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Could war erupt in arms-spree LatAm?

By Robert Munks
Americas Analyst, IHS Jane's

Brazil is buying four Scorpene attack submarines from France
Brazil is buying four Scorpene attack submarines from France

Is Latin America gearing up for conflict? Some regional commentators certainly fear that a handful of countries are teetering on the edge of a full-blown arms race they can ill afford - either financially or diplomatically.

That fear has been stoked in the past week by the coincidental announcement of two major procurement programmes.

Firstly, Brazil confirmed on 7 September that it will buy four Scorpene attack submarines from France, and will build 50 EC-725 transport helicopters under licence.

It has also opened negotiations with French company Dassault for a large order of Rafale fighter aircraft.

Then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned last week from a successful shopping trip to Moscow, with T-72 main battle tanks and an unknown quantity of air defence systems in the bag.

Both countries are ramping up military expenditure to levels not seen in decades.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) and Russian Premier Vladimir Putin
Venezuela has signed a $2bn arms deal with Russia

For Brazil, re-armament is ostensibly necessary to update much of its obsolete equipment and to improve the protection of its vast territory and recently-discovered offshore oil fields.

But Brasilia also harbours a desire to cement its status as the regional political and economic heavyweight through increasing military clout.

Hence the accords with France, which will also see the two countries co-operate on the construction of a hull for a nuclear-powered submarine that Brazil wants in service by 2020.

Full technology transfer was a key Brazilian demand during all its contract negotiations.

Conscious of regional sensitivities, Brazil has consistently stressed that its re-armament is non-offensive.

For an emergent world power seeking the prize of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, that claim is entirely credible.

Cross-border spate

Yet the acquisitions by Mr Chavez, the region's most mercurial and outspoken leader, are a different case - particularly since Venezuela's relations with neighbouring Colombia have slumped towards outright belligerence since late July.

The standoff followed Bogota's decision to grant basing rights to the US military at seven sites across the country.

FARC rebels
Colombia is fighting a battle against the Farc rebels

Mr Chavez - whose military doctrine is founded on a hypothetical US invasion from Colombia to seize his lucrative oilfields - has used the US-Colombia agreement to justify his new Russian hardware.

Moreover, with diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Colombia partially suspended and a cross-border trade spat brewing, the dispute on this occasion appears set to be unusually venomous.

Colombia, meanwhile, continues to be by far the largest recipient of US military aid in Latin America - some $6.1bn (£3.6bn) since 1999 - as it continues a war against left-wing Farc insurgents and drug cartels.

Its armed forces are designed and equipped for airmobile counter-insurgency operations, unlike their more traditional Venezuelan counterparts, meaning that military conflict between the two sides would be ill-matched and, in the final analysis, almost certainly inconclusive.

This begs the question of whether Venezuela's recent military purchases could be a precursor to conflict.

In theory, yes, given that Venezuela is consolidating its conventional armoured and air superiority over Colombia - it has already taken delivery of 24 advanced Su-30 fighters.

In a worst-case scenario, analysts fear that an embattled Chavez might be tempted to launch a military adventure to divert attention from his growing domestic woes, pushing his AMX-13 and Scorpion 90 light tanks across the border and launching long-range airstrikes.

But in practice, the risk of war breaking out is still negligible, given the likelihood of massive dissuasive pressure from both the US and Brazil.

For the moment, at least, arms acquisitions by Mr Chavez continue to be a mix of both nationalistic pride and sabre-rattling.

Economic suicide

Elsewhere on the continent, fears of an arms race between neighbouring Chile and Peru - which have contested a maritime boundary since a war in 1879 - resurface periodically.

Yet here again, the actual threat is minimal.

Peru knows that it would be economic suicide to try to match Chile's vastly superior armed forces.

 Chaco War
Bolivian military purchases briefly raised fears of a Chaco War rerun

Sporadic outbursts of nationalist rhetoric are good for letting off steam, but do not indicate genuine military competition.

Even military minnows Paraguay and Bolivia have recently been mentioned in an "arms race" context.

Recent Bolivian military purchases - including helicopters from Russia - briefly raised over-exaggerated fears in Paraguay of a retaliatory re-run of the bloody 1932-1935 Chaco War, in which Bolivia lost large swathes of territory.

In reality, however, the appetite for confrontation is non-existent.

Appropriately, perhaps, it is the two countries that for four decades embarked on the world's largest ever arms race - the US and Russia - who may hold the key to the situation in Latin America.

The former superpowers are playing out a miniature version of an oddly nostalgic game on the continent, reminiscent of Cold War proxy conflicts where each has their favoured partners.

Russia, for example, is supplying a number of countries with arms on generous terms, while the US reactivated its naval Fourth Fleet in mid-2008 to patrol the waters of the south.

Yet even here, explanations are relatively straightforward.

Russia sees Venezuela as a key military market in the developing world, and in reality has little appetite for a genuine strategic alliance with the volatile Mr Chavez.

The US, meanwhile, has expressed concern about the recent arms purchases.

The state department said Venezuelan policy posed "a serious challenge to stability" in the region.

Washington knows that accepting Brazil's claim to regional leadership steals much of the thunder from Mr Chavez in a part of the world it can no longer treat as its "backyard".

So an arms race in Latin America? Not yet, not quite.

As with much of the region's tempestuous politics, the rhetoric continues to outpace the reality.

But even so, recent developments suggest that while the world is preoccupied with conflicts on other parts of the globe, the seeds are quietly being sown for the increased militarisation of a region that arguably should have its budgetary priorities elsewhere.

Comparison of defence spending in South American countries



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