Weapons purchases by Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Chile–plus a U.S. military expansion in Colombia–are fueling an arms race in South America.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that South American military expenditures rose by 50 percent over the past decade.
That organization estimates South American countries have spent $34.1 billion on arms expenditures in 2008.
“What is worrisome is not so much the purchases of arms, but who is buying and for what purposes,” said Roman Ortiz, a security and defense expert in Bogota, who was quoted recently in a Global Post article by Nadja Drost.
Ortiz alluded to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his ‘ideological expansionist project’ as a source of concern.
Chavez has been feuding with Colombia for months over an agreement between Bogota and Washington which will allow the U.S. military to increase its presence at seven Colombian military bases.
“They are preparing a war against us,” Chavez said during a televised address early in December, repeating a charge he has been making for months.
Colombia says the deal is only to help it fight the war on drugs and insurgents inside its territory.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in September that the United States fears recent weapons purchases by Venezuela could fuel an arms race.
“They outpace all other countries in South America and certainly raise the question as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region,” Clinton said, after a meeting with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez.
Colombia (Venezuela’s rival) has carried out a number of recent military acquisitions, most notably Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S., as well as 25 Super Tucanos.
The Colombian Army alone reportedly possesses 50 Black Hawk helicopters and 23 Russian MI-17 helicopters.
In June, Israel Aerospace Industries delivered a first batch of four upgraded Kfir fighter jets to the Colombian Air Force, according to New America Foundation
Nine others will be delivered by years’ end as part of a 2007 contract that cost $150 million.
As a partner of the United States in the war on drugs, Colombia has been one of the largest recipients of subsidized U.S. arms transfers for well over a decade.
Colombia ranks third among U.S. military aid recipients worldwide after Israel and Egypt
According to an analysis conducted by the Center on International Policy in Washington, Colombia received $2.8 billion in military and police assistance from 2002 to 2006.
The Colombian government was slated to receive an additional $1.9 billion between 2007 and 2009 for a total of $5.3 billion.
According to AP reports, Venezuela has already bought more than $4 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005, including 24 Sukhoi fighter-jets, dozens of attack helicopters, and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Last month Hugo Chavez announced that 300 Russian-made tanks and armored vehicles would soon arrive in Venezuela.
These include T-72 battle tanks.
The T-72 was the most common tank used by the Soviet Army from the 1970s to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Various versions of the T-72 have been in production for decades.
According to the Associated Press, Venezuela’s arms purchases have increased from $71 million (2002-2004) to $4 billion (2005-2007).
In September it was widely reported that Russia has opened a $2.2 billion line of credit for Venezuela to purchase more weapons.
Brazilian aircraft carrier Sao Paulo (Photo/netmarine.net)
Brazil has embarked on an ambitious military program in recent years, according to Alex Sanchez, a research fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Analysis.
Its defense officials have announced that the country will buy 250 Leopard 1 battle tanks, which will become the cornerstone of its domestic protection system, and Eurocopters, which will become the country’s new medium-lift helicopter.
Brazil has agreed to buy five French Scorpene submarines, one of them with nuclear propulsion, and 50 Cougar helicopters for about $12 billion, in addition to 36 Rafale warplanes.
Although Brazil’s air fleet currently consists of over 720 planes, about 37 percent of them are grounded.
Chile has made aggressive military purchases in the past decade, according to Sanchez:
These include 12 Super Tucano planes from Brazil, dozens of F-16 planes from the U.S. and Holland, two Scorpene-type submarines from France, and 200 American Humvees from General Motors.
In recent years, Chile has purchased 4 frigates from the Dutch Navy and hundreds of Leopard I and II tanks, according to Nation Master website.
Peru’s defense minister said in December 2009 that his country was close to closing a deal to buy tanks from China.
Rafael Rey told The Associated Press that the army is testing MBT-2000 tanks brought from China, but wants a better-equipped model of the tank.
The Lima newspaper La Republica reported that the military plans to buy 80 to 120 tanks and has evaluated Chinese, German, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish models.
