Buying kit for South America’s volatile environment

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Volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts – these are just some of the natural disasters that the Latin America region has to contend with every year. Last year was a particularly volatile for volcano activity, with eruptions occurring in Guatemala, Chile, Ecuador (the first for 140 years), Mexico and Costa Rica.

When it’s not dealing with hot magma falling from the skies, Chile is also one of the most seismically active regions in the world, regularly experiencing earthquakes measuring over eight on the Richter scale.

So it’s not surprising when the governments in the region are setting out their annual military budgets, equipment programmes that can contribute to national disaster relief efforts often get priority and the most funding. Especially when budgets are tight, as they currently are in the region thanks to the global commodity price crash, governments tend to choose multi-role capabilities that have wider use than just defence and security.

I got a flavour of this prioritisation when I attended the FIDAE airshow last week in Santiago, one of the premier aerospace and defence shows that rolls round every two years.

Walking around the show, there were several transport aircraft and utility helicopters from the region, as well as from the US in the form of C-130 Hercules aircraft. Fighter aircraft, including the Chilean Air Force’s F-5 and F-16 jets, were present, as well as light attack aircraft such as the Embraer Super Tucano and dedicated trainer aircraft like Peru’s indigenously-built KT-1.

But, with Latin America being relatively stable and there being little chance of inter-state conflict breaking out, it was the aircraft that could benefit humanitarian missions that were a prime focus – rather than the aircraft armed to the teeth with machine guns, missiles and rocket launchers.

Speaking at FIDAE, the Chilean Air Force’s three-star aviation general said a medium-lift transport helicopter is presently at the top of his acquisition priority list, along with a medium-size transport aircraft, the former is even expected to be purchased as soon as this year. An air force officer explained that the purchase of larger helicopters (to supplement existing UH-1 Hueys and Bell 412s), is principally so the service can improve its response to natural disasters in the country.

OEMs are also eyeing Chile’s medium-size tactical airlifter requirements for both the army and air force, with Finmeccanica’s C-27J Spartan and Airbus Defence and Space’s C-295 likely going head-to-head for those contracts. One Airbus DS official told Quill that there was currently no formal tender process taking place, but there had been an exchange of information and the C-295 had visited the country as part of a demo tour last year.

The Chilean Navy already operates the C-295 in a maritime patrol capacity, potentially giving it an upper hand in any army and air force competition.

As part of Finmeccanica’s marketing drive at the show, journalists were shown around two C-27J Spartans recently delivered to the Peruvian Air Force. Quill also spoke to the air force’s head of logistics, who set out ambitious procurement plans including the purchase of more medium-lift Spartans and the possible edition of larger C-130J Super Hercules to the fleet, making Peru the first Latin American customer for the type.

Giving an example of recent operations the Peruvian Air Force has carried out with the C-27J, the general said it had carried out air bridge operations when one of the main roads to Huancayo, east of Lima, had flooded and cut off local inhabitants. The country has struggled with floods across the country this year. The general said that the C-27J moved almost 3,000 people, with two aircraft each flying 15 flights a day for two weeks. ‘The government and the population was very pleased,’ he told Quill.

In these tough economic times, the general’s last sentence shines a light on the current procurement strategies for nations in the region. Governments want to spend money on an asset that the general population will be able to benefit from. The optimist would say that this shows that the Latin American governments care about their populations, the cynic would say that it is an opportunity to gain more voters! You decide.

Either way, there’s a good chance you will see ongoing investment in the region in assets that have humanitarian roles both at home and abroad.

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