Friday, May 1, 2015

Rethinking military spending: New trends in Latin America


By Jose Miguel Pizarro

There is nothing new going on in Europe. The cost for equipment keeps increasing while military spending continues to decrease. In Western Europe this has led to significant cuts in modern equipment and combat personnel, ultimately impacting countries' ability to field a capable force on land, sea and air. The Russians know this, so they push. And it works.

But while this is true in Europe and North America, expenditure in regions such as South America has been steadily on the increase. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military expenditures in South America grew to $82 billion in 2014, while in Europe spending fell by 1.6%. Despite recent cuts to Brazil's defense budget, this country alone still accounts for more than half of the region's total military spending, making it a significant actor in the region. Last year, it spent $33.1 billion on defense, which is more than South Korea or Australia.

The “perceived” lack of external and inter-state threats (which is wrong and misguided) has also meant a dangerous shift in focus towards other non-traditional security concerns like the illicit drug trade, organized crime and humanitarian operations. Unfortunately, because Latin American armed forces are poorly trained for these types of highly complex missions, the public perception is that military forces are not the answer to fight heavily armed guerrilla forces or criminal organizations equipped with machine guns, assault rifles and hand grenades. This begs the question, what is the military's role in Latin America for these types of operations?

In Latin America the future role of the military is uncertain and could be extremely controversial. The military has been used in many of these countries — especially in Central America, Colombia and Peru — to support anti-drug operations and citizen security operations in many venues but always with the wrong training, the wrong doctrine and without the right equipment. The unspecified mission it's still in flux and needs to be clearly defined by the civilian leadership because it's an uncomfortable situation for the military, as much as it is for the elected governments who are trying to tackle these problems. In the words of one politician: “There's a lot of dynamics taking place and a lot of strategic rethinking and shifting that's shaping military modernization in our region.”

I beg to differ. When it comes to define the current state of affairs of national defense in Latin America there is only one expression: It’s a mess.

Is there an arms race in Latin America? Absolutely not. It’s more like a shopping spree of highly needed equipment that’s quickly being replaced with a misguided list of capabilities designed to fight the last war. The overall picture that emerges from this survey of recent arms-modernization developments in Latin America is one of continuity rather than change. There is little modernization without a robust change in doctrine. Several countries in the region have embarked on ambitious arms modernization programs, fueled either by rising commodity prices, as in Chile and Venezuela, or increased national prosperity, as in Brazil. However, despite the warnings of a regional “arms race” most of the purchases that have taken place in recent years are simply the culmination of long-discussed acquisition plans, most of which are aimed at replacing or updating tremendously obsolete systems more than 30 years old. While defense spending and imports have increased in recent years, this also comes off the back of a prolonged period of falling or stagnating budgets and often vocal criticism from the military about underfunding. As a result, the armed forces just want to buy new weapons.

That said, questions can still be asked with regards to the wisdom and suitability of many of the purchases. In particular, Venezuela’s Sukhoi-30 acquisition was criticized by many as a waste of resources and out of proportion with the actual defense needs of the country. Brazil’s renewed interest in a nuclear-powered submarine has also drawn criticism for similar reasons. (They rarely deploy outside the Rio de Janeiro bay.)

There is a lot going on in the region. For instance, there are clear signs of  a healthy competitive behavior in certain purchases that a few countries have made recently, with Peru keeping a close eye on Chile’s acquisitions and Colombia and Brazil both eyeing Venezuela. Another historical event is the emergence of Russia as a key supplier to Latin America. However, perhaps the more interesting development identified in the last 10 years is the growing role of other emerging suppliers, such as China with superb weapon systems and, to a lesser extent, India. These countries look set to join the long list of suppliers competing for Latin American business, possibly driving down prices and undermining any attempts on the part of the U.S. to limit the introduction of extremely advanced weapons systems into the region.

Still unclear is how the latest financial crisis will affect the continent’s arms-acquisition programs. During the 2001–2002 many acquisition programs were canceled as governments battled with the fallout from the Argentine financial crisis. The “red flag” goes up if, as many predict, the global financial crisis that started in 2008 is more severe than in the early 2000’s. If this is the current scenario (and I am certain it is the case here) the end result it could have a serious impact on state defense plans.

In closing, the Latin American region today is heavily invested in acquisitions of weapon systems they hardly understand or need. And it will continue to be. But if the radical adjustments in strategy, organization, and modern doctrine implied by the new rules of war are ignored, the region will go on spending more and getting less when it comes to national defense. Asymmetric threats and heavily armed criminal networks will persist until they have the capability to land historical blows to most of the countries in the region. Other unconventional enemies will leapfrog ahead of our military forces, and concepts like “deterrence” and “containment” will blow away like leaves in the wind.

So it has always been. Every era of technological change has resulted in profound shifts in military and strategic affairs. History tells us that these developments were inevitable, but generals and statesmen were almost always too late in embracing them — and tragedies upon tragedies ensued. There is still time to be counted among the exceptions. The goal of the Latin American armed forces should be to join the ranks of those who, in their eras, caught glimpses of the future and acted in time to shape it, saving their countries from darkness.

Jose Miguel Pizarro , 47, is a former Chilean Army officer and a former U.S. Marine with more than 27 years of active military experience in the Latin American region as a military analyst. He also served in the Middle East as a private security contractor. Mr. Pizarro also worked for CNN en EspaƱol and for the German-based Monch publishing group as a columnist for Military Technology. He lives in Washington, DC, with his family. E-mail: jm.pizarro@chilecompany.com

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