The defense minister told RPP Radio that Peru may make additional navy and air force purchases.
A military commission recommended that Peru buy Brazilian Super Tucano fighter planes.
“They are very simple to operate but have advanced technology,” Rey said.
Peru’s major purchases in the last several years have included four Lupo-class Italian frigates to upgrade its navy.
The country has also obtained a number of Sea King helicopters from the U.S. to use for spare parts and emergency operations.
In addition, Russia has repaired and upgraded 13 of Peru’s Mi-17 helicopters.
Bolivia and Ecuador
Ecuador’s major acquisitions have been a fleet of 24 Super Tucanos from Brazil’s Embraer, according to Alex Sanchez, COHA.
In addition, the country has acquired six unmanned Israeli surveillance drones for patrolling purposes.
Chile sold two Condell class frigates to the Ecuadorian Navy in January 2008, according to Nation Master.
Bolivia purchased light attack aircraft from China in 2009 and received and an open line of credit for military hardware imports from Russia.
Argentina has had a struggling economy for some time, according to Forecast International, and the military has suffered serious budget restrictions as a result.
In 2009 Brazil was forced to suspend a new offshore patrol vessel undertaking and the procurement of Russian Mi-17 helicopters.
Replacement of Argentina’s Mirage III fighter fleet is also uncertain due to a lack of funding.
Uruguay and Paraguay
Uruguay and Paraguay have made only limited arms purchases recently.
Chilean F-16 (Photo: Yo mismo)
US key supplier
The United States provides significant amounts of arms and military services to South American countries.
From 2005-2008, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the U.S.delivered military aid and arms totalling $495 million to Chile, $483 million to Colombia, $154 million to Brazil, and $33 million to Argentina.
In 2008, the U.S. delivered military arms and aid worth $28 million to Chile, $122 million to Colombia, $40 million to Brazil, and $13 million to Argentina.
Venezuela vs Colombia
Hugo Chavez has rattled his sabre ceaselessly in the name of his ‘Bolivarian’ revolution over the years and relations between Venezuela and Colombia have worsened considerably.
Late in October Venezuela announced it had captured two Colombian spies and will put them on trial.
Early in November AP reported that four men on motorcycles shot and killed two Venezuelan National Guard troops at a checkpoint near the border
In mid-November a Venezuela commander complained that four of his soldiers had been detained by Columbian troops near the border.
Late in November Venezuelan troops blew up two bridges that connect the countries, according to Bloomberg News.
The most serious incident did not involve military personnel.
Earlier in October the bullet-ridden bodies of eleven men–nine of them Colombians–were found in Tachira in Venezuela.
They had been abducted from a soccer game.
There are additional sources of tension in South America.
The AP reported early last month that a Peruvian Air Force officer confessed to passing national security secrets to Chile.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet denied the espionage allegations made by Peru, calling them offensive.
The spy arrest created a diplomatic crisis between the neighboring countries, whose relations were already prickly due to disputes over sea rights.
Relations have been strained between the two countries since Peru took a maritime border dispute to the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands in 2008.
Old and new wounds
Peru and Chile fought over territory in the 1879-84 War of the Pacific.
Bolivia sided with Peru in that war and ended up ceding territory to Chile.
According to BBC News, recent Bolivian military purchases raised some fears in Paraguay of a retaliatory re-run of the bloody 1932-1935 Chaco War.
The Chaco War (1932–1935) was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay over control of the northern part of the Gran Chaco region of South America, which was incorrectly thought to be rich in oil.
It was the bloodiest military conflict fought in South Americas during the 20th century.
Bolivia lost large swathes of territory in that war.
The Cenepa war in 1996 was a brief and localized military conflict between Ecuador and Peru fought over control of a disputed area on the border between the two countries.
According to some reports, the Chilean Army has become one of the most technologically advanced and professional in South America.
Total army manpower is 55,000.
Chilean armor includes 202 Leopard 1v tanks.
