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The Specter of Russian-Made Fighter Jets in Venezuela

By Stratfor

May 05, 2005 1509 GMT | Summary Venezuela reportedly is looking to purchase Su-27 Flanker fighters from Russia instead of the less-capable Mig-29SMT Fulcrums it previously considered. This development would constitute a provocative move by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- one that would have serious implications in Latin America and beyond.

Analysis

Venezuela has expressed interest in acquiring two squadrons of Su-27 Flanker air-superiority fighters from Russia, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported May 4. The Venezuelans apparently are interested in the base model Su-27, which has been out of production in Russia since Sukhoi Corp. began producing the Su-30 variants for the export market. If a contract for the reported $250 million deal is signed, the aircraft -- 20 to 24 fighters -- would be transferred to the Venezuelan air force (FAV) from the Russian air force inventory.

Venezuela's interest in the Su-27 is significant in that acquiring the aircraft would make the FAV the most potent air force in South America and the Caribbean. The Flanker has a much longer range than the Mig-29SMT Fulcrum -- which Caracas also is considering purchasing from Russia -- meaning it can operate much further from Venezuelan air space. With a combat radius of nearly 1,000 miles, a Caracas-based Su-27 could participate in dogfights over Colombia, Cuba, most of Central America and the entire Caribbean Sea. Caracas' efforts to acquire advanced weaponry will alter the security environment in Latin America -- and give the United States more to ponder as it figures out how to deal with Venezuela.

Whether the FAV chooses the MiG-29s, the Su-27s or both, the new fighters will replace its aging F-16s, which the United States provided in the early 1980s. The F-16s, which the FAV deploys in two squadrons based at El Libertador air base in Maracay, spend most of their time on the ground because of low serviceability. The U.S. government stopped supplying the FAV with spare parts for its F-16s in 2001 after the Chavez government suspended military relations with Washington. Although the FAV has managed to keep some F-16s in the air despite maintenance difficulties resulting from the embargo -- a point of pride for the FAV -- the jets' long-term serviceability is in doubt.

In February, Caracas purchased 10 Mi-17 and Mi-26 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles in a deal worth $120 million. Unlike these purchases, primarily intended to support border and internal security requirements, Su-27s would have implications far beyond Venezuela's borders.

The Su-27 is a long-range, advanced fighter capable of deploying powerful weapons. With even two squadrons of such jets, the FAV could dominate the air forces of neighboring countries. In other words, it would become the most powerful air force in Latin America, far surpassing the capabilities of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil.

Colombia always has eyed Venezuela with suspicion, but bilateral relations have deteriorated since Chavez came to power. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez has struck a nonchalant pose publicly, claiming he is not worried about the regional security implications of Chavez's arms-buying spree. Colombian media, however, recently disclosed an internal Defense Ministry memorandum that confirms Uribe is quite concerned about the Venezuelan arms build up. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush also has voiced its concerns repeatedly in Latin America, Madrid and Moscow.

Caracas initially had expressed interest in purchasing the MiG-29SMT Fulcrum, which has a range of 465 miles if external fuel tanks are not attached. The external tanks, which have a negative impact on the fighter's performance, also take up space on the aircraft that could be used for weapons. The Su-27's range on internal fuel alone is almost twice that of the MiG-29. With no need to carry cumbersome external tanks, the Flanker can participate in aerial combat with all of its external stores stations available for missiles.

Meanwhile, in even considering the sale, Russia has a "weapon" with which to exert geopolitical pressure on the United States. In response to recent U.S. inroads along Russia's periphery, Moscow might be deciding to muddy the waters elsewhere for the United States -- and Venezuela, as a sore spot for Washington already, is a good launching pad. Certainly, forcing the United States to channel its resources from Central Asia and the Caucasus in order to counter Russian-caused problems elsewhere would relieve Moscow of some U.S. pressure.

Russia had once hinted at supplying Tu-22M Backfire bombers to China, but later backed off the sale. More recently, Moscow agreed to supply Syria with the Strelets surface-to-air missile system, despite objections from the United States and Israel. Of course, the Su-27 deal could be called off, or scaled back like the Chinese Backfire deals have been, but the political implications of the sale of Su-27s to a regime that is openly hostile to Washington would keep Washington off balance without a fighter going to Venezuela.

Relations between Caracas and Washington have deteriorated markedly since Chavez came to power, especially as Venezuela moved closer to Cuba, aligning its military planning with Havana's. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said she considers relations between Washington and Caracas beyond hope of improving. With the United States beginning to refocus its attention to issues outside the Middle East, Chavez believes his country could be targeted for U.S. intervention.

Long-range, heavily armed Su-27s in the FAV's possession, however, would complicate any U.S. military intervention in the region. Air superiority -- gaining and maintaining total control of the air over the battlefield -- is essential to U.S. military planning. In any U.S. operation against Venezuela, the formidable defensive obstacle presented by squadrons of Su-27s would have to be overcome before air superiority could be achieved. Moreover, the Su-27's long range would force U.S. air and naval units to operate further from Venezuelan skies.

If Chavez can acquire surplus Russian air force Su-27s for less than the cost of new MiG-29s, he certainly would get more bang for his buck, which would help ease the fiscal strain of his rearmament program. Combined with a huge militia reserve armed with new Kalashnikov and older FAL rifles, the Su-27 would provide another layer of defense between Chavez and Washington.

The specter of Chavez's air force operating the Su-27 would give Washington -- and its allies in the region -- plenty to think about.



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