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Venezuela buys Russian aircraft, tanks to boost power

By JACK SWEENEY   |   Oct. 15, 2008 at 12:46 PM   |   Comments

CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- In 2006 and 2007 Venezuela's air force purchased 36 Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 "Flanker-C" fighters, of which 24 already are in service and the remaining 12 will be delivered before the end of 2009. However, President Hugo Chavez has also placed an order for 24 state-of-the-art Russian Sukhoi Su-35 "Flanker-E" fighters with delivery starting by 2010.

After the U.S. State Department thwarted Venezuela's plans to buy Spanish military air transports in 2006, Chavez purchased from Russia 10 Ilyushin IL-76E -- NATO designation Candid -- troop/cargo transports and two Ilyushin IL-78 -- NATO designation Midas -- in-flight tankers with the capacity to refuel three aircraft simultaneously.

These transport aircraft will be delivered between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the end of 2009, giving Venezuela's armed forces the largest strategic air lift capacity in Latin America, defense procurement officials say.

However, the arms purchases Venezuela made between 2005 and 2008 are only the start of a bilateral military and security alliance between Caracas and Moscow potentially worth billions of dollars in future sales by Russian arms manufacturers.

During Chavez's latest visit to Moscow on Sept. 25 and 26, his third trip this year, Russian Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin agreed to expand Venezuelan-Russian military cooperation. Underscoring Venezuela's importance to Moscow as a major client for Russian weapons, Chavez was granted $1 billion in credit to finance more arms purchases.

The first item on Chavez's arms shopping list is between 20 and 30 TOR-M1 9M330 air defense missile systems. Venezuela's president also wants at least three diesel-powered Varshavyanka (Kilo)-class submarines.

Venezuelan defense sources say Chavez also wants to replace his army's obsolescent AMX-30 main battle tanks with between 50 and 100 Russian-built T-90 main battle tanks. The army also wants to buy at least 100 Russian-made light tanks and armored fighting vehicles, and up to 400 BMP-3 armored personnel carriers.

The Chavez government also is expanding defense and security ties with China. During his visit to Beijing on Sept. 24, Chavez signed an agreement to purchase 24 Chinese-made K-8 light attack aircraft, which Venezuelan air force officials say will be used for training purposes. The K-8s, which are scheduled to arrive in Venezuela during 2009, will operate from the Teniente Vicente Landaeta Gil Air Base near the city of Barquisimeto in Lara state.

China also is supplying Venezuela's air force with 10 long-range JYL-1 radars, three of which already are operating at Paraguana and Mene Mauroa in Falcon state near state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela's 940,000 bpd Paraguana refining complex and in Apure state near Venezuela's border with Colombia. The air force expects to achieve almost 100 percent radar coverage of Venezuela's national territory by 2013 when all 10 radars are installed and operational.

Spain's Navantia shipyard at Cadiz is building eight seagoing vessels for Venezuela's navy, including four coastal patrol boats -- 39 dwt -- equipped with a helicopter deck aft and Oerlikon Contraves DMN 0008 Millennium 35mm anti-aircraft guns. But navy officials say the patrol boats probably also could be armed with air and anti-ship missiles or heavier guns forward.

The other four vessels Navantia is building are missile-capable frigates that Venezuelan navy officials describe as "similar in design" to Venezuela's Italian-made Lupo frigates, which have been in use for about 30 years.

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(Jack Sweeney is a security analyst based in Caracas.)

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