FRESNO, CA -- Venezuela just bought $3 billion worth of arms from Russia, which is supposed to scare us. We're supposed to start worrying about a new axis of evil south of the border, a heavily-armed enchilada de evil infecting all of Latin America with anti-Americanism.
Which is a joke when you think about it, because from Tijuana on south, every Latino is born knowing two things: how to lower a Chevy and that the Gringos are always to blame. They don't need Chavez to turn them against us any more than kids in Gaza need to go to summer school for remedial courses in anti-Israelism.
But there's a more solid, technical reason not to worry about Chavez's shopping spree. If you look closely at the weapons systems Chavez has been buying with his oil profits, you'll see he didn't buy a single weapon that would actually make an impact against an American invasion. It's amazing. All that great stuff he could've bought, and he blew $3 billion without getting any of it.
Think about what weapons you'd buy if you were a Leftist, anti-American leader with unlimited oil money to spend, like Chavez. Assume your goal is to bleed the Yankee invaders bad enough to make them think twice about invading you. Take your cue from successful local guerrilla armies like Hezbollah. And assume you're buying from the Russians.
My shopping list would start with surface-to-air missiles, especially light, shoulder-fired weapons that can be dispersed to militias, and (thanks to that good ol' Soviet engineering) even buried in the back yard for a year or two and still fire up first time.
There are some mouth-watering deals out there, and the Russians are ready to sell all of it to anybody. I'd order a few thousand SA-13 for starters. This is the "Gremlin" (NATO code name), a solid performer that replaced the SA-7 we know and love. It's got a much better target-tracking system and is way less vulnerable to EW countermeasures.
Then there's the SA-16, another shoulder-fired beauty with slightly longer range and newer tech, and the even newer SA-18, with an even longer range (8k).
And why stop there? Chavez not only has unlimited money, he's got a big sovereign state to work with, meaning he can buy the bigger, more sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons systems the Russians are peddling, like the new Pantsyr vehicles that feature both SAMs with a range of up to 20k and AA cannon that can double up as very effective urban artillery. As I've mentioned before, the Lebanese Civil War showed that in urban canyons these Russian AA rapid-fire cannon are much more effective than the slower main guns of MBTs.
Now, this is just a quick sneak preview of all the goodies you can get at bargain prices from the Russian defense industry. I don't even have time to go into the other stuff you'd want, like antitank weapons (a Russian specialty since 1941) and antitank mines, some of them undetectable by most mineclearing systems. The point is, Chavez didn't buy any of these things.
What he did buy with his $3 billion was 24 Sukhoi Su-30 fighters and 53 helicopters. Against a US invasion, all that hardware would be an instant writeoff. If you want to beat the US armed forces, you don't buy fighter jets, because they'll just get shot down. More likely, the USAF will turn them into modern art inside their hangars before they even get warmed up. And those 53 choppers, if they ever get into the air, will just be dessert for any US pilots who didn't get the chance to kill your fighter planes. You know how those fighter jocks are, itching to stencil another kill on the fuselage.
You can't fight an air-to-air war with the US, period. Nobody on this planet could -- not Russia, not China (not yet, anyway), not even Britain--though the RAF would probably trade kills evenly till we overwhelmed them with sheer numbers. You can outlast the USAF, sure; you can bleed it from the ground with SAMs. But you can't get into a dogfight with our air force and expect to survive the first week. You need a lot more than fighter planes to even think about it. You need satellites, AWACS, stealth tech, industry support.
Above all, industry support. Every time we get into an air war, it's not just Armed Forces techies swarming around the fighters and sweating over the mission reports, it's hundreds of missile technicians on loan from Raytheon, radar experts from Lockheed, General Dynamics structural engineers plotting weapons loads. It's a huge, incredibly expensive world you don't hear about.
Without that giant techie hive supporting your AF, you end up like the Iranian F-14s after Khomeini took over: the most expensive and useless prestige tech since Arnold's Hummer. Fighter jets are more finicky and temperamental than racehorses. To keep one in the air you need a whole base full of tech geeks sweating 24-7. You can't buy that sort of infrastructure, it has to develop. And Venezuela ain't got it.
Besides, it's not clear at all which side the Venezuelan air force would fight on if it came to a war with the US. Nobody noticed this story, but back in August there was a weird little scandal where Venezuelan Customs caught US diplomats smuggling chicken parts and ejector seats into the country in diplomatic bags: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5288214.stm
I have to admit, the notion of smuggling chicken parts into the land of arroz con pollo made me laugh. Talk about Pollo Loco! Maybe they wanted to start a new franchise, Pollo Rumsfeldo, a top-secret program to alter the genetic makeup of Venezuelan poultry to make them more likely to vote for free-market candidates, just in case chickens ever get the vote down there. That would be about par for our secret-agent games down there, given the disastrous coup we tried pulling off a few years ago.
Now the ejector seats, that made a little more sense, although I'd love to see the diplomatic bag the State Department hid them in. I always thought these diplomatic bags were actual bags that overpaid Yalies in the Foreign Service walked through Customs in attache cases chained to their wrists, but any Ivy League grad who could carry an ejector seat past a bunch of scowling Venezuelan cops not only has balls of steel but biceps like the Hulk. So I guess "diplomatic bag" can mean anything you can load onto a C-17.
Anyway, what those smuggled ejector seats really mean is that somebody in the US Embassy in Caracas, probably a "Defense Attache" (ie DIA or CIA agent) has some friends in the Venezuelan air force who asked him to do them a big favor. See, the Venezuelan AF may have to take orders, for the moment, from this Commie loudmouth Chavez, but that doesn't mean they like him.
For one thing, he's ex-Army, and all AF officers hate all Army officers, no matter what country you're in. Besides, AF officers tend to be much more professional and conservative than other branches. Most of the Venezuelan AF brass were trained by the USAF, keep in touch with their friends at Vandenberg. The Venezuelan AF has been flying F-16s since 1982, along with our old friend the F-5, the plane they stock at those warehouse stores with "Generic Fighter Jet" on the package, along with CI standards like the Bronco and good old American workhorses like the C-130 and militarized 707 and 737.
When your AF flies all that high-priced American hardware, defense contractors can't give you enough freebies, most of them listed in the budget as