, by 1990, this figure dropped to under 2,800 – and this although one of Skyhawks became involved in suppressing the rebellion against President Carlos Menem on Dec. 3 of the same year. As told by Santiago Rivas in his book Skyhawks Over the South Atlantic, the FAA was already searching for a replacement and – amongst others – flight-tested Shenyang F-7M interceptors in China (based on the Soviet-made MiG-21), and then Northrop F-5E/F Tiger Its in Jordan. However, no order was placed due to the lack of money. Later on, the possibility was studied of replacing all of the remaining A-4Bs, A-4Cs, Mirage IIIs and Dagger/Fingers with McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornets or General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons. However, Washington flatly refused deliver any Hornets, and in the case of the F-16 replied with, ‘not for the moment.’ The Skyhawk-fleet thus continued serving and, unsurprisingly, the annual report of the V Brigada Aérea for 1991 concluded that:
“…it must be taken into account that this weapons system has almost 34 years of operation (counting its use in the United States) with most of the aircraft near their retirement (at the end of 1991, three aircraft were retired, C-232, 239 and 240) and that the current economic problems that the Air Force is experiencing have affected the ability to process repairable items in the Material Areas and also in 5th Technical Group, the lack of raw material seriously penalises the possibility of doing a good preventive maintenance forcing [us] to make only restorative maintenance, that is, repair as new developments occur, with the risks that this philosophy entails, since sometimes this type of repairs are more expansive for the material and personnel.”
Still the A-4Bs and A-4Cs continued serving. Indeed, between Mar. 19 and 24 1991, an Esquadron Aeromóvil was re-deployed to IX Brigada Aérea Comodoro Rivadavia, and in September their crews ran live firing exercises at the range in Antuna, before returning to Comodoro Rivadavia for a tactical shooting contest in October. Moreover, regular fragmentary orders for re-deployments to Tandil were completed at the request of the Air Operations command. Unsurprisingly considering such an intensity of operations, the fleet was temporarily grounded in August and one A-4C -C-312 – was lost in an accident on Oct. 1 (PT Mario Rovella ejected safely), thus reducing the number of available aircraft to 15.
With the remaining A-4Bs and A-4Cs completing their life cycle, the decision was taken to replace them by former US Marine Corps (USMC) A-4Ms upgraded to the standard designated the A-4AR. The original plan was to acquire 54 such aircraft, but this was reduced to 32 single-seaters and four two-seaters (OA-4ARs), and an order placed in 1993. The delivery was much delayed and the first A-4AR Fighting Hawk (in recognition of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which was the source of its new avionics) reached Argentina only on Dec. 19, 1997 – by when only eight A-4Bs were still in operational condition. As the A-4ARs entered service, remaining A-4Bs and A-4Cs were grouped into the 3rd Squadron of Groupo 5 de Caza and then their operations slowed down. The A-4Bs were officially retired on Mar. 15, 1999 – the 50th anniversary of the FAA’s brigades – thus closing this chapter in the history of the Argentine Air Force.
Despite many reports to the contrary the FAA still operates modernised A-4ARs and 0A-4ARs and is one of the last two military operators of the Skyhawk in the world.
Skyhawks Over the South Atlantic is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Chris Lofting via Wikipedia and U.S. Air National Guard