Before heading off to Kennebunkport for a visit with George Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin played host to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez in Moscow. Mr. Chavez is apparently on swing to see fellow despots. After discussions with Mr. Putin (and other Russian officials), Chavez travels on to Belarus, whose leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has been described as the "last dictator" in Europe. Then, it's off to Iran, for talks with the ruling mullahs.
So far, Mr. Chavez's trip has generated the usual anti-American rhetoric, amid plans to work more closely with his friends in the country he's currently visiting. While in Moscow, for example, Chavez invited the Russians to assist in developing a large oil deposit in Venezuela, and help him expand the nation's network of refineries. The Venezuelan dictator described American companies as "vampires," and claimed once again that the U.S. had threatened his country.
That's part-and-parcel of a Chavez media event, and it helps deflect attention away from the trip's real purpose--to negotiate the purchase of more arms for the Venezuelan military. Various Russian media outlets report that Chavez is talking to Russia about the possible acquisition of Kilo-class diesel submarines, and he's looking to buy air defense equipment from Belarus. Mr. Chavez hasn't denied that he's looking for more military hardware, but claiming an imminent American threat (a page out of Castro's playbook) casts potential arms deals in a more favorable light.
The Kilo-class is a concern to the U.S. Navy and other western naval forces. Operating in shallow coastal waters, the Kilo is hard to detect, complicating our ASW efforts. That task is further compounded by the draw down in U.S. ASW assets that came with the end of the Cold War. With the steep decline in Russia's sub force, it was assumed that we would need fewer ASW ships, aircraft and helicopters. Such assumptions proved wrong, as the Russians began to export Kilo boats to nations like China, Iran, and (possibly) Venezuela.
As the Iranians have discovered, building a sub force from scratch is a difficult task, even with assistance from Russian contractors. That's why Tehran's Kilos spend much of their time in port, because the Iranian Navy has had difficulty in recruiting, training and retaining qualified submariners. While the Venezulean Navy faces a similar learning curve, it could--eventually--pose a threat to U.S. Navy assets operating in the southern Caribbean, or comercial shipping at the eastern end of the Panama Canal.
More ominous (at least over the short term), is Venezuela's expected acquisition of an advanced air defense system from Belarus. Last year, Moscow and Minsk announced the creation of a "unifed" air defense system to protect the two countries. Prior to the announcement, Belarus acquired an unknown number of S-300 air defense systems from Russia. The deliveries were completed in only 14 months, an indication of the priority assigned to the project by both sides.
S-300 is the Russian designator for a system that NATO refers to as the SA-10 "Grumble." The SA-10 has been in service for more than a decade; in terms of overall capabilities, it's very similar to the U.S. Patriot system, able to engage targets ranging from cruise missiles and tactical aircraft, to some types of ballistic missiles. The most recent variant of the S-300 (designated SA-20 by NATO) is capable of engaging aerial targets at ranges of up to 200km (124 NM), and missile targets at distances out to 40 km (24 NM).
It's unclear which SA-10 variant Chavez may have designs on; a single battalion (consisting of an acquisition radar; target tracking radar, launchers and command vehicles) sells for about $300 million. However, the Russians have sold the latest SA-20 model to China, and Chavez certainly has the cash to buy state-of-the art weaponry.
Along with the SU-30 Flanker fighters that he recently purchased, acquisition of the SA-10/20 would provide a quantum upgrade to Venezuelan air defense forces, and (potentially) allow them to engage targets over the Caribbean and in Colombia as well. Additionally, the Grumble system is highly automated and with anticipated contractor support, Chavez could have a state-of-the-art air defense capability in minimum time.
But to get the most bang-for-the-buck with the SA-10, Chavez will have to invest in an upgraded command-and-control system. Without that, the potential for confusion and fratricide will certainly exist. And, at some point, the Venezuelans will want to take the lead in operating and maintaining the system, so Hugo will have to pay for those costs as well. With oil now hovering around $70 a barrel, he can afford to write the check.
Mr. Chavez's little shopping spree shows he's serious about improving Venezuela's military capabilities. Even with the upgrades, Venezuela won't pose a major threat to the United States, but it will be cause for concern in countries like Colombia, which already find themselves at a disadvantage with the Venezuelans. If Hugo comes home with Kilos and SA-10/20s (as expected), there will be immediate pressure to provide more high-tech weaponry--and training--to U.S. allies in the region.
As we've noted before, it's important to keep an eye on Venezuela. During his Moscow visit, Chavez hinted that Venezuela might have nuclear ambitions as well. His comments lend credence to rumors that Chavez may be pursuing a ballistic missile capability (with North Korea) that might be disguised as a space launch program. The equator (which runs near Venezuela) is the ideal point for launching geosynchronous satellites, and could provide a pretext for North Korea to send missile engineers, technicians and equipment to South America.
**ADDENDUM** Readers will note that the SA-10/20 is a Russian designed system that is largely built and maintained in the Russian republic. But arranging the sale through Belarus gives Mr. Putin an element of deniability, despite the fact that most arms deal in Minsk are run through Moscow first.