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Math and Strategy in Latin America

April 15, 2011

South America is quite pacific. Between the influence of the militarily dominant US, the decline of insurgencies and the end of the Cold War’s support for pro-US military regimes, border disputes, and positional jockeying, there would seem little reason for a rapid increase in Latin American defense spending.

Yet, according to SIPRI, as this Al Jazeera article relays, Latin American military expenditures increased faster than any other region’s:

The increase in real terms was 5.8 per cent for Latin America compared with 5.2 per cent for Africa, 2.8 for North America, 2.5 for the Middle East and 1.4 per cent for Asia.

In Europe, the only region to register a fall, military spending in 2010 declined by 2.8 per cent in real terms compared with 2009.

The high spenders in Latin America include Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru.

Asked why a region with hardly any ongoing conflicts accounted for such a high per centage increase, Carina Solmirano, a researcher at SIPRI’s Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme said: “I would say the rise in military spending in countries like Brazil and Chile is mostly associated with aspirations for a stronger regional and international presence, but without necessarily being a reflection of competing military power.”

Notice the disparity between the attitudes towards military spending displayed by Brazil and Chile and the decline in European defense spending. As Abu Muqawama and Fred Kaplan pointed out, the recent NATO meetings on Libya demonstrate the importance of tying defense expenditures and planning to strategic interests and goals. European countries, which have long neglected their defense capabilities before the current round of budget cuts, are seeking an active role in international politics, and finding themselves uncomfortably dependent on the whims of the US as a result.

Brazil and Chile, on the other hand, are wisely recognizing that the military power necessary, for reasons of pragmatism and prestige, to increase a country’s international profile, and with its international obligations, goes beyond maintaining a minimal level for security. It is important, however, to note that, as Ink Spots’ Gulliver frequently points out, that capabilities, not raw quantities of money or equipment, matter most. Chile, for its part, has been purchasing weapons systems with a regional, not a global, role in mind. The purchase of frigates and maritime patrol vessels does not suggest a wide-ranging naval posture necessary for international power projection, which makes sense given Chile’s rather minor geopolitical weight and position. The purchase of hundreds of Marder and YPR-765 IFVs, along with over a hundred more Leopard 2A4s (on top of nearly 300 I-Vs from around a decade earlier) demonstrate a continued Chilean commitment to fielding a sophisticated and powerful regional army, with purchases of F-16s and KC-135s providing additional strength to its air force. Chile retains some anxiety over the legacy of the War of the Pacific, where territorial disputes with Peru still aggravate tensions and the potential of conflict arising, as it often did previously, with or over unwillingly landlocked Bolivia still in the back of military  planners’ minds.

Compare these purchases, mostly of US and European arms systems, with the decisions of Brazil. Brazil is not simply purchasing European arms, but also the right to build them within Brazil itself. Brazil’s economic strategy has always been inclined towards a degree of autarky, and purchasing the rights to build French-designed aircraft, submarines, and helicopters in Brazilian facilities will, presumably, help Brazil reinvigorate and further develop its indigenous arms manufacturing capability. Brazil is also investing seriously in strategic nuclear technology, despite prohibitions on arms development. Brazilian officials have previously sought or hinted at nuclear arms in the past, and Brazil has a demonstrated interest in nuclear submarines. It also fields an aircraft carrier and is looking to maintain that capability. Like Chile, Brazil’s growth in defense expenditure is partially the product of economic growth. It is, unlike Chile’s, part of a series of strategic  obligations Brazil has incurred as part of its desire to achieve the status of an international power. The development of a truly massive undersea oil field makes the need for a stronger navy quite obvious, as do Brazil’s desire to gain a UN Security Council Seat. A world where Brazil fields a European-grade naval fleet is not implausible, and would certainly strengthen its case for being treated as a major power.

Contrast these patterns of increased obligation and expenditure with that of Peru and Colombia, whose military purchases are aimed more at internal security, and those of Argentina and other states which must increase their personnel budgets to upkeep the military at their present sizes. Despite a 6.6% increase, Argentina is clearly not expanding its capabilities in the way that its neighbors are. Latin American arms increases are another reason that concern about defense budgets must come in the context of capabilities and strategy. An over emphasis on math and the easily digestible statistics does not allow us to divine any particular strategic wisdom about the merits of cutting or increasing the military budget, and that numbers which seem alarming on their own (Latin America is increasing its defense spending faster than the Middle East! The insanity!) should be where the thinking about defense spending should start, rather than end.

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