US Arms Transfer Policy for Latin America

By Mora, Frank O.; Pala, Antonio L. | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

US Arms Transfer Policy for Latin America


Mora, Frank O., Pala, Antonio L., Air & Space Power Journal


THE DECISION BY the Clinton administration in 1995 to modify the conventional arms transfer policy and permit the sale of advanced military technologies to Latin America has sparked a heated debate within political, academic, industrial, and military circles. One of the most controversial aspects of this new policy deals with the sale of advanced fighters to Latin America. This article posits that this was the right decision at the right time for the right reasons. The Western Hemisphere of 1998 is considerably different from the landscape of the 1970s and 1980s. Military regimes, the Central American conflicts, arms races, and the bipolar competition between the superpowers were commonplace throughout the region. Today, the hemisphere is characterized by democratic regimes, declining defense budgets, economic integration, and reduced interstate tension, with Cuba serving as the only reminder of a discredited political experiment.

Our research addresses the main arguments against President Bill Clinton's decision to sell fighter aircraft and outlines the weaknesses of those arguments. For the most part, the discussion focuses on the impact of the new policy on seven countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. These countries have the largest air forces and are the most likely candidates for the purchase of fighters. Since 1995 the Chilean air force has expressed the desire to modernize its fighter aircraft. In 1996, Chile requested technical specifications from the United States for the FlA-18 and F-16 fighters. At the same time, Chile sought similar data from France for the Mirage 2000-5 and from Sweden for the JAS-39 Gripen.1 By March 1997, the Clinton administration agreed to allow US manufacturers to provide classified technical data on the F-16 and F/A-18 and entered into negotiations for the possible sale of the aircraft.2 On 1 August, President Clinton ended the 20-year-old ban and reversed the Carter administration's 1977 Presidential Directive 13 (PD-13), which had blocked the sale of advanced military technology in Latin America. In those 20 years, the US limited its aircraft sales in the region to lower-technology fighters such as the A-4 Skyhawk, the Northrop F-5 in several variants, and the A-37 Dragonfly. The only exception to this policy was the 1982 sale of F-16s to Venezuela by the Reagan administration. Unfortunately, the self-imposed US embargo did not limit, nor influence, the entry of advanced fighters into the region. Over the two decades, the French sold over two hundred fighters in South America. Other aircraft-producing nations followed suit. The Israelis, British, and Soviets also sold their fighters in all the major countries, undaunted by US efforts to limit the sales.

The critics of expanding fighter sales to Latin America focus on some important areas. Primarily, they stress the possibility of a renewed arms race in Latin America and the negative socioeconomic impact of expanded arms sales to these fragile democracies. Others emphasize the fact that these nations do not need advanced fighters for their security. On the other hand, advocates of the sales stress the economic benefits to the United States and to our defense-related industrial base. Additionally, they propose that these sales will yield security benefits and create closer ties with our regional allies. Furthermore, with the exception of Cuba, all countries in the hemisphere are currently under democratic rule and, as such, enjoy the legitimacy to determine the kind of military force structure they should have to provide for their defense.

This article proposes that the United States sell, on a case-by-case basis, advanced fighter aircraft to select countries. It should do so to enhance interoperability, promote militaryto-military contacts in the region, and to help the regional air forces modernize their inventories with USAF-compatible equipment. These sales should conform to the principles set forth in the 1995 Williamsburg Hemispheric Defense Ministerial Conference, which stressed transparency, accountability, and mutual cooperation.

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