In mid-September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton critiqued Venezuela’s leader Hugo Chavez for his ongoing purchases of mostly Russian military equipment, arguing that this could trigger an arms race in South America. The statement has added fuel to the ongoing discussions about what form South America’s rearmament is taking and what this could come to mean for the security of the region.
The aim of this paper is to discuss the major arms purchases now going on in South America and the likelihood of inter-state war breaking out as the result. Ongoing reports about major purchases by Venezuela, Brazil and Chile tend to blur the actual geo-security situation in the region, as several countries, with Argentina as the most prominent example, have carried out only limited military acquisitions. The common perception is that an arms race raises the possibility of inter-state war; however, the reality in South America (and Central America as well) is that inter-state warfare has seldom occurred since World War II. Additionally, regarding the arms race in South America, it is misleading to assume that all South American countries are carrying out their arm purchases with the same gusto as Brazil, Chile and Venezuela.
It is generally assumed that South America is either already engaged in an arms race or is about to enter one. This is somewhat inconsistent because the start of an arms race is not easily defined. It could also be argued that what is occurring is not so much a general arms race as it is a product of certain militaries capitalizing on weak civilian governments (an updated version of former Uruguayan President Bordaberry in 1973) to increase their defense budgets. Furthermore, in spite of domestic security issues in several South American countries, most notably the insurgent movements in Colombia and Peru as well as occasional inter-state tensions, the reality is that inter-state wars in the region have been notably scarce in the past few decades, which raises the question: is interstate warfare necessarily the future of South America? The final section of this article will discuss whether an arms race could lead to general warfare.
When discussing the current purchase of weaponry throughout South America, there seems to be a universal, if misguided conclusion that all purchases are occurring at the same level, and that they are all potentially of an offensive nature. In terms of methodology, South American countries will be separated into contrasting levels of the intensity of weapons’ purchases in order to better portray which countries are buying the most military equipment, and which might arguably constitute more of a security threat for the region than others.
Major spenders: Brazil, Chile, Venezuela
Without a doubt, the major military purchases by these three countries are generally providing the axis around which statements concerning a South American arms’ race are being made.
Brazil, the regional powerhouse, has embarked on an ambitious military program in recent years. 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. In addition, as part of its growing relations with France, Brazil recently announced that it will purchase 36 Rafale warplanes; France will also provide Brasilia with technological aid to build four Scorpene-type diesel-electric submarines, as well as one nuclear-powered submarine, which will be Brazil’s first. Issues continue to arise concerning the country’s aviation inventory. According to reports, Brazil’s air fleet amounts to over 720 planes, however, around 37% of them are grounded. A September 2009 report stated that Brazil has also agreed to purchase Eurocopters, which will become the country’s new medium-lift helicopter (according to Defense Industry Daily, the Navy and Army will each acquire 16, while the Air Force will be receiving 18).
Chile has made aggressive military purchases in the past decade. Because of its geographic separation from Brazil and Venezuela, along with its close political ties to Washington, it is not regarded as a major security threat by the international media, though its immediate neighbors, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, might argue differently. The numerous purchases made by the Chilean military 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 Humvee from General Motors.
Venezuela is regarded by American policymakers as the center of development of a regional arms race. Hugo Chavez has made some of the most public purchases of military equipment in recent months, particularly from Russia and China. From China, Caracas has obtained radar equipment (10 JYL-1 radars), and from Russia, Chavez has purchased Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopters (models Mi-26, Mi-35, Mi-17 and Mi-28N) and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. In addition, Russia is buying a Kalashnikov rifle factory in Venezuela, along with an additional facility to produce ammunition. from China. Chavez’s most recent world tour included a stop in Moscow where, during a meeting with President Medvedev, the Venezuelan leader announced his intention to purchase up to 92 Russian heavy battle tanks type T-72.
However, not all of this is new. Caracas’ plans for buying a Russian S-300 air-missile system have been around for several years. In a 2008 article in the Russian news agency Ria Novosti, former Air Force commander General Anatoly Kornukov explained that “needless to say, should S-300s be delivered to Venezuela, they would effectively strengthen its defense capability, and it would not be easy for its possible adversaries to punish the country by striking at its oil fields.”
