"Operation Northern Shield": A new military mission in Argentina

Latin America and the Caribbean


A 3-D radar built by Argentina's INVAP (source).

This post was authored by WOLA Fellow Lucila Santos.


In mid-July, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner launched Operation Escudo Norte (Northern Shield), a major border-security effort. Among other items, the operation includes the installation of 20 Army land radars, patrols conducted with Pucara aircraft and the installation, in Santiago del Estero, of the first 3D radar built by INVAP (an Argentine high-technology company).

Escudo Norte is to support Plan Fortin II, a government strategy to protect Argentina’s borders. At the launch event, the President stated that this was an intelligent articulation of the Defense Ministry and armed forces with the new Security Ministry and its forces in the fight against drug trafficking. At least 6,000 officers from the Gendarmerie and Coast Guard and 800 men from Army Special Forces will be assigned to the Plan. Therefore, almost 7,000 members of the security forces will be working to improve controls at Argentina’s ports of entry, maritime ports and airports, and within the country, as well as to investigate crimes related to drug trafficking and organized crime.

The 3D radar is part of a prototype that has already been tried in military exercises; it is also part of a request for 6 military radars assigned to INVAP by Argentina’s Planning Ministry. The cost of the first radar was 165 million pesos (around 39 million U.S. dollars) and the contract for the total of 6 radars amounts to 460 million pesos (around 111 million dollars). The radar has an estimated reach of 400 km (248 miles). It is expected that the rest of the military radars built by INVAP will be established in the north of the country over the course of the next two years. In September of this year, another radar, a FPS113 donated by Spain, might become operative and will be located in Posadas, the capital of a province bordering Brazil. A similar radar is already in activity in Resistencia, capital of a province bordering Paraguay. These surveillance systems are replacing all mobile radars from the 1970s, which could not be employed for more than 6 hours a day. Moreover, two other TPS44 radar devices from the Army will be installed in Tartagal, Salta (over the border with Bolivia) and Las Lomitas (close to the border with Paraguay). The 20 Rasit radars from the Army won’t be used to detect illegal flights since their reach only allows them to observe an aircraft for less than four minutes; instead, they will be placed in areas used by traffickers to introduced drugs by land. These will be used by 180 military officers.

Even though the Air Force and the Army were already exercising control of air space, the use of military radars to control ports of entry is a novelty for Argentina. Different opinions have been voiced since the announcement of Operation Escudo Norte. On one hand, some debate has been ignited regarding the role of the armed forces in the fight against drug trafficking, and whether this is a proper and legal role for them to carry out. The Argentine Defense Law establishes that the military’s mission is solely the defense of the national territory against another country’s armed forces. Complementing this, the Internal Security Law mandates that internal security is the police forces’ responsibility. However, the government has argued that article 27 of the Internal Security Law allows the armed forces to provide logistical support to the police. The radars would fall under this provision. Yet for this to happen, their use should be requested by an internal security crisis committee.

In this regard, Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli explained that the Armed Forces won’t have “any role” in the fight against drug trafficking, but instead will just provide logistical support in the control and surveillance of the national aerial space to intercept potential irregular planes carrying drugs. The security scheme devised by Operation Escudo Norte establishes that the radar signals observed by Air Force specialists that could indicate potential illegal flights have to be communicated to the Gendarmerie, the police force responsible for border security. The procedure would only require the military to detect any irregular flight, register the plane’s license or plate number and type of aircraft, its route and the landing procedure, and automatically transmit this information to the security forces, either Gendarmerie or Coast Guard, so that they may act. Military aircraft can only perform tracking tasks since they are not authorized to bring down planes.

The other debate or criticism ignited by Operation Escudo Norte regards the fight against drug trafficking in Argentina. Congressmen from center-right opposition parties have stated that the Plan is just hiding the government’s passivity in terms of security, that it is just a mere patch to a very porous border, and that the fight against drug trafficking should be centralized in a federal agency with operational capacity.

These debates aside, there have been no criticisms of the use of the radars, or their importance as tools of surveillance and monitoring over the borders. Even though the mission seems benign in terms of the military participating in a related-internal security issue, it would be good for this support mission to be regulated by existing laws and overseen by the Congress. With the right transparency, accountability and legislative devices, making use of military radars to have more control over borders would seem to be an appropriate step in the fight against drug trafficking.