Stated public policies often diverge from de facto practices, and this is also the case for military reform. While some positive developments are apparent, institutional decay is expanding, and there appears to be no political will to confront the most serious problems, with the armed forces used as a 'whipping boy' to increase presidential popularity.
SUBJECT: Impact of the wide-ranging reform package announced for the armed forces.
SIGNIFICANCE: Stated public policies often diverge from de facto practices, and this is also the case for military reform. While some positive developments are apparent, institutional decay is expanding, and there appears to be no political will to confront the most serious problems, with the armed forces used as a 'whipping boy' to increase presidential popularity.
ANALYSIS: Defence Minister Nilda Garre demonstrated rare decisiveness and leadership upon assuming office in December 2005 (see ARGENTINA: Lavagna ouster sends negative signal - November 29, 2005). The high point of her administration was the June 12 presidential decree in which two important policy initiatives were laid down:
- first, a National Defence Council, a close equivalent to the US National Security Council, was created; and
- second, the Joint Chiefs of Staff office was given wide-ranging control over the three armed services, including strategic planning, force design and control over operational units, with each of the three forces to be limited to training and maintenance of their structures.
A third ministerial directive set out to reform the armed forces along "defensive security" lines (ie a strategic defensive deployment and force design). Garre has explicitly stated that the military, which will see all strategic offensive capabilities eliminated, will nonetheless retain conventional force capabilities which are to be employed only in case of foreign aggression. This last point flies directly in the face of US policy desires for Latin American forces' participation in anti-drug and other internal policing roles in line with the "war on terror" (see LATIN AMERICA/US: Defence policies lack realism - August 14, 2006). Other promised reform initiatives include the military justice system, military intelligence and military education.
Critical reform. The Argentine military is in serious need of reform:
- Labour costs (officers, non-commissioned officers, volunteers, civilians and retirees) consume 80% of the budget. International parameters for such costs indicate that these should not exceed 60%.
- Expenditure on weapon systems has been below 1% of the annual budget for the last decade. Again, internationally armed forces annually spend between 15-25% of their budgets on arms acquisitions. In general, capital depreciation eats away approximately 3% of the arms stock per year.
In the Air Force, for instance, only about 10% of Argentina's warplanes are in flying condition. On average, pilots reportedly log about one hour of flight time per month (about ten hours being a minimum international standard). Operations and maintenance are at a dangerously low level, with accidents occurring with increasing frequency. This situation has been gradually worsening over the past two decades, with the result that personnel skill levels are declining. Operating capabilities are extremely low -- and most of these are abroad in international peace-keeping missions.
The forces are top-heavy, with approximately twice the percentage of colonels and lieutenant colonels (or rank equivalent in other forces) found in the US or UK military. Indeed, one-third of all commissioned officers are colonels or lieutenant colonels. The rank structure for "non-commissioned officers" (NCOs) is even more skewed. There are 54,000 officers and NCOs, compared with only 20,000 enlisted volunteers in the Argentine military -- and 30,000 (unionised) civilians working in the defence sector. Moreover, the average age of Argentine officers and NCOs is above 44 years (versus 28 years among their US equivalents), with the costs of the retirement system long since out of control.
Political interests. Though Garre seemed to have the best of reform intentions with her policy initiatives, presidential interests have been of another nature. Thus, even her laudable decisions are interpreted by the military as vengeful, such as stripping the Air Force of its role in weather monitoring, air traffic control and policing of airports, withdrawal of ministerial backing for high school military academies, the reorganisation of military intelligence and the frustrated attempt to combine flight schools.
This is largely because President Nestor Kirchner has continually attacked the armed forces for their massive violation of human rights during the military dictatorship (1976-83). His actions are generally well received by the Argentine people, as the human rights issue was not handled well by any of the previous democratic governments. However, about 95% of all active-duty forces entered the services after the dictatorship and so feel unjustly attacked. Moreover, numerous high government officials were themselves associated with the "Montonero" guerrilla organisation which confronted the military during the "dirty war", and there has been no self-criticism coming from the ex-guerrillas now in the government.
At the same time, the president has further eroded the military budget, despite the strong fiscal surplus, while forcing resignations among superior officers, only to name friends to military command. Public humiliations of the uniformed leadership have been frequent. The result is that the chain of command has lost respect and ability to lead, most especially in the Army.
Reform prospects. More recently, the ministerial team appears to have concluded that reform can be carried out in small, more politically digestible, doses. There is a move afoot to intervene in the military education system, not in itself a misguided idea. However, given the severe imbalance between military personnel and military equipment, it is hard to see how military training and education (in a wider sense) can be improved when the 'tools of their trade' are almost completely lacking. Moreover, there is no budget money assigned even to these educational reform measures.
Internationally, the Ministry of Defence now appears to be ready to draw a bit closer to the United States, after giving signals to Russia, Ukraine and France regarding Argentine interest in acquiring arms from them. In practice, there is a mere 50 million dollars in the arms acquisition budget for 2007, making any supposed interest largely academic. However, Washington is finally taking notice of problems in the region (not only in Argentina), with the Southern Command securing changes to the American Serviceman's Protection Act in order to foster closer relations with South American militaries. The vacuum created by this law has allowed other external actors to strengthen their military relations in South America in a context where energy issues are paramount, and Venezuela and Bolivia are looking elsewhere for strategic alliances.
Outlook. The government's military policy points simultaneously in two directions, accumulating political capital with voters through aggressive tactics against the uniformed class, while proclaiming reform of the armed forces. The president pushes the former, and the defence team the latter. However, by definition, no serious reform can occur without engaging positively with the military. This will be politically difficult given:
- the presidential attitude towards the armed forces; and
- the lack of political will to confront severe imbalances in both civil and military personnel issues.
CONCLUSION: The belief that inertia will allow for the survival of the current status quo, in the absence of remedies applied to ailing public institutions, is patently not true. In spite of the "public relations success" of Argentine UN peace-keeping missions, presidential leadership has created armed forces that are almost entirely inoperative and resentful, frustrating the reform initiatives of his own defence minister.