Medium spenders with simmering armed conflicts: Colombia and Peru
Colombia has carried out a number of military acquisitions, most notably the Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S., as well as 25 Super Tucanos. An April 2009 press release by the Colombian army mentions the visit of then-Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos to a cadet school to present 5 new Black Hawks to the Army’s air force brigade, a portion of the 15 helicopters of that model that Bogota has acquired from Washington. According to the press release, the Army alone possesses 50 Black Hawk helicopters and 23 Russian MI-17 helicopters. In June, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) delivered a first batch of four upgraded Kfir fighter jets to the Colombian Air Force. Nine others will be delivered by years’ end as part of a 2007 contract that cost $150 million. The seven bases where the U.S. will base its forces within Colombia will add a further deterrent against any country wishing to attack it.
Peru’s major purchases in the last several years have been four Lupo-class Italian frigates to upgrade its navy. The country has also has obtained a number of Sea King helicopters from the U.S. to use for spare parts and emergency operations. The deal was part of Washington’s surplus program and cost Peru $6 million. In addition, Russia has repaired and upgraded 13 of the country’s Mi-17 helicopters.
Colombia and Peru are placed in a unique mid level category of the region’s arms race, as both countries have ongoing internal armed conflicts. Colombia’s war against the FARC and ELN continues, as well as its far-less vigorously pursued struggles against the powerful rightist drug cartels (now, fortunately, somewhat smaller than their predecessors from the 1980s), and the activities of rogue rightist paramilitary squads like the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles). Similarly, in Peru, the September 1st attack on a Mi-17 Peruvian Air Force helicopter by members of the Andean terrorist movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), proved that the terrorist group’s remnant factions in the VRAE (Valley of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers) are far from defeated, even if their current force consists of merely around 200 combat troops. A brigade of Peruvian special forces has joined regular troops in military operations in the VRAE region.
Peru’s purchases of the Lupo frigates can certainly be viewed as part of the general South American arms race, especially when compared to Chile’s aggressive purchases. The same can be said for Colombia’s Kfir warplanes. Nevertheless, before Colombia and Peru can be regarded as regional security threats, like Chile or arguably Venezuela, they first need to deal with their internal security conflicts. A common argument among militaries is that they are reluctant to be involved in two-front wars due to the incredible drain on resources and other complications that they bring; therefore, it is illogical to foresee Bogota or Lima triggering external strife while fighting their own internal battles against the FARC and ELN, and a resurgent Shining Path, respectively. It is for these reasons that both Colombia and Peru represent special circumstances in South America, as their militaries and military purchases are generally aimed inwards to deal with the insurgent movements, and not so much to guard their respective borders.
Medium spenders: Bolivia and Ecuador
Both Bolivia and Ecuador have carried out, or are planning to carry out, some significant military purchases. Ecuador’s major acquisitions have been a fleet of 24 Super Tucanos from Brazil’s Embraer. In addition, the country has acquired six unmanned Israeli surveillance drones for patrolling purposes. From the point of view of the Peruvian military, Quito poses a significant threat to Lima, due to its growing relationship with Chile. In 2008, there were reports that Asmar, one of Chile’s shipping companies, was upgrading two Ecuadorian Type 209-1300 submarines, while Ecuador had purchased two Chilean frigates.
La Paz, Bolivia, has obtained a $100 million credit from Russia that will allow it to fulfill the military’s aspiration for modern equipment, According to a recent MercoPress report, “the government of President Evo Morales has come under strong criticism for having approved the purchase of six Chinese built K-8 aircrafts with the purpose of combating the drug trade and to control “sensitive regions” of the country where the drug cartels prosper and have great mobility.” The planes will cost $57.8 million. A recent report in Bolivia’s daily La Razon verifies that the army is also planning to purchase new standard rifles.
Low spenders: Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay
Twenty years ago, Argentina was one of Latin America’s most hegemonic powers. Throughout its lengthy period of military ascendancy as well as afterwards, the country flirted with the novel idea of developing a nuclear program. The country’s military has never quite overcome the legacy of the last epoch of military rule and its humiliating defeat in the 1982 Falklands War. The 2001-2002 meltdown of the country’s financial system all but eliminated the country’s military programs, leaving them at their lowest point. Recent presidents, particularly Nestor Kirchner, have proven particularly wary of increasing military arms’ purchases, and are in fact, still pushing for the prosecution of junta-era human rights abusers. From an acquisitions point of view, Argentina has severely slashed its military purchases. Plans for replacing its Mirage III warplane fleet have been put on hold indefinitely, along with ambitions to acquire Russian Mi-17 helicopters. A local project to produce a light terrain military vehicle, dubbed VLE Gaucho, has also been put on hold due to the lack of an adequate budget.
