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Venezuela: Arms Deals, Big and Small

By Stratfor

Originally published on April 05, 2005 19 03 GMT | Summary. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced the planned expansion of his Bolivarian military reserve force from its current level of 80,000 members to nearly 2.3 million armed volunteers. Reportedly, he also hosted a quiet visit by a delegation from North Korea the week of March 27-April 2. As Chavez weighs the costs of arming and equipping his military reserves, he could be thinking about buying fewer MiGs in favor of adding a North Korean missile deterrent to Venezuela's national armed forces.


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said April 3 on his nationally televised weekly program, "Hello President," that he plans to expand the military reserve he created less than a year ago from its current total of 80,000 members to as many as 2.3 million volunteers, or 10 percent of the Venezuelan population. Chavez said this reserve would be trained and equipped militarily. Separately, sources close to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said April 1 that a North Korean delegation visited Caracas quietly last week for meetings with senior Chavez government and military officials.

Chavez is already committed to buying over $2 billion worth of infantry, naval and air force weapons, radar systems, and transports from Brazil, China, Russia and Spain. Arming a military reserve force of 2.3 million members with assault rifles at a price of approximately $500 per rifle would cost the Chavez government approximately $1.15 billion -- about 20 percent of the reported $5 billion cost of purchasing 50 Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters. As a result, Stratfor believes that Venezuela's government is r ethinking plans to buy the 50 MiG-29s and is instead considering the possibility of purchasing missiles from North Korea to create a strategic deterrent against external aggression from Colombia and the United States. The Chavez government could use the savings achieved by purchasing cheaper North Korean missiles instead of MiG-29s to arm and equip its Bolivarian military reserve.

The MiG-29s theoretically would give the Chavez government air superiority over neighboring countries like Colombia. However, in an armed confrontation with the United States -- which Venezuela's new national security doctrine portrays as the Chavez government's greatest enemy -- most of Venezuela's MiGs likely would be destroyed on the ground by U.S. cruise missiles, which would strike without warning. The handful of MiGs that might get into the sky likely would be shot down by U.S. fighters before the Venezuelan pilots could locate and engage U.S. targets.

The Chavez government knows this because it has studied U.S. strategies and tactics in the Iraq war with the help of its expanding military links with China, Cuba and Russia. Venezuelan military strategists know their radar, communications and air force assets would be the first targets of a U.S. military strike. In fact, Eliecer Otaiza, president of the National Land Institute and a key figure in the Chavez government's militia defense networks, said April 1 that the government knows the national armed forces (FAN) would be obliterated "in two days" if the U.S. military ever invaded Venezuela.

However, the purchase of a few dozen North Korean missiles with the capability to strike targets hundreds of miles away would give the Chavez government a strong strategic deterrent against attack by the U.S. or Colombian armies. Moreover, North Korean missiles would be easier to conceal and more difficult to destroy.

Pyongyang would not sell nuclear weapons to the Chavez government. However, Stratfor believes North Korea would happily sell Scud missiles to Caracas for profit, or to gain political leverage in its confrontation with the United States. Pyongyang might even consider selling a few Nodong-1s to the Chavez government, which would give the FAN the ability to launch missiles armed with large conventional explosives warheads at targets deep in Colombian territory, including Bogota.

The North Korean government has both practical and strategic reasons for negotiating the sale of missiles and other weapons systems, like minisubmarines and armored vehicles, to Venezuela. Besides the hard-currency earnings from selling arms to Caracas, Pyongyang could be seeking some political leverage in the stalled six-nation talks on dismantling its nuclear weapons program. If North Korea is just looking for a fast profit, it likely will try to keep the deals quiet for as long as it possibly can. However, if Pyongyang wants to pressure the Bush administration, it will intentionally leak any deal it reaches with Caracas.

If Venezuela's government decides to go for missiles instead of MiG-29s, Pyongyang has a menu of options that likely would meet Chavez's political and strategic requirements. The likeliest options include the Scud-B, which has a range of about 200 miles; and the Hwasong-6/Scud-C, with a range of about 300 miles. However, Pyongyang also produces the Nodong-1, with a range of about 800 miles, and the Nodong-B missile, with a range between about 1,700 miles and about 2,500 miles.

Pyongyang's price list for these systems is highly classified. However, in July 2000 during missile talks between the United States and North Korea, Pyongyang o ffered to suspend its export of missile technology in exchange for $1 billion a year to compensate for the loss of export revenues; the United States reportedly counteroffered with indirect food and humanitarian aid.

The acquisition of North Korean missiles would significantly increase Venezuela's political leverage regionally. During his March trip to France, India, Qatar and Uruguay, Chavez said -- in one of many speeches accusing the U.S. government of aggression -- that his enemies would soon be claiming that Chavez is expanding ties with North Korea. In fact, political ties between Caracas and Pyongyang are already being strengthened, and the impetus for closer relations is coming mainly from the Chavez government, a source in the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry reports.

For a force of 2.3 million volunteer reservists, meanwhile, the small-arms and other infantry equipment requirements would be immense. Russian arms suppliers would be first in line to sell more weapons to Venezuela since they have already sold 100,000 AK-103 and AK-104 assault rifles and 40 helicopters to the government. However, the Chavez government also will probably purchase small arms and infantry equipment from South Africa in coming months.

South Africa is an important strategic ally among the multipolar relationships that Chavez seeks to build. South Africa also has a large and diversified arms export industry that is hungry for new markets abroad, and a government that is desperate to grow the country's economy more robustly. With a rms suppliers in Russia, Spain, Brazil and China rushing to close deals with Caracas, South Africa's arms exporters will jump into the action as soon as they get a chance.

The Chavez government's actions belie its claims that it is not entangled in a regional arms race. As originally envisioned, the military reserve under the president's direct command was to have totaled 100,000 volunteers deployed mainly in poor neighborhoods, or barrios. A force of that size clearly had two objectives. One was to serve as an instrument of internal repression if the government's oil wealth vanished and popular support turned to angry rejection. The other purpose was to defend the government if the FAN ever revolted against Chavez.

However, a greatly expanded military reserve of 2.3 million members is not a force for internal repression. Strategically, it may be conceived by the Chavez government as the foundation of a people's guerrilla war against invading conventional U.S. forces, but a force of even 600,000 armed reservists could be utilized for offensive purposes. This would seriously destabilize the balance of military power in South America, where the largest army until now has been Brazil's with a total force of 189,000 personnel. Moreover, it would flood Venezuela with hundreds of thousands of new infantry weapons, some of which likely would leak to militant groups in neighboring countries given the high level of corruption in the FAN.

The only things potentially standing in Chavez's way are money constraints and possible internal resistance to major arms buys within the Chavez government. Military and civilian leaders are currently locked in a power struggle over who will have the greatest political influence -- and thus the greatest access to the fiscal resources flooding into the Bolivarian revolution's treasury. External pressures, on the other hand -- like U.S. disapproval -- will not deter Chavez.

That said, the Chavez government's small-arms and conventional-weapons purchases probably will advance more rapidly in coming years than its acquisitions of more sophisticated weapons like Russian MiGs and North Korean missiles. Transactions involving small arms, armored vehicles, helicopters and similar items involve many contracts with many foreign suppliers. These contracts are subject to little public scrutiny. However, the purchase of larger and costlier weapons systems like advanced fighter aircraft and missiles invite more public scrutiny, bring greater international pressure, and take longer to negotiate because of the complex technological issues and large sums of money involved.

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