Venezuela is buying Ilyushin Il-76s from Russia. They are reliable, old jet-powered military air transports, and Caracas is purchasing them as part of a gigantic $4.4 billion military procurement program that will make its armed forces by far the most powerful in Latin America.
As UPI contributor John Sweeney has pointed out, the U.S. State Department thwarted Venezuela's plans to buy Spanish military air transports in 2006. But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez then turned to Russia and bought instead 10 Ilyushin Il-76Es -- NATO designation Candid -- troop/cargo transports and two Ilyushin Il-78s -- NATO designation Midas -- in-flight tankers with the capacity to refuel three aircraft simultaneously.
These transport aircraft are scheduled to be being delivered now in a move to be completed by the end of this year, Sweeney reported, citing Venezuelan defense procurement officials as his sources.
The Il-76 purchase is especially strategically significant because it is clearly a major offensive weapons acquisition. Venezuela currently does not have any allies in the Western Hemisphere that require a rapid major airlift capability.
The only nation that conceivably might fit this bill is Cuba, and however much Venezuela boosts its airlift power, it could not conceivably reinforce Cuba in any war scenario without its air lifters being shot down by the U.S. Air Force. Supporting Cuba would give Venezuela no strategic advantage anyway, and it would only ensure the wrath of the American people and the U.S. government.
But where Venezuela's expanding military airlift capability would make much more sense would be in flying in hundreds, even thousands of its own troops to provide support for friendly governments -- as, for example, in Bolivia -- that were threatened by popular protests from their own people.
This airlift capacity also could be used to threaten or just potentially pressure neighboring countries such as Colombia. But they also could be used in the future to fly large forces rapidly into countries where revolutionary movements or military juntas hostile to the United States had seized power, in order to ensure they could retain control before either the United States or elements in the countries in question could rally against the revolutionary or military coup forces that had just taken over.
Venezuela will have Latin America's largest armed forces in terms of firepower by 2013, if the country's oil revenues remain high in the coming years, Sweeney noted.
Major questions, of course, remain over the Il-76 purchases. The Venezuelan armed forces have no experience in maintenance of such aircraft. The aircraft could rapidly decay and many of them could become inoperable.
That has been a common phenomenon in Third World countries that have bought huge quantities of weapons from the Soviet Union, China or other nations over the past half-century but then found they lacked sufficient engineers, flight mechanics and general standards of maintenance in their armed forces to keep the aircraft, ground transportation, tanks or other equipment running smoothly.
In that case, Chavez could risk suffering the fate of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. He bought gigantic amounts of weapons and military equipment from Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, only to lose most of it in three disastrously bungled wars against Israel in 1956, 1967 and the lesser-known War of Attrition in 1969-1970.
Nevertheless, Chavez is now presiding over a military buildup and power projection capability for thousands of miles beyond Venezuela's borders far in excess of anything any previous Latin American leader hostile to the United States, including Fidel Castro, has ever dreamed of having. And as the great U.S. naval historian and theoretician Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan famously pointed out, the fact of what he called "fleets in being" automatically transformed the strategic equations and calculations of powers in any time. That applies as much to the military airlift fleet that Chavez has bought "off the shelf" from Russia as much as it did to the German, British and U.S. navies of 100 years ago.