Colombia’s recent military modernization announcements coincide with the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ release of their Military Balance report for 2009. That report cites Venezuela’s continuing arms buildup in the region, which has triggered corresponding modernization drives in nearby countries, including Colombia and Brazil.
“When you only have one customer and that customer suddenly finds itself spending a trillion dollars more per year than it is taking in, prudence dictates you should start developing alternatives to your current business plan. That’s the position the U.S. defense industry finds itself in today. Big cuts in weapons spending won’t happen quickly, but at some point the combination of a deep economic recession, receding threats and Democratic Party control of the government is likely to produce a downturn in the defense business. Fortunately, the industry has many options for coping with declining demand…”
American defense companies do have more than one customer, but the US military is such a large customer that its influence is usually a dominant force. That can be the springboard to long-term market dominance that outlasts American purchases, as was the case for the F-16 fighter and the Harpoon anti-ship missile. It can also create damaging distortions that sap international competitiveness, as it has in American shipbuilding. Either way, exceptions like the C-130J Hercules tactical transport are few and far between. Lexington’s recommendations include:
Lower investor expectations
Manage backlog better
Steal market share from competitors who have failed to perform
In 2008, the point was underlined by sales like the deal with Zimbabwe for 12 K-8/JL-8 jet trainers and light attack aircraft, but a number of deals are reportedly pending with various countries. These reportedly include everything from K-8 Karakorum jets and FC-1/JF-17 fighters, to WMZ-551 wheeled APCs, artillery, and of course the usual set of small arms and ammunition deals. One of the challenges that the July 2008 Forecast International report had discussed is the region’s economic weakness, but UPI Asia notes that China has a solution. Zambia has used its copper resources to pay China in a number of military deals, Kenya has been negotiating with China to trade fishing rights for arms, and similar deals are under discussion elsewhere.
While China’s economy has cooled as a result of the global recession, long-term, secure access to the resources needed to supply its growing economy is one of the regime’s top strategic priorities. Africa is poor by policy, but the continent has rich resources of oil and key industrial metals. This Chinese arms thrust is one component of a unified strategy that bundles weapon sales and economic ties. Other building blocks include soft-power approaches, and a key component block was added recently with the launch of a PLAN hospital ship. Few countries own dedicated hospital vessels, which can serve in quasi-diplomatic goodwill roles, or function in their traditional role as high-capacity medical support for amphibious assaults.
A combination of arms sales, naval activities, and economic ties is promising, but it will also require other forms of local relationship-building and military presence, in order to give China the full range of tools for influencing African regimes. Oddly, none of these sales, deal structures, or strategic considerations were even mentioned in a recent SIPRI(Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) analysis of China’s stepped-up deployment of peacekeeping troops. Troops whose chosen missions appear to have a strong focus on African operations.