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Resource-rich Brazil puts up its guard

The nation is reviving its space program as part of a push to secure its territory. 'In the coming era of scarcity, we're going to have to defend what we've got,' a consultant to the Defense Ministry

December 18, 2009|By Chris Kraul
  • A mechanic works on a Brazilian fighter jet in Antofagasta, Chile, during war games. Brazil is looking to buy 36 more jets.
A mechanic works on a Brazilian fighter jet in Antofagasta, Chile, during… (Martin Bernetti / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Brasilia, Brazil — Brazil's planned reentry into the satellite business next year is more than an effort to join an exclusive club and become a global player. It's part of a far-reaching defense plan to ward off potential plunderers of its immense natural resources, officials say.

"In the coming era of scarcity, we're going to have to defend what we've got with our claws, our feet and our weapons," said a consultant to the Defense Ministry who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. "The challenges could come from neighbors, they could come from the U.S., they could come from China -- all allies now, but potential competitors in the future."

Brazil has a lot to protect.

Over the last two years, it has made one of the world's largest oil discoveries off its Atlantic coast, a find that could propel it into the first rank of oil exporters by 2015. The nation also boasts enormous deposits of gold, uranium and iron ore and is the world's largest exporter of chicken, soy, sugar and beef.

The value of these resources has skyrocketed along with demand from China, India and other emerging economies.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his advisors believe that the resources increasingly will be coveted by foreign powers as "global availability" of commodities is reduced by population growth, global warming and over-exploitation, said Thomaz Guedes da Costa, a professor at National Defense University in Washington.

So Brazil is doing more than counting its blessings: It has begun to take measures to expand and modernize its defenses as part of a strategic plan to dissuade foreign usurpers from making a play for its natural riches.

In an interview here in Brazil's capital, Defense Ministry spokesman Jose Ramos Filho said the military buildup was "defensive, not offensive," and was meant as a deterrent against nations that in coming decades may lust after Brazil's resources, even water. Better surveillance, weapons and the means to deploy them will make potential enemies think twice about an attack, he said.

Restarting Brazil's unmanned space program, which has been on hold since a launchpad disaster killed 21 people in 2003, is an integral part of the plan. A new generation of satellites is planned to help Brazil monitor its agriculture, forests, mineral resources -- and territory.

This month, Lula said on a state visit to Ukraine that he hoped to launch a Brazilian satellite aboard a Ukrainian rocket by the end of his term next December. By 2012, Brazil plans to be launching satellites aboard its own rockets, said Himilcon Carvalho, policy director of the Brazilian Space Agency.

Brazil and Ukraine are forming a joint venture to offer launch services at Alcantara in northern Brazil, the site of the 2003 disaster.

Although Brazil has five communication and imaging satellites in space, all were launched by the Chinese or private U.S. launchers, and Brazil wants more control, Carvalho said.

"We want to forecast crops and monitor our coastlines, but also know our territory and gather data from it," Carvalho said. "Defense is a byproduct. The military is very fond of surveillance and wants to know what's going on over land and sea."

A space program and modern weapons are a status marker: the price of membership to the first rank of nations, those that are rule makers, not rule takers, said Guedes da Costa of National Defense University.

"Brazil wants to be a player in world trade, the environment, and have a seat on the U.N. Security Council. For the leadership, that translates into military purchases if you are going to participate at that level," he said.

The space program is only one element of Brazil's plan. The country has signed deals to acquire new weaponry, including helicopters and submarines, in technology-sharing arrangements. It will soon choose a vendor for 36 jet fighters it is buying at a cost of $4 billion or more. France's Dassault is thought to be the front-runner against Boeing and Sweden's Saab to supply them.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a defense analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said Brazil was overdue in replacing arms systems not updated in many cases since the 1980s, when the nation was still ruled by a military dictatorship.

"Military budgets have pretty much stagnated since then, so what's going on to some extent is a replacing and upgrading of equipment that's aging, and that's understandable," Felbab-Brown said.

The consultant to the Defense Ministry agreed that the need to replace outdated hardware was a big driver of the defense plan. There was little public support for big military purchases until now because the memory of Brazil's military dictatorship, which ruled from 1964 to 1985, was too fresh.

"Now there's a recognition that the need to create a modern armed forces is vital," the consultant said.

But a big, modern military is also part of Brazil's emerging status as a global power.

"We are now the world's ninth-largest economy and we will continue to grow," the consultant said. "So we must have a military status that is commensurate with our economic size and international influence."

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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