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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Venezuela Wants Sub Fleet for Conflict with U.S.

Venezuela is spending $3 billion to build nine submarines, a fleet of undersea craft that would be the largest in the region -- and ready to be used against the U.S. in event of a conflict between the two countries.

The submarines will be the "diesel-electric variety," according to a communique issued by Vice Adm. Armband Laguna, quoted this month by Brazil's leading newspaper, O Estado de Sao Paulo.

They will weigh-in at approximately 1,750 metric tons apiece.

The navy is considering bids from Germany, France, and Russia, which is said to be the odds-on favorite, according to the Washington Times.

Venezuela, the Times wrote, could use a fleet of submarines to protect its interests in its exclusive economic zone, which in Caracas' view includes a large portion of the Caribbean Sea.

Protecting an area that large would require far more subs than the two over-30-years-old German U-Boats that the Venezuelan military now employs.

Moreover, the addition of the nine subs would give Venezuela the largest submarine fleet in Latin America, surpassing those of Peru, Brazil and Chile -- with six, five and four submarines, respectively.

Venezuela says it is beefing up its military capabilities -- including plans to develop an enlarged submarine fleet -- in preparation for what it called any "asymmetrical conflict" with the U.S.

The new submarine fleet is a small part of an arms buildup that the Times reports includes small arms, jet fighters and potentially air-defense missiles.

The buildup is being carried out in compliance with all international and regional nonproliferation treaties, Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez told the Times in a telephone interview.
Alvarez said that his government was contemplating the need to defend itself against the world's lone superpower, a nation with vastly greater military resources.

"We have simply been trying to upgrade our military equipment and maintain our defense while preserving balance in the hemisphere," Mr. Alvarez added. He also insisted that Venezuela's Latin American neighbors need not worry about the buildup.

According to the Times, Venezuela is reported to have already spent $3.4 billion on Russian arms, including assault rifles and fighter jets, and is said to be negotiating to buy a $290 million Russian air-defense system.

The Times noted that a Pentagon report estimated that Venezuela had spent about $4.3 billion on arms since 2005 alone, more than countries such as Iran, Pakistan and even China.

Venezuela also is pursuing an estimated $2 billion worth of military-transport ships and aircraft from Spain, a deal that the Times reports was delayed last year after the U.S. objected, noting that foreign companies must seek Washington's approval when de facto selling U.S. military technology.

Venezuela now is trying to work out a deal with Spain to swap out the U.S. parts in the 10 aircraft and eight vessels.

Venezuela already has done billions of dollars worth of business with Russia, purchasing 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 24 Sukhoi-30 fighters and about 35 helicopters.

More recently, Venezuela has its sights set on buying Russian air-defense missiles known as the Tor-M1 system, which consists of eight missiles in a battery mounted to a launch vehicle. The short-range system is designed for use against low-flying aircraft and incoming missiles.

The Times wrote that a Venezuela military official told the Associated Press last month that the missiles were wanted for "air defense" only -- a notion in keeping with Mr. Chavez's repeated warnings about the threat of a U.S. invasion, a threat the U.S. dismisses as fantasy.

Among Washington concerns is the fear that the Russian assault rifles could wind up in the hands of leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia or be used to further the Venezuelan leader's socialist agenda in the region.

"I can see why Chavez wants to militarize Venezuela. ... He's a military man, just like Bolivar was a military man," John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org. told the Times, which noted that Simon Bolivar, whom Mr. Chavez idolizes, liberated several Latin American nations from Spain during the 19th century.

Waging war with the U.S., however "would be a foolish thing to do," he added, noting that even a minor skirmish would jeopardize Venezuela's oil sales to its largest customer.

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