BUENOS AIRES, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- Argentina has set a five-year program for increased defense acquisitions as part of a long-term government agenda to modernize its armed forces and refurbish the country's outmoded equipment and weapons arsenals.
The projected rise in defense expenditure was on the cards after President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner decreed in July an ambitious operation, "North Shield," to combat narcotics trafficking, seen as a major cause of social dislocation and loss of productivity.
Fernandez said the operation would focus on eliminating drug-related problems in northern Argentina, where chronic addiction, illicit sale of narcotics among the young and vulnerable and trafficking within and outside the country have produced devastating economic and social results.
"North Shield" aims to strengthen the Argentine forces' surveillance of the land, sea and air spaces, particularly in the northern region.
Buying for defense and military refurbishment is a complex political issue in Argentina, mainly because of the past military rulers' role in brutal suppression of Argentine citizens, decades of human rights violations by governments dominated by the military and extra-judicial killings in full knowledge of or in connivance with the military.
Although democratic order has been restored, despite frequent controversy over the governance style of the president, skepticism remains over her campaign for pushing for Argentine sovereignty over the British-ruled Falkland Islands, which Fernandez calls Malvinas.
A military-led Argentine invasion of the islands in 1984 sparked a 74-day conflict that caused deaths of more than 1,000 people, including Falklanders and Argentine and British military personnel. Argentina signed a formal surrender to Britain before retreat, but in 1994 added its Falklands sovereignty claim to its revised constitution.
Ricardo Burzaco, analyst and director of the Mercosur Defense and Security magazine, said Argentina was determined to improve the state of its defense infrastructure but the present plans would not amount to a sufficient increase in defense acquisitions.
Argentina has been shopping around and has been offered military equipment and hardware on easy terms by China and European suppliers. Russia has indicated it will extend favorable credit terms to Buenos Aires and replace mostly obsolete U.S. equipment with its own inventories.
Burzaco indicated any acquisitions under the program might fall short of the Argentine military's real needs, which are diverse and widespread across all sectors, requiring vast expenditure.
Argentina's military was one of the best equipped in the region as early as the 1950s and developed its own jet fighters. More recently it faced sharper expenditure cutbacks than most other Latin American armed forces. Real military spending declined after Argentina's Falklands defeat. Despite recent increases, the defense budget stands at around $3 billion.
Fernandez, who is seeking re-election in Argentina's Oct. 23 election, wants the Union of South American Nations to work toward building a new defense paradigm, moving away from their image of the oppressors, to ensure the member states' military resources are harnessed for public good, economic and social cohesion.
Unasur, an intergovernmental union linking Mercosur and the Andean Community trade blocs, includes Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela as members and Mexico and Panama as observers.
Latin American states last year called for institutionalized transparency in all member-states' weapons buying programs, a proposal welcomed with varying degrees of warmth by Unasur members.
Large-scale military spending by Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela led to calls by the United States and regional leaders to curb an arms race in Latin America.