Procurement: January 10, 2004

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: Like other parts of the world, South American navies spend most of their time combating drug trafficking, illegal fishing, toxic-waste shipping and other policing tasks in their territorial waters. So why are some countries in the region seeking frigates, submarines and other ships with major firepower? 

Well, there's the usual mix of justifications: Commercial shipping needs to be protected: It is vital to the economy, especially with the growth of international trade. The oceans are rich sources of fisheries. And many warships are reaching the end of their useful lives. Peacekeeping and other operations with friendly navies also require large ships. For example, Chile sends warships thousands of miles from port in a joint effort with U.S. and Panamanian forces to patrol the Canal zone.

But despite relative peace between South American nations, warship acquisitions are also driven by festering border disputes or fears that a longtime rival could obtain superiority on the high seas. Chile and Peru fought two wars in the 1800s in which control of the sea proved pivotal. Ecuador's key port at Guayaquil is vulnerable to a blockade by Peru, an occasional border-skirmish partner. And Argentina learned in the Falklands war that having one of the
region's best-equipped navies wasn't enough to control the islands.

Even after the region's military regimes gave way to civilian governments, there have been plenty of politicians with protective views of their oceans and the willingness to finance big ships.

Brazil even has an aircraft carrier. The ex-French carrier Foch, which can launch A-4 Skyhawk jets, is Brazil's second carrier, having replaced the aged Minas Gerais. Brazil, arguably, has designs on being the dominant naval power in the region for decades to come. It recently accelerated its longstanding effort to build a nuclear-powered submarine. Under a new timetable, the sub could be built by 2010; earlier plans saw a launch about nine years later. Brazil already has experience building conventional submarines. In the 1990s, the Arsenal de Marinha built three subs with help from Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft.

Other countries are eager for more naval muscle, if nothing else to replace aging fleets. Chile is evaluating offers from nine shipyards for an $800 million contract for three multipurpose frigates. The finalists are expected to be named soon, though published reports say they are France's Armaris (offering the 5,400-ton FREMM-class frigate), a German consortium that includes Blohm+Voss (pitching the 4,000-ton Meko 200) and South Korea's Daewoo & Marine Engineering (with the 5,000-ton KDX-2).

Meanwhile, Chile just acquired, and refurbished, the former HMS Sheffield from Britain for $45 million, and is seeking two more used frigates. The U.S. has offered the destroyer Fletcher. Holland has also offered used ships. But Chilean admirals have made it clear they'd prefer more ships from Britain, where most of their warship acquisitions have been made in the past couple of decades. This year, Chile will also take delivery of the first of two Scorpene-class submarines ordered from DCN of France and Izar of Spain.

Another notable warship program is in Peru. A year ago, it agreed to buy a pair of second-hand Lupo-class frigates from Italy. Although lighter (2,500 tons) and more cramped than most vessels of the type, Peru already operates four sister ships, two of which were built locally. But the $30 million deal may collapse. Peru's armed forces budget is strained, and Italy is running out of patience. It initially gave Peruvian officials until Dec. 31 to come up with financing or it would shop the frigates to other nations. But when the new year came, Italy extended the deadline to March. -- J.C. Arancibia


 


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