Defense Focus: Venezuela's Kalashnikovs

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Aug. 15, 2007 at 3:09 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- International small-arms contracts usually don’t make the big headlines the way seven-figure, heavy weapons system sales of main battle tanks, warships or combat aircraft do. But they can be of equal or greater importance. The announcement earlier this month by Russia’s Izhevsk Manufacturing Plant in the Urals of its new deal to build two new factories to manufacture arms and ammunition in Venezuela is a case in point.

Not only were no top-dollar, high-profile items like anti-aircraft missiles or fighter-bombers involved, but the guns in question weren’t even new ones. IMP has undertaken to build a plant to manufacture under license the famous Kalashnikov, or AK-47 assault rifle for the Venezuelan government. The announcement was even made at a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the gun’s design.

The AK-47, like the old U.S. Army Jeep and the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, is an example of a weapons system design that never grows old because it is virtually impossible to improve on it. The gun itself was the perfected product of a long line of previous rifles, most notably the U.S. Army's beloved Garand M-1 and the Wehrmacht's SturmGevehr StG44 during World War II. And variants or knockoffs of it have abounded, most ably the Israeli Army’s Galil assault rifle.

IMP announced last week it would construct two separate factories in Venezuela, one to make the AK-47s and the other to provide ammunition for the weapons, RIA Novosti reported. Both plants are scheduled to be completed by 2010, the report said.

The Izhevsk Mechanical Plant has already manufactured and supplied 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles to Venezuela under an earlier contract and signed a new contract licensing production of Kalashnikov rifles with the nation, RIA Novosti said.

"We will begin construction of two plants in Venezuela at the end of 2007," Vladimir Gorodetsky, the IMP general director, told a news conference to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the AK-47.

"One plant will manufacture AK-103 assault rifles and another plant will produce 7.62-mm ammunition for the rifle," he said, according to the report.

RIA Novosti said Gorodetsky announced the two factories would be built together at the same location and that Venezuela had also bought the rights to the necessary manufacturing technologies and production licenses.

"It is an absolutely legitimate license on the production of small arms in Venezuela legally purchased by the country," Gorodetsky said.

Gorodetsky said further deals were envisaged under which IMP would provide Venezuela with other weapons such as Dragunov sniper rifles. "Our goal is to re-equip the Venezuelan army with modern types of small arms, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles," he said.

The deal was in many senses no surprise. Venezuela’s fiercely anti-American President Hugo Chavez is awash with petrodollars as global oil prices remain around or well over $60 a barrel. And with China’s industrial demand for oil growing by the hour and India rapidly following suit, the global market may stay tight for many years to come.

Also, Chavez has been buying arms on a large scale from Russia for some years now.

RIA Novosti noted that Venezuela in 2005-2006 purchased $3.4 billion of weapons from Moscow, including 24 Su-30MK2V Flanker fighters, Tor-M1 air defense missile systems, Mi-17B multi-role helicopters, Mi-35 Hind E attack helicopters and Mi-26 Halo heavy transport helicopters.

The deal further confirms Russia’s effectiveness as a global arms exporter. Its prices are competitive; its weapons designs tend to be relatively simple, comparatively low-tech, and easy to use. That is especially the case with the AK-47, an assault rifle that, as U.S. combat soldiers 40 years ago during the Vietnam War learned to their cost, almost never jammed, in contrast to the standard U.S. Army issue M-16 of those days, which was heavy and jammed often.

But the deal also underlines Chavez’s ambitions, his challenge to U.S. influence across Latin America, and Russia’s willingness to accommodate those ambitions, especially if the opportunity is there to make a healthy free-market profit at the same time.

It also serves notice that the most important arms deals and the most valuable and useful weapons may not be high-prestige, high-tech, cutting-edge super-aircraft or nuclear submarines. Over the past 60 years Kalashnikovs have killed millions of people in wars; nuclear submarines have killed as far as is known, almost none. (About 1,000 Argentine sailors drowned when the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine heavy cruiser General Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War.)

Just because the AK-47 is an old design and “only” an assault rifle doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Scores of thousands of AK-47s can kill a lot of people -- and they are guaranteed to work.

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