Tight budgets and relatively peaceful borders kept the lid on fighter purchases for many years. But with many South American fleets exceeding 30 years of service, it's getting harder and costlier to keep squadrons flying. In some cases, planes have been cannibalized for parts just to keep other planes in the air. The next generation of fighters to enter the region will alleviate that, and at the same time mark a huge leap in capabilities. Chile's F-16s, for example, will have the latest radar, targeting, navigation and night-operation gear. Brazil has been looking at top-shelf planes such as the F-16, Su-35 and Sweden's Gripen.
Not that high-performance fighters automatically mean domination of the skies in this part of the world. Peru, for all its Mig-29s, Su-25s and Mirage 2000s, finds itself desperately short on air power and regretting some Russian purchases. After its war with Ecuador in 1995, Peru bought second-hand Mig-29 fighters and Su-25 ground-attack planes from Belarus for a reported $350 million. But Russia, angered that the sale went to Belarus, refused to provide maintenance. Under the leadership of now-deposed president Alberto Fujimori, Peru pressed ahead. Over time, it became clear the MiGs weren't much use. The deficiencies became embarrassingly evident in 2001, when a MiG-29 crashed in front of an anti-corruption panel checking the airworthiness of the fighters. The cause of the crash was traced to a generator the pilot failed to turn on before flight.
Earlier this year, Russia offered to sell new Mig-29s to Peru in a deal under which the existing MiGs would be accepted as partial payment. The pact would also involve upgrading Peru's largely grounded fleet of Russian-built helicopters. But the air force will probably have to wait. Money is tight in Peru's armed forces. So tight, that the country's defense minister resigned in frustration last month. The armed forces sold dozens of properties - including a historic fort and the minister's official residence - to buy some equipment.
Venezuela is the only other South American country with high-performance warplanes. It has been flying F-16s for nearly 20 years. Despite parts shortages, there have been significant upgrades, including new radars, targeting pods for use with laser-guided bombs, and equipment for night operations. Last year, Venezuela also got help under a U.S.-funded upgrade of F-16s serving worldwide.
In fact, major upgrades are common in the region and sometimes make for dramatic improvements. Chile, for example, hired Israel Aircraft Industries in the 1990s to modernize its F-5 fighters. The planes got in-flight refueling capability, new electronics and the DASH helmet, which lets the pilot target an enemy aircraft even when they're an angles far off his plane's nose. Also, it's believed the F-5s now carry Israeli-made "beyond visual range" missiles. Israeli companies also have been busy re-equipping planes in Ecuador, Brazil and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, there's the big question of how practical high-tech fighter jets are in dealing with the region's main security threats: drug gangs and rebel groups/terrorists. An F-16 can do a masterful job against enemy tanks and MiGs. But against a group of drug runners, it's overkill and not exactly cost-efficient. -- J.C. Arancibia
After largely staying out of the aircraft market in the 1990s, several South American air forces are now opening their checkbooks and looking to buy high-performance warplanes. Chile has already signed a $660 million contract for 10 F-16s, due for delivery by 2006. Brazil is seeking 24 fighters in a deal that could reach $3.4 billion. Argentina is also looking for a couple dozen planes, probably used. Venezuela has checked out MiG-29s as a possible acquisition.