A report in the September/October 2009 issue in Defence Helicopter about the role of helicopters in South American armies explained that Argentina has sought to upgrade up to 40 of its UH-1 helicopters in an effort to extend their life by up to 20 years. An August 2009 article by the Aerospace Daily & Defense Report found that with “at least 70 percent of defense spending [is] going toward personnel, little remains for weapons acquisitions.” Argentina’s procurement has had to rely on the second hand market, such was the case of its acquisition of ex US Navy UH-3H Sea King utility helicopters to replace its losses, and the 4 SAAB 340B regional airliners for LADE. In an interview with COHA, Iñigo Guevara, a specialist in Latin American defense industries and a CONACYT fellow at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, said that “as far as I know, the Argentines have only modernized seven helicopters. The military wants more but there’s simply no money.”
Uruguay and Paraguay also have made only limited purchases. Lately, Uruguay’s military seems to resemble that of a laid-back security force, its use limited to use to humanitarian missions and peacekeeping operations. In May 2008, Uruguayan blue helmets serving in the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo received UN medals for distinguished services. Uruguay also made headlines recently as a result of lifting its ban on gays in the military, a law enacted by the 1973-85 military dictatorship. In 2007, there was a bizarre case of the Uruguayan military trying to buy 18,000 Iranian HK2002 rifles (similar to the Kalashnikov assault rifle), with Venezuela serving as an intermediary. Uruguayan parliamentary investigators blocked the attempted purchase, according to an October 2007 Washington Times report. Regarding Paraguay, Guevara explains “like Argentina, the Paraguayans don’t have the funds to modernize their military, they’ll probably resort to Brazil for aid or cheap deals.”
Minor spenders: Guyana, Suriname
Even though Guyana and Suriname usually deal more with the Caribbean than with the rest of the sub-continent, they are both geographically part of South America. As a first step in joining the South American integration process, the two states joined UNASUR and the South American Defense Council. Militarily speaking, both countries do not pose a significant security threat to their immediate neighbors (Venezuela, Brazils and French Guyana), and in any case, both countries are primarily focused on domestic security issues, particularly drug trafficking. Regarding Guyana, a 2008 Caribbean Media Corporation article explains how the Bharrat Jagdeo administration spent 100 million GUY dollars ($491,091) to purchase forensic equipment, firearms and ammunition for the local police to tackle local gang activity. In 2008, Brazil offered Guyana security equipment, including Global Positioning Systems, night goggles and helmets. Brazil plays a predominant role in regard to its influence primarily over Guyana, but also to a significant degree over Suriname.
Meanwhile, Suriname’s military is increasingly turning to both the U.S. and China in an effort to improve its bilateral military and economic options. However, weakening these attempts is the former notorious military strongman, Desire Bouterse, who has been on trial for years for abuses, including murder committed during his dictatorship.
Of the twelve countries in the sub-continent, at least five have carried out a relatively low amount of military purchases in recent years. Certainly, Argentina is a surprise member on this low-level list. Of the three major spenders in the region, Brazil and Venezuela receive the most media attention, which only feeds the idea of a major regional arms race throughout the continent. This is especially the case since Brazil has plans for constructing a nuclear submarine with French aid (though this dream dates back to the time of the military junta and has thus far been unsuccessful; sources say that the nuclear-powered submarine, ideally, will be finished by 2015). Ironically, it is Chile, perhaps the country that has received the least attention, that should be regarded as theoretically a growing security threat, as Santiago has border issues with all three of its neighbors.
A final issue that should be mentioned is that military officials usually tend to describe military equipment as “offensive” or “defensive” in nature, generally using the former to describe the purchases meant to protect against neighboring states, while labeling the latter for their own acquisitions for offensive tactics. Indeed, militaries like to define themselves as peaceful in nature, describing new weaponry as necessary to maintain a deterrent against possible aggressions – hence security ministries are usually labeled as “ministries of defense,” since “ministries of war” sounds too aggressive. In an interview with COHA, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists explained that “labeling weapons as offensive/defensive is very misleading.” He goes on to argue that “some weapons can have predominant defensive roles at the tactical level but, at the strategic level, they could be used to further an invasion or other offensive actions (and vice versa).”
