Against a long-standing absence of interstate conflicts, South American armed forces largely focus on domestic operations, including fighting organized crime. However, the region’s defense and security capabilities are undermined by aging equipment amid reduced fiscal space.
Despite having rejected the pleas of the U.S. and its allies to supply ammunition and military equipment to Ukraine in early 2023, major armed forces in the region — namely Argentina, Brazil and Colombia — remain significantly tied to the U.S. and European countries through military procurement and cooperation.
But the increasing economic and political inroads of emerging geopolitical powers, especially China, challenge the long-lasting Western influence in the region’s defense sphere.
Although developments to upgrade aging capabilities have taken place over the last year, significant regional operational improvements are expected to materialize in the midterm to long term.
The Brazilian Army — the most capable in South America with the most important developments — keeps advancing toward the incorporation of a new fleet of six-wheel and eight-wheel drive armored vehicles.
The former vehicles are part of the Guarani program, which is jointly developed with Iveco Defence Vehicles and, in September 2022, reached the 600-vehicle delivery of the long-term target of 1,580 units until 2035. Although it is lower than the 2,044-vehicle initial order, and is reportedly being reconsidered further down to around 900.
As for the latter type of armored vehicle, in January 2023 the Brazilian Army received the first two Centauro II prototypes for evaluation as part of a 98-vehicle order from the Iveco-Oto Melara Consortium. The delivery of the new fleet will gradually take place until 2038, while the operation of 50-year-old EE-9 Cascavel armored vehicles will be phased out. Until the process is completed, a local consortium was awarded the modernization of an initial batch of nine EE-9s and delivered the first prototype in July 2023.
Furthermore, the visit of a high-level Brazilian Army delegation to China’s NORINCO — or the North Industries Group Corp. Ltd. — factory in June 2023 suggests Brazil’s growing interest in recapitalizing its artillery and air defense capability with Chinese equipment.
Other regional developments include Argentina’s letter of intent to acquire 156 Brazilian Iveco six-wheel drive Guarani vehicles in January 2023, discarding options for General Dynamics Land Systems’ M1126 Stryker and NORINCO’s VN-1.
In December 2022, Colombia awarded the acquisition of General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada’s 55 new LAV III light armored vehicles to replace the current fleet, which includes units with nearly 60 years in operation. The contract covers the next six years and comprises manufacturing, delivery and support.
Chile signed a contract with Turkey’s Aselsan to maintain its more than 40-year-old Leopard 2 A4 tank fleet in July 2023.
Besides traditional naval operations, South American navies focus on seaborne illegal trafficking — especially in Colombia. Against the record-high depreciation of the local currency and the need to support domestic industries while increasing anti-narcotic operations, the Colombian Navy awarded state-owned shipbuilder Cotecmar key strategic procurement projects, such as the production of the first Colombian-designed OPV 93C offshore patrol ship, which started production in March 2023.
It also chose Cotecmar, in partnership with Dutch shipbuilder Damen, to manufacture the first Colombian-made frigate based on Damen’s Sigma 10514 design in September 2022.
Brazil’s capabilities are being boosted by the ambitious Prosub program, which in September 2022 delivered the first of four conventionally powered attack submarines, with the second boat expected to be delivered by the end of 2023.
In contrast, the Argentine Navy continues to be unable to operate any of its two submarines amid a deteriorating economic crisis. Although, reportedly Argentina issued a request for final proposals for three new conventionally powered submarines to Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and France’s Naval Group.
Major air defense procurement in the region remains active, despite a strained budget.
In December 2022, the Brazilian Air Force incorporated the first four of 36 Swedish Saab Gripen E/F fighter ground-attack aircraft. In June 2023, the service received the sixth Embraer KC-390 medium transport aircraft out of 28 initially planned, but then cut to 19 amid budgetary restrictions.
Furthermore, amid a renegotiation process prompted by budgetary constraints since 2015, Brazil’s Air Force and Navy signed a contract to acquire 27 Airbus H125 light transport helicopters in September 2022.
Colombia’s plan to update its aging fleet of 22 Kfir fighters remains active after the government stalled the purchase of French Rafales in December 2022. In March 2023, it announced it was reopening the bid with interests in Saab’s Gripen E/F, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 and the previously shortlisted Dassault Rafale. However, the order will likely go from 24 to 16 jets, given fiscal constraints. As a temporary measure, in January 2023 the Colombian Air Force renewed a maintenance agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries to extend the service lives of its Kfir fleet until 2025.
A debt arrangement with the International Monetary Fund will likely clear the way for Argentina to acquire 24 fighter jets and replace its obsolescent A-4 Skyhawk fleet with two probable options: the JF-17 Thunder jointly made by Pakistan and China, or secondhand Danish F-16s made by the U.S. company Lockheed Martin.
Despite the lower cost and flexible financing options provided by the Chinese government for the Thunders, in July 2023 the F-16 became a strong option after the U.S. State Department expressed interest in providing financial and operational assistance to Argentina, and upon Congress’ move to speed up the sale approval.
However, Argentina’s precarious economic situation means modernization efforts will likely be limited.
South American space capabilities significantly lag behind other regions, with the partial exception of Brazil and Chile.
In October 2022, the Brazilian Space Agency launched into orbit the first Brazilian-made sounding rocket from its Alcântara Launch Center in Maranhão.
In June 2023, the Chilean National Satellite System, co-owned by the Chilean Air Force, successfully started the gradual replacement of the FASat-Charlie satellite by launching into orbit the FASat-Delta, the first out of 13 new satellites.
Overall, South America’s military capabilities remain limited amid fiscal constraints. Despite successful efforts to boost local procurement, major acquisitions are largely contracted to Western countries. Regional political realignment in an increasingly multipolar global order will likely expand procurement opportunities for non-Western bidders in the midterm to longer term.
Juan Pablo Bickel is a research associate with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, where he focuses on conflict, security and development, particularly in relation to Latin America.