By Sanjay Badri-Maharaj*
The air forces of Latin America are unique in comparison with any region except perhaps sub-Saharan Africa, in that their combat aircraft components are composed of an odd but nonetheless effective mix of combat capable trainers operating alongside smaller numbers of relatively modern combat aircraft. However, as the decades wear on, the region’s smaller air forces will be forced to confront the issue of replacing a fleet of ageing aircraft for which spares are going to be increasingly in short supply. It should be noted that while the risk of large scale conventional air combat is relatively low, Latin American air forces take their air defence responsibilities seriously and their aircraft have also seen service in counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations.
Only the air forces of Venezuela (23 Su-30MKVs and 12 F-16s), Chile (57 F-16s and 11 modified F-5E Tigre III nominally on strength) and Peru (9 Mirage 2000s, 19 MiG-29s and 18 Su-25s) operate modern multi-role aircraft. To these can be added Ecuador’s 10 Atlas Cheetahs and 8 IAI Kfirs as well as Colombia’s 20 Kfir C.7s. Brazil’s most modern aircraft, pending the arrival of 36 Saab Gripen NG, are 43 ageing F-5EMs which operate alongside 47 A-1/A-1M attack aircraft. The once vaunted Argentinian air force is now left without any operable combat aircraft other than combat capable trainers.
For many decades, the venerable F-5 served alongside Mirage III as the most modern combat aircraft available to Latin American air forces. Brazil operated both types while Chile operated F-5s alongside modified Mirage V (Elkan and Pantera variants). Venezuela operated ex-Canadian F-5s alongside Mirage Vs. Mirage F.1s served with distinction in Ecuador’s brief war with Peru in 1995 alongside SEPECAT Jaguars. Argentina operated Mirage IIIs, IAI Neshers and A-4 Skyhawks. Honduras and Mexico operated F-5s alongside armed trainers while the other air forces of the region had to make do with Cessna A-37 Dragonflies as their principal jet combat aircraft augmented by trainers such as the EMB-312/314 Tucano/ Super Tucano and, in the case of Chile and Honduras, CASA C-101s (in service with the latter air force, the C-101 was responsible for a number of air-to-air victories against narcotics-trafficking aircraft). It should also be mentioned that Brazilian versions of the Aermacchi MB.326 trainer served with Brazil and Paraguay before being retired without a direct replacement.
While the larger air forces are capable of sustaining their existing and future inventories for some time to come, the combat assets available to the region’s smaller air forces are facing a problem of pending obsolescence. Even Mexico’s otherwise substantial air force possesses only three F-5s in operational condition. Across Central and South America, air forces composed of F-5s and armed trainers are facing the nightmare of having to replace aircraft without the benefit of the assistance packages that facilitated the acquisition of combat assets in the 1970s and 1980s.
Latin American air forces have a proud history of operating fighter aircraft. The United States gifted substantial quantities of ex-Second World War F-47 Thunderbolts and F-51 Mustangs to establish modern combat aviation throughout Central and South America. The progression of the Cold War saw the United States provide Latin America’s first jet combat aircraft from F-80 Shooting Stars and T-33 trainers to F-86 Sabres. However, from the 1970s, the United States expressed a reluctance to supply any aircraft more modern than the F-5 and then only to countries like Mexico, Chile and Brazil. Venezuela’s oil industry enabled it to obtain F-16s in 1983 as fears of Cuban air strikes using MiG-23BNs persuaded the Reagan Administration of the need for these aircraft. No other country was so fortunate until Chile received a mixture of new and ex-Dutch F-16s from the year 2000 onwards. It was this US reluctance to supply modern aircraft that led many South American air forces to procure Mirages; led Honduras to obtain ex-Israeli Dassault Super Mystere B.2s until F-5s were delivered in the mid-1980s; and El Salvador to invest in ex-Israeli Dassault Ouragans.
Since then, the combat elements of many Central American and South American air forces have gone into a state of steep decline. As spares for the Ouragans and Mysteres became impossible to obtain and with the aircraft becoming unsafe to operate, they were withdrawn from use. Cessna A-37s became the principal jet combat aircraft within the region as the United States provided many of these specialist counter-insurgency aircraft to regional air forces as they battled left-wing insurgencies. While this aid was forthcoming in the 1970s, 1980s and the early years of the 1990s, it ended thereafter. And soon, the A-37 fleets of all regional air forces began to decline precipitously as aircraft were lost to attrition and accidents or withdrawn from use because of increasingly intense spares shortages. Replacing the aircraft with turbo-prop armed trainers (such as the Tucano/Super Tucano and the T-6C Texan) has worked for the light-strike role but these aircraft lack both the speed and altitude performance to intercept jet-powered narcotics-trafficking aircraft.
This was compounded by some short-sighted political decisions by the United States which embargoed spares supplies to Honduras for its F-5s, blocked the overhaul and upgrade of Venezuela’s F-16s and vetoed Bolivia’s decision to procure Czech L-159 light attack/advanced trainers to replace its life-expired AT-33 armed trainers. Bolivia turned to China (K-8s) and Venezuela turned to Russia (Su-30s) and China (K-8s) for the supply of combat aircraft and armed trainers. Honduras has, however, retained its F-5s despite significant logistical and financial challenges and has expressed its intention to overhaul them and retain the force as long as possible. Argentina’s attempts to replace its Mirages, Neshers and A-4Rs have been repeatedly stymied by British pressure and the reluctance of the United States or Western European countries to supply aircraft.
Finding replacements for the F-5s and Cessna A-37s presents smaller regional air forces with serious challenges. Bolivia and Venezuela have strained relationships with the United States and have no hesitation in looking to China and Russia for aircraft. However, other countries are not quite as keen to shift to non-Western suppliers partly due to their continued dependence on the United States for military assistance, economic aid and diplomatic and political support but also because neither China nor Russia has any support structure in the region to maintain, overhaul or otherwise service the aircraft they sell. Peru had a difficult time with its MiG-29s, Su-25s and its now withdrawn Su-22s, with large numbers being unserviceable for want of spares support from the erstwhile USSR and then Russia. Peru’s situation has improved, thanks in part to a vibrant, albeit small, aircraft industry. But this cannot be said for smaller nations which are now facing the urgent requirement of replacing aircraft obtained as aid with aircraft that will be considerably more expensive.
The choices for the region’s smaller air forces are limited. The United States no longer manufactures “cheap and cheerful” high performance aircraft like the F-5 and has no jet replacement for the A-37. In addition, it has been very reluctant to supply even used F-16s to any country in Latin America outside of Chile. Western Europe offers more attractive options in the form of aircraft like the BAE Hawk and Aermacchi’s M-346, both of which can replace the A-37. For a replacement for the F-5, however, a new supplier may emerge as a potential wild-card – the Republic of Korea with its FA-50 which is being aggressively marketed.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India. Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/state-smaller-latin-american-air-forces_sbmaharaj_221216