Discussions that question whether or not South America is headed towards an arms race, or already is involved in one, tend to raise fears of an eventual inter-state conflict. However, it is often overlooked that inter-state wars in Latin America have seldom occurred since World War II, as a brief listing of them will establish:
• 1941: A three-day war between Peru and Ecuador. Ecuadorian troops invaded northern Peru but were successfully repelled. The Peruvian army took the offensive and temporarily occupied the Ecuadorian province known as El Oro.
• 1969: The “Soccer War” or “100 Hour War” between Honduras and El Salvador.
• 1981 and 1995: Conflict broke out between Peru and Ecuador. Military operations occurred but were short lived only lasting a few weeks and casualties were relatively minor. The hostilities were limited to specific areas in the border highlands in Paquisha and Cenepa.
• 1982: The Falklands War/Guerra de las Malvinas. Though one of the belligerents was not a Latin American state, this war is still worth mentioning. Argentina, then under military junta, decided to invade the Malvinas (Falklands), which had been a matter of dispute for decades with the United Kingdom. The UK forces defeated the Argentines, speeding the dissolution of the Argentina junta and expedited the country’s return to civilian rule.
• U.S. military operations: For the sake of argument, it is worth mentioning that the U.S. carried out military operations in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989.
• Also, it should be noted that the last “great” conflict in South America was the Chaco War in 1932-35.
As different analyses of the mounting arms race point out, there are some ongoing disputes between different South American countries, especially between Venezuela (at the level of heads of state) and Colombia, and Peru and Chile. Below is a brief list of ongoing tensions and disputes between Latin American countries:
• Peru and Chile: Historical tensions tracing back to the 19th century War of the Pacific include an ongoing Santiago-initiated dispute over the maritime border between the neighboring countries.
• Bolivia and Chile: La Paz presses demands that Chile should return the coastal territories it has occupied since the War of the Pacific.
• Argentina and Chile: Both countries dispute their exact borders; there is a disagreement about the dividing line along the Southern Patagonian ice fields. In 1894, the countries signed a Peace and Friendship Treaty. However, in 1978 the countries seemed to be drifting towards war, but the Pope intervened and mediated the fracas. It is all but certain that Pinochet provided Margaret Thatcher’s government with intelligence that helped London defeat Argentina in the Falklands War.
• Peru and Ecuador: Even though there has not been warfare between the two countries since the 1995 incident in the Cenepa region and the resulting 1998 Treaty, tensions have occasionally arisen. Peru is preoccupied over the fact that Ecuador is a close ally of Chile, Peru’s historical nemesis.
• Venezuela and Guyana: Caracas historically has claimed up to 1/3 of Guyanese territory, dating back to the end of the 19th century. In 1966, after a tripartite agreement between Venezuela, Guyana and the United Kingdom, Venezuelan soldiers and civilians entered Guyanese territory, namely the Guyanese side of the Ankoko island. The Venezuelans built an airstrip there, as well as a military outpost. In February 1970, Venezuelan and Guyanese soldiers engaged in a firefight, though no injuries were reported. Fears of a Venezuelan buildup at the time did not translate into major military operations. In 2007, a Venezuelan general and 36 soldiers entered Guyanese territory apparently with the intention of blowing up an improvised dam set up by illegal gold diggers. It was never confirmed why this operation took place, and whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had given the order to enter Guyana.
• Guatemala and Belize: These countries have a historical boarder dispute in which Guatemala claims major amounts of Belizean territory. Land claims have moderated however, as conciliatory discussions have taken place over the past few decades. Belize declared independence from its protector, the United Kingdom in 1975, but Guatemala only recognized Belize as a sovereign entity in 1994. However, the two countries have never lapsed into armed conflict against each other.
• Colombia and Nicaragua: Both countries claim the ownership of the San Andres and Providencia Islands.
• Bolivia and Paraguay: While these countries have had amicable relations for the most part, military buildups have caused some concern due to the persisting memory of the bloody 1932-1935 Chaco War. La Paz became concerned after Asuncion hosted a number of military exercises with U.S. National Guard units. More recently, Asuncion asked for more information about La Paz’s military purchases from Russia after news began to circulate of a $100 million credit issued by Moscow for the purpose of weapons’ acquisitions.
• For further information, consult Ivelaw Griffith’s 2003 article, “The Caribbean Security Scenario at the Dawn of the 21st century: Continuity, Change, Challenge,” which provides a thorough list of all the recent disputes between the Caribbean Basin states, focusing especially on divisive issues among the Caribbean island states.
