CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Venezuela is close to acquiring Russian submarines but President Hugo Chavez isn't giving anything away -- yet.
He told the audience of his populist Sunday political sermon on Venezuela's state-run radio and television the submarines that are about to join the country's armed forces would be "normal" submersibles with conventional weapons and radar technology.
"They won't have atomic bombs, I'm saying so now, so they don't accuse of us of becoming nuclear," Chavez said in a characteristic reference to Venezuela's unnamed detractors or his personal critics within the opposition.
Venezuela went on an arms shopping spree last year, spurred by a tense standoff with Colombia over what Chavez characterized as that country's covert preparations for war after it joined forces with the U.S. military to fight the drug cartels. Both Colombian and U.S. officials dismissed Venezuelan allegations, pointing out that the narcotics threat to North America justified the collaboration to control the drug cartels.
In the meantime, however, Russian aims to expand the arms market coincided with Chavez's needs and the stage was set for one of the biggest lines of credit for oil-rich Venezuela to buy Russian military hardware. Up to $800 million of credit is available for Venezuelan arms buying in Moscow.
Critics of Chavez say the country, currently in recession, can ill afford that scale of defense spending on cash or credit. Instead, the critics want the government to channel funds or foreign capital into strengthening the economy. A combination of prolonged drought and alleged government inefficiencies plunged Venezuela into crippling power cuts through winter and spring. Substitutes for hydroelectric power generation are in the cards but not implemented yet.
Analysts said the Venezuelan purchases of Russian submarines would also solve a major problem for Russian military manufacturers who have been trying to find customers to phase out older items on their inventories. It's not clear what to make of the submarines involved but Caracas and Moscow have been in discussion over a submarine deal since 2005.
Earlier reports cited Russian interest in transferring to Venezuela at least three diesel-electric powered Project 636 Varshavianka class submarines at a cost that could run over $1 billion.
Included in the deal would be the training of Venezuelan personnel. It isn't clear if Russian experts and trainers will be stationed in Venezuela, though analysts didn't rule out that possibility.
The Project 636 submarines, called the Kilo class by NATO, are already in the services of Chinese and Indian navies, while Russia has been busy marketing a much lighter and quieter Project 677 Lada-class submarine in Southeast Asia. The vessels are built at Admiralteyskie Verfi shipyard, St. Petersburg.
Industry experts say Russia expects to maintain a market lead in what are widely seen as relatively inexpensive submarines. More important, Russia is keen to set aside political considerations while pushing for more customers for its hardware to sustain its defense industries.
The Kilo class submersible is usually equipped with four 533mm torpedo launchers and 10 missile launchers and other equipment. The fighting machine is renowned for being able to resist heavy radio and electronic interference while in operation.
Venezuela has two German built submarines U-209 dating to the 1970s and considered unable to compete with newer rivals on the high seas.