BUENOS AIRES — The defense ministers of Argentina and Uruguay have signed an air trafficking control agreement paving the way for increased regional security cooperation. Argentina already has similar accords in place with Brazil and Paraguay, and is planning to replicate the deal with Bolivia.
“This initiative guarantees us the opportunity to take even more advantage of the capabilities that we have available,” Argentine Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli said at the Aug. 29 signing ceremony in Montevideo.
Puricelli’s Uruguayan counterpart, Fernández Huidobro, called the accord “historical” and highlighted the training exercises already underway between the Argentine and Uruguayan Air Forces aimed at preventing and detecting irregular air traffic.
To support these initiatives, the Argentine government recently promulgated a law that authorizes the entrance of Uruguayan troops and the exit of local forces to Uruguay for regular cooperation, specifically for the “Rio V” and “Tanque 12” exercises.
Both exercises aim to bolster control of airspace in border areas by “carrying out information-exchange activities and providing technical and specialized operational training of participating personnel”, according to a resolution signed by Argentine President Cristina Fernández.
Not everyone, however, is convinced. “Without functioning 3D radars, operational aircraft and a legal framework that allows for flight interception, air control will remain unattainable,” argues defense analyst Fabian Calle, a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.
Escudo Norte aims to protect Argentina’s northern border
In an interview with Diálogo, Calle mentioned the breakdown of Argentina’s commercial radars for nearly two weeks earlier this year, as a result of import restrictions which restricted access to oil needed for operability. He also explained that Argentina has only one 3D radar for military use. That three-dimensional radar — based in the northern province of Santiago de Estero — was built by INVAP, the Argentine company which collaborated with NASA to launch the SAC-D Aquarius satellite in June 2011.
That satellite was inaugurated by Fernández in July 2011, along with about 20 other conventional, 2D radars, as part of Argentina’s Escudo Norte (Northern Shield) program aimed at controlling the movement of aircraft along Argentina’s northern borders with Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia.
“Unlike Brazil, which has a law allowing for aircraft downing, Argentina’s Air Force has no legal authority to down suspicious aircraft even if they have the capacity to identify them,” said Calle.
Gastón Schulmeister, an Argentine security specialist based in Buenos Aires, says his country’s new agreement with Uruguay complements other recently announced initiatives like the Escudo Norte program.
“However, these types of measures will only achieve their maximum potential to the extent that certain institutional capacities are guaranteed sufficient resources — operative and legal — for the Air Force,” he said.
Expert: Accord is more strategic than operational
Schulmeister explained that only 20 percent of drugs smuggled into Central America, South America and the Caribbean utilize air routes; the remaining 80 percent travel via water. Even so, as highlighted in a March 2012 report by the U.S. State Department, drug traffickers tend to use Uruguay as a logistics and transit base. Their shipments enter Uruguay by land, or by small airplanes from neighboring countries, before being shipped overseas in containers to South Africa or Europe.
The bilateral air control agreements are more strategic than operational,” said Raúl Umberto Paz of the Argentine Chamber of Aeronautics Industries. He said these sub-regional accords are intended to pave the way for South America to ultimately create a “mini-NATO” to combat borderless narcotrafficking.
Paz said the success of this agreement in particular will hinge on which airline wins the contract to operate Uruguay’s bankrupt state airline, Pluna. With the exit of Argentine investment company Leadgate in June, the Uruguayan government is scrambling to liquidate Pluna’s existing fleet and bring a new investor on board.
“The level of cooperation with Argentina will depend in part on who wins the concession to operate the Uruguayan state airline,” explained Paz. Companies that have expressed interest include Venezuela’s Conviasa, Argentina’s Sol and BQB, and the Montevideo bus company CUTCSA. Until three months ago, Pluna controlled more than 80 of Uruguay’s air traffic, so any change has significant implications for air traffic control.
“All institutional efforts to improve air control should be welcome,” said Schulmeister, “above all since irregular flights are used not only for narcotrafficking, but also for other illegal activities like human and arms trafficking.”