Over the past several decades, there have been a number of instances in which two South American countries came very close to engaging in conflict, but never actually broke out in combat. An example is the historically and often tumultuous Colombian-Venezuelan relationship. Although it was difficult to imagine actual clashes between the two governments before Uribe and Chavez held office, there has been at least one situation that could potentially have led to an armed conflict. In August 1987 the Colombian warship Caldas entered the oil-rich Venezuelan Gulf, an area that both countries claimed as their own. Venezuelan president at the time, Jaime Lusinchi, reacted by deploying a squadron of the country’s F-16 planes to fly over the Colombian warship. Tensions reached their peak when the Colombian frigate Independiente and submarine Tayrona also entered the Gulf, ready to strike at Venezuelan targets. OAS Secretary General Joao Clemente Baena and Argentine President Raul Alfonsin managed to act as mediators; finally convincing Colombia to pull its units back, and allowing the situation to cool.
Peru and Chile also came close to armed engagement in the 1970s when Peru was ruled by General Juan Velasco Alvarado and Chile by General Augusto Pinochet. In August 1975, it was widely expected that both countries would resort to arms, as Peru had purchased massive amounts of Soviet military equipment, and Velasco was planning to attack Chile to regain Peru’s lost territories. However, an outbreak of violence failed to occur due to last minute complicating issues within the Velasco government.
Throughout the period of military rub in Latin America from the 1960s-1980s, there failed to be inter-state wars, lest one. The exception was the Argentine-British war over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands. The cause of this war is generally seen as arising from the Argentine junta’s desperation to switch national attention away from the ongoing domestic crises taking place within Argentina, such as its rapidly deteriorating economy and the mass protests against military rule.
A major question that must be raised is whether a South America arms race necessarily leads to war. As previously explained, even though there exists ongoing tensions among a number of South American countries, actual inter-state wars are few and far between, and historically have not been long lasting. Apart from ongoing disputes (usually as a result of two countries claiming the same piece of land), there have been a number of “close calls” throughout the decades, but none of them actually have evolved into open warfare other than those cited here. The last major war in the region would have been the Chaco War, close to 80 years ago.
Regarding Venezuela’s recent mass purchases of Russian military equipment, as well as Chavez’s often controversial comments, there is growing concern among his critics that Chavez may make a move a la Argentina (Argentine style). In other words, his government may resort to starting an armed conflict in order to divert attention from ongoing domestic problems, thereby rallying the Venezuelan population behind him. Venezuela dismisses such a theory as out of hand.
Various explanations have been proposed to explain the lack of inter-state warfare. Experts point to U.S. influence, the outreach of the inter-American system, or technical peace-keeping mechanism provided by the OAS. Another explanation may be that countries are now resorting to legal processes when it comes to conflict resolution, for example Peru and Chile have sent their current maritime border dispute to The Hague. Then there is the theory of the general movement regarding the integration of South America. With easier modes of communication and transportation readily available, general populations and their officials can interact with individuals from other nations, resulting in the possibility of long-term periods of good will. In an interview with COHA, a retired Colombian general explained that relations between the Colombian and Venezuelan militaries are generally good – when differences arise, they tend to be exclusively at the political level.
Military officials point to the complications of military diplomacy as deterrents for the outbreak of inter-state warfare. In an interview, a senior Peruvian army commander explained that “the nature of war has changed as exemplified by the American military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq… if you want to occupy a territory you gain through war; you have to figure out what to do with the local population, which nowadays numbers in the millions.” In other words, countries presently seem less interested in acting aggressively towards each other, because issues arise even for the victors, such as having to deal with the cost and burden of local populations in gained territories.
The idea that an arms race could inevitably lead to inter-state warfare is currently being put to the test in South America. It is safe to make this claim today while the sub-continent is embarking on an arms race, however two factors come into play with such a process. One factor being that history has shown that since World War II (or even since the Chaco War), inter-state war has been generally and mercifully scarce in the region, as well as short lived (even on the rare occasions of military governments making major arms’ purchases). The second factor being that the current South American arms race is one of varying levels, in that not every country is carrying out massive military purchases like the case with Brazil, Chile and Venezuela.
Thus, the question arises whether or not those discussing the possibility of an outbreak of war may have some credibility to their position. Predicting warfare is an inexact science, and, as Latin America has proven so far, massive arms purchases have not
This analysis was prepared by Council on Hemispheric Affairs by COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez - Posted 08 Oct 2009