In 2021, South American militaries remained focused on domestic security threats, with power projection ambitions often limited by significant equipment-availability challenges and funding shortfalls. As highlighted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ “Armed Conflict Survey 2021,” organized crime continues to greatly fuel violence and instability in the region, conditioning defense spending on domestic security.
Brazil is the only country in the area with substantial ongoing procurement and modernization efforts, and that is expanding international defense industrial cooperation despite its own budgetary constraints.
Most nations there rely on the support of the United States for a wide range of defense-related activities such as equipment procurement, personnel training, security cooperation and fighting against transnational crime. The region is also dependent on equipment exports from European countries. However, the increasing presence of China in the defense and security sphere challenges U.S. influence in the region.
Due to the absence of recent interstate conflicts in the region, South American nations are typically focused on internal and cross-border counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations.
Deployments of troops for internal security missions have increased over the past few years. Several countries — namely Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru — have a limited capability to deploy independently beyond their national borders, but regularly contribute to U.N. peacekeeping missions, albeit on a small scale.
South American navies focus on countering transnational drug trafficking, piracy and illegal fishing, and focus on preserving offshore sovereignty. Brazil maintains the most capable navy in the region, while Colombia has the largest one in terms of ship numbers, with the highest count of patrol and coastal combatant vessels.
Today, both countries have substantial fleet modernization plans. Colombia seeks to acquire five new surface combatants and four diesel-electric submarines, although little progress has been made toward this.
Brazil, meanwhile, is constructing conventionally powered attack submarines under an agreement with France for technological cooperation and construction assistance, and it plans to build the Southern Hemisphere’s first nuclear-powered submarine. A 2020 contract with German company ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems will see four new frigates built locally by the end of the decade.
Although several countries have requirements for new fighter aircraft, only Brazil has a program under contract. The F-X2 program, with Swedish company Saab, will see the delivery of 36 Gripen E/F fighter jets by 2024. The deal involves significant investment in local industry; Saab has opened an aerostructures plant in Brazil, and Embraer will assemble 15 of the aircraft. The Brazilian Air Force previously stated it has a requirement for 108 aircraft, although budget pressures will make this difficult to achieve.
Argentina and Colombia are still in the process of selecting a replacement for their increasingly obsolete fleet of A-4 Skyhawks and Kfirs, respectively. Argentina has recently allocated $664 million to procure a new fighter and has been allegedly linked to the Pakistani-Chinese-made JF-17 Thunder.
Colombia is still considering several options, including the Eurofighter, the Gripen E/F, the F-16 Block 70 and possibly even the F-35 fighter aircraft.
Despite the mounting tensions with neighboring Venezuela — which amid operability issues still holds the most capable air combat fleet in the region with a mix of F-16A/Bs and Su-30MKVs — the Colombian government might keep postponing the replacement of its Kfir to prioritize social security programs.
Some small advances have been made in space-based capability. This year, the Chilean government signed a 10-year deal with American company SpaceX to launch 10 new satellites, eight of which will be built locally. This dual-use satellite constellation, named National Satellite System, will replace FASat Charlie, Chile’s first high-resolution Earth observation system, which in 2017 was made inoperable by a collision with space debris.
In April 2021, as part of the Strategic Program of Space Systems, the Brazilian Space Agency and the Brazilian Air Force signed an agreement with Virgin Orbit to begin the country’s first orbital launches at Alcântara Space Center. This deal provides Brazil with the opportunity to enter the regional market of commercial space launches currently dominated by French Guiana.
In 2022, the increasing fiscal strains exacerbated by the current coronavirus pandemic are likely to negatively impact governments’ mid- to long-term defense investments and domestic security policies. If so, regional defense capabilities might continue to decline, resulting in capability gaps that will leave the region unprepared for future challenges.
Amanda Lapo is a research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Juan Pablo Bickel is a research analyst focused on conflict, security and development in Latin America for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.