August 7, 2004
The countries supplying most of Latin America's military hardware during the past decade have been France, Holland, Spain, Russia and Israel. The U.S. has been a key provider also, especially to Colombia (which is fighting rebels) and Argentina (a quasi-member of NATO). But U.S. sales haven't increased much since export restrictions were lifted. And Latin American countries are turning to their own industries for military hardware.
Those conclusions can be drawn from the latest arms-acquisition reports from organizations such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the United Nations. True, arms purchases aren't always transparent. Still, one of the major trends is that European nations, including the former Soviet bloc members, are getting a lot of business in the region.
European countries find themselves with a lot of Cold War surplus available at attractive prices. For developing countries, even a 20- or 30-year-old weapon system can represent a big leap in capabilities. Put a handful of Mig-29s in, say, Peru and all of a sudden you have the most advanced air force in the region, at least on paper.
The U.S. has provided a lot of used equipment, too, often for free. The Clinton administration loosened arms exports into Latin America. But aside from the $660 million sale of F-16s to Chile, the new policy hasn't netted other major weapons sales. Earlier this year, Argentina cancelled a purchase of a dozen AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, saying it was short on cash.
Lockheed Martin was said to have its F-16 in the running for Brazil's upcoming fighter contract, but recent reports say the finalists are Russia's Su-35, Sweden's Gripen and a Mirage 2000 variant from a joint venture of Dassault and Brazil's Embraer. Even the Chilean F-16s aren't a pure American product. The weapons systems are being purchased in Israel, and the pilot-training contract apparently went to Turkey.
Why does the U.S. lag? Well, a lot of American weapons do cost more. Take, for example, a standard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, and you're talking $10 million or more per copy. A Russian Mi-8 or Mi-24 costs just a fraction of that. And in a region where most of your potential foes are still using weapons from the 1960s and 1970s, you can afford to skimp on 21st Century technology.
Meanwhile, some South American countries have developed their own, respectable military industries. Peru and a few other countries have ship-building capabilities. Argentina has built light warplanes and medium tanks. But no Latin American nation is more advanced than Brazil. The region's largest nation has manufactured armored vehicles, light aircraft, missiles and rocket launchers.
Brazil's defense industry emerged as one of the world's largest suppliers in the 1980s, when its list of customers exceeded 40 countries. It was one of Iraq's main suppliers during the Iran-Iraq War, and the loss of sales when that conflict ended decimated Brazilian arms industry. Today, one of the survivors, Embraer, has evolved into a major producer of commuter airplanes and the successful Tucano family of light-attack/trainer planes. Embraer also developed the sophisticated R-99 series of surveillance and airborne early warning aircraft. -- J.C. Arancibia.