Thursday, August 09, 2007

The military and copper in Chile

My friend Mike had pointed out this article from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs on Chilean arms purchases. The upshot is that because of the law guaranteeing the military 10% of copper earnings combined with high copper prices, the military is buying expensive weapons, the government is therefore spending less on other, more important projects, while Chile’s neighbors are becoming more alarmed.

The analysis is solid, though the overly alarmist tone is a bit much. For example, at the very beginning it says, “Is the Chilean military preparing for a new computer game: War of the Pacific: Part II?” and then never mentions it again. The author also suggests the army is just barely tolerating democracy—that may have been true 10-15 years ago, but not now.

Nonetheless, the basic premise is right on. These weapons serve no legitimate purpose, the money should be spent in much better ways (even, as the author points out, for the rank and file as opposed to bling bling purchases) and given history, this makes Bolivia and Peru much more nervous and prompts them to spend money they might not have otherwise.

The bottom line is the Copper Law. As Defense Minister, Bachelet announced an effort to repeal it, but was blocked by the right, which does not trust the Concertación to fund the armed forces. Interestingly, though, when I was in Chile in June I spoke to members of Congress—members from both the PPD and UDI said they thought a change would occur in the not-too-distant future. However, the ultimate formula may entail some sort of budget guarantee TBD. For now, however, the military can keep riding the gravy train.


boz 10:03 PM  

The Chilean military might have a better case if they spent their money more intelligently.

Forget for a second the question of whether Chile should be spending all the money on defense (in lieu of, say, education or health). If you look honestly at Chile's strategic defense needs with the budget they have, you would want:

1. The best Coast Guard in the entire world. Seriously, with the amount of shoreline Chile needs to defend and maintain, this should be the absolute #1 priority.

2. A decent blue water navy to patrol the area outside the immediate shores.

3. High mountain battalions (few countries have them and they are a specialty need Chile could excel in).

4. Special ops urban swat teams and police units (for missions like Haiti).

5. Marine units to complement the Navy in case Chile decides to participate in expeditionary missions.

What doesn't Chile's military need? Tanks. What did they buy last year: 118 used tanks. In a country that is full of mountains and never more than 200 miles across with thousands of miles of coastline, the last things the military needs are tanks and heavy ground based weaponry. In any realistic assessment, Chile is not going to war with its neighbors and even if it did, tanks would not be as worthwhile as the other things mentioned above (actually, if Chile is planning for war with its neighbors, the F-16's become fairly worthwhile. The tanks are still relatively useless except for very few battlegrounds).

It's not as much the role of the military in society as it is the role of the Army in the military. The Chilean Army has a disproportionate influence in Chile's defense decisions. If you're looking for reform, changing the power structure of the military so the Navy and police have more influence may be a good middle ground to start at and may be a reform, based solely on pragmatism, more palatable to all ends of the ideological spectrum.

Greg Weeks 11:42 AM  

I disagree that making different purchases would matter for the political debate, or that giving the other branches more power would make a difference. As it stands, the executive branch has its hands tied, and Congress is almost entirely ignored. Creating a new swat team or marine unit wouldn't make politicians (or anyone else) feel better about that.

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