The army recently purchased 140 second-hand Leopard 2A4s from Germany.
Total navy personnel is 25,000, including 5,200 marines.
The Chilean surface fleet includes 7 frigates, 3 amphibious landing ships, 12 support ships, plus coastal patrol craft, fast attack craft, helicopters, and patrol aircraft.
Chile operates 4 submarines.
The Chilean Air Force operates 120 combat aircraft, including F-16s and Mirages.
Total Air Force personnel is12,800
Photo: Chilean Frigate Almirante Blanco Encalada (FF-15) at Pearl Harbor in 2006.(Dennis C. Cantrell-USN)
The Brazilian Army includes motorized, mechanized, armored, artillery, frontier, and light infantry brigades, in addition to jungle infantry brigades, and a parachute brigade.
The Brazilian navy includes 1 aircraft carrier, 5 submarines, 19 frigates, 31 patrol and coastal craft, 6 mine warfare craft, and 4 amphibious craft
Total army manpower is195,000.
Brazilian battle tanks include 250 Leopard 1A5s and 91 M-60 A3s.
Brazil has the largest air force in South America with about 700 manned aircraft and 73,000 personnel.
The Brazilian Air Force has 272 combat aircraft, including F-5’s, Super Turcanos, and Embraer/Aermacchi A-1 ABs (Pocket Tornados).
The Air Force operates forty-five armed helicopters.
Photo: A Brazilian A-29 Supertucano (Neoreich)
According to the International Institue of Strategic Sudies, Venezuela currently has 94 combat capable aircraft.
The majority are attack jets, including Sukhois, F-16s, and Mirages.
Venezuelan naval forces include 7 Frigates (with an additional 3 under construction), 2 diesel electric submarines, 6 Vosper patrol boats, 4 LSTs, and a supply ship.
The Venezuelan Marine Corps is estimated at 8,500 and consists of 2 Marine Infantry Brigades, 2 Riverine Security Brigades, an Engineers Brigade, a Naval Police Brigade, a Special Forces Brigade, and a Naval Reserve Brigade
The Venezuela Coast Guard operates 2 frigates, 4 offshore patrol vessels, and 12 patrol ships, in addition to utility and smaller patrol boats.
The Coast Guard reportedly plans to purchase 15 PT boats in the future.
The Venezuela Army has 115,000 regular troops and 280,000 reservists.
The fighting capability of the reservists is unknown.
Venezuelan armor includes 84 AMX-30 main battle tanks and close to 300 light tanks, in addition to armored personnel carriers and armored cars.
Photo: Venezuelan soldiers in a AMX-30 tank in a military parade in Venezuela. (Deffender93)
The Peruvian Army has a strength of 175,000.
The army operates several types of tanks ,including French AMX-13s, Russian T-54s, T-55s, and T-62s, in addition to armoured personnel carriers and helicopters,
The flagship of Peruvian Navy is the cruiser Almirante Grau (CLM-81).
The fleet includes 8 frigates, 2 of which were built in Peru, 6 corvettes, 4 landing ships, tankers, and cargo ships.
The Peruvian Navy has a naval aviation force, several naval infantry battalions and special forces units.
The MiG-29 is the main fighter of the Peruvian Air Force, which has about 75,000 personnel.
The Air Force also operates Mirage 2000s and SU-25 attack fighters, in addition to close-support aircraft, Mi-25 attack helicopters, and Mi-17 transport helicopters.
Photo: Peruvian Air Force Mig-29s (Cesar Renato Yui Laos)
The following slideshow features photos and descriptions of some of the military equipment currently popular in South America.
John Signoriello can be contacted by email at [email protected]
Sources used to research this article include:
Global Post: www.globalpost.com
Federation of American Scientists www.fas.org/programs/ssp/asmp/index.html
The Cutting Edge News: www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php
Forecast International: www.forecastinternational.com/press0.cfm
New America Foundation: www.newamerica.net
Global Firepower: www.globalfirepower.com/