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Hugo Chavez: MiGs, SAMs and 900,000 more assault rifles

G2Americas | Intelligence Brief

140206 – No. 05/06 | Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spent over $2.17 billion in 2005 to acquire Russian assault rifles and helicopters, Spanish transport aircraft and missile-capable corvettes, and Brazilian turboprop light attack aircraft. In January 2006, however, the U.S. State Department denied Spain and Brazil permission to sell Venezuela military transport and light attack aircraft containing U.S.-owned engine and avionics technology. The U.S. government’s action killed deals worth over $600 million to Spanish firm CASA-EADS and Brazil’s Embraer. It also created a major hindrance, albeit not an insurmountable obstacle, for the president’s military expansion plans.

The Bolivarian revolution’s military weapons buying spree will continue in 2006. On Feb. 4, President Chavez announced plans to acquire Russian MiGs, air defense missile systems (SAMs), and enough assault rifles to arm an all-volunteer national military reserve that already has over 1 million members. Chavez also plans this year to place orders for more attack and multi-role helicopters, and up to three diesel-electric submarines either from Russia, Spain, or Germany. Chavez is also shopping for two heavy coast guard and coastal patrol ships (in addition to the eight small vessels ordered last year from Spain’s Navantia), 30 hovercraft naval transports, and up to 100 high-speed patrol boats that can be equipped with heavy machine guns and man-portable SAMs.

Russian arms manufacturers are first in line to supply Chavez with more assault rifles and helicopters. Russian companies also have indicated their willingness to supply Venezuela with SAMs and MiGs, although formal negotiations haven’t started yet. In fact, Venezuela could be Russia’s third largest arms buyer this year, after China and India. On Feb. 9, Mikhail Dmitriyev, director of the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, said that “If Venezuela wants to obtain MiGs, we are prepared to cooperate.” Russian arms exports totaled a record $6.1 billion in 2005, and Dmitriyev said orders for another $23 billion in weapons are already in the pipeline. Chavez’s military shopping list could represent billions of dollars in additional contracts for Russian arms exporters.

While Russia tops the list of countries that likely will sell more weapons to Venezuela in 2006, Chavez also may go shopping for some weapons in China, Iran, India and South Africa. It’s also possible that the Chavez government will talk with officials of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) about buying larger ballistic missiles. However, the majority of the weapons systems exported by these countries are based to varying degrees on Russian weapons designs and technologies. As a result, Chavez will explore options with Russian arms manufacturers and the government of President Vladimir Putin before it goes shopping in other markets.

The Chavez government bought ten Russian MI-17, MI-26 and MI-35 helicopters in 2005, and could order another ten more helicopters over the coming year. Chavez also bought 100,000 AK-103 and AK-104 assault rifles that will be delivered in 2006. The rifles cost slightly over $388 per weapon. On Feb. 4, however, Chavez said that “100,000 rifles are not enough,” and declared that many more rifles are needed to arm his one million-strong military reserve. He didn’t mention numbers, but the rifles he already purchased only cover the FAN’s needs. After the FAN transfers its Belgian-design FAL assault rifles to the reserve, Chavez still would have 900,000 reservists in need of a basic infantry assault rifle.

A contract to buy another 900,000 assault rifles would cause geopolitical shockwaves throughout the Americas, since 1.1 million active FAN personnel and reservists armed with assault rifles would constitute the largest armed force in Latin America – a force that clearly would be viewed by Venezuela’s neighbors as a major threat to regional economic and political stability.

President Chavez said in January that the military aircraft he wants to buy would be used primarily for regional humanitarian missions. However, the MI-17 and MI-35 helicopters he purchased in 2005 from Russia are designed for offensive purposes including air borne assaults, close air-ground support of infantry units in combat, anti-tank missions and air-to-air combat. Their addition to the FAN’s arsenal will increase Venezuela’s offensive military capabilities significantly in both conventional and irregular conflicts.

The MI-17 (HIP) is a multi-role, all-weather attack/transport helicopter which can be heavily armed with an extensive array of missiles, bombs, small arms and cannons. It is often used to launch airborne infantry assaults, reinforce units in combat or disrupt counterattacks. The MI-26 (HALO) is the heaviest and most powerful helicopter in the world. It was designed to carry large cargoes weighing up to 20 tons. The HALO A version has no armaments, and its load and lift capabilities are comparable to the U.S. C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. The MI-35 (HIND E) is an upgraded version of the MI-24, which was used extensively during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The HIND is an assault gunship/transport helicopter that also can be deployed for direct air support of infantry troops, antitank, armed escort, and air to air combat.

The Chavez government’s shopping list for 2006 includes MiG-29 Fulcrums, possibly Sukhoi SU-27 Flankers, and air defense missiles, including both man-portable and vehicle-mounted SAMs. Chavez said in 2005 that he would buy up to 50 MiG-29 Fulcrums in a deal worth up to $5 billion, by his own account. However, if any aircraft purchase contracts are signed it likely will involve a smaller number of Fulcrums and/or Flankers, possibly about 24 aircraft in all.

Venezuela’s air force has been test-flying Fulcrums with Cuban and Russian technical advice since 2001. The highly maneuverable SU-27 Flanker has an air combat radius of 1,500 km, and a maximum cruising range of 4,000 km, which means that it could be deployed over Cuba, Colombia or Panama from air bases in Venezuela. In 2005, reports from Moscow indicated that the Chavez government was interested in buying up to 24 Flankers. If the Chavez government buys a mix of Fulcrums and Flankers, it would have air superiority over all of its neighbors in the region, and likely would trigger an arms race involving at least Colombia and Brazil.

Chavez also said on Feb. 4 that he would purchase some “good, modern rocket launchers.” This was not widely reported by the news media. However, we think that Chavez meant surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Chavez might also seek to acquire cruise missiles from Iran or ballistic missiles from DPRK, but most likely he will shop for man-portable SAMs that can be deployed with infantry units in the asymmetrical warfare tactics that now form the pillar of Venezuela’s new Bolivarian national security doctrine. In effect, Chavez proposes to turn all of Venezuela, but principally Caracas, into a battlefield for irregular Venezuelan forces operating as guerrillas in the event of a U.S. military invasion.

Russia has a variety of man-portable and vehicle-mounted SAM systems that Chavez may find appealing. For example, the SA-7 GRAIL (Strela-2), the SA-14 GREMLIN (Strela-3), the SA-16 GIMLET, and the SA-18 GROUSE. Chavez also may be tempted to buy truck-mounted SAM systems like the SA-8 GECKO, the SA-9 GASKIN, the SA-12 A and B systems (GLADIATOR and GIANT), the SA-15 GAUNTLET, and the SA-20 TRIUMF.

President Chavez claims these weapons are meant for defensive purposes against a U.S. military invasion. However, this is nonsense. Chavez has single-handedly provoked and goaded the U.S. government to the point that some U.S. national security policymakers now consider him a bigger threat to regional economic and political stability than Cuban leader Fidel Castro. These weapons are meant for offensive purposes, and under Chavez they likely would have a dual use. One would be to repress internal dissent. The other use could be to launch attacks against neighboring countries.

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