CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Venezuela will have Latin America's largest armed forces in terms of firepower by 2013, if the country's oil revenues remain high in coming years.
President Hugo Chavez has purchased and placed firm orders for close to $6 billion in Russian weapons since 2005, but he is also shopping for weapons in China, Belarus, Spain, France and Iran.
The Venezuelan Defense Ministry's modernization plans call for spending $30 billion between 2007 and 2017 to acquire advanced weapons systems and other military equipment.
The ministry's defense procurement plan includes more attack helicopters and fighters, diesel submarines, missile frigates, air defense missiles, battle tanks, mobile howitzers, rocket launchers, armored troop carriers, and communications and radar systems. The bulk of these arms purchases will be contracted with Russian firms, say defense procurement officials.
These planned arms purchases are part of a 10-year national security program to restructure and professionalize the Bolivarian Armed Force of Venezuela after more than two decades of government neglect. But Chavez says the weapons also are needed to defend Venezuela against U.S. military aggression.
Venezuela's defense modernization plan is being carried out in several stages. The overall pace of implementation depends on the Chavez government's fiscal revenues from oil exports.
However, the infantry and air force weapons Chavez has purchased from Russia since 2005 already are changing the balance of military power in South America, forcing neighboring countries like Brazil and Colombia to rethink their own defense procurement plans.
The first major Russian arms supply contract signed by Chavez in 2005 was for 100,000 AK-103 and AK-104 assault rifles for Venezuela's army. The AK rifles will replace about 120,000 Belgian-designed FAL 7.62mm assault rifles that have been in use for more than 40 years.
Russia also agreed to create a joint venture with CAVIM, the Venezuelan state-owned military arms and munitions industry, to build two factories in the city of Maracay to manufacture AK 104/104 rifles and munitions.
Venezuelan Defense Ministry officials say the factories will be capable of producing between 25,000 and 50,000 rifles annually. Chavez said in 2006 that Venezuela "needs at least 1 million assault rifles" to defend against a U.S. military invasion.
Venezuela's Defense Ministry also has signed a contract to purchase 5,000 Dragunov SVD sniper rifles.
The old FAL rifles will not be retired from service. Instead, the ministry plans to redeploy most of the FAL rifles to civilian reservists with the recently created Bolivarian National Reserve, which has more than 300,000 members officially and operates under the direct command of Chavez.
Venezuela's government to date also has purchased and placed firm orders for 151 Russian attack helicopters, late-model fighters and transport aircraft.
At least 79 Russian combat helicopters have been purchased through August 2008, including 40 Mi-17V5s (NATO designation Hip), 13 Mi-26Ts (NATO designation Halo), 12 to 14 Mi-35Ms (NATO designation Hind) and 10 to 12 Mi-28NEhs (NATO designation Havoc or Night Hunter). All of these helicopters will be deployed in Venezuela by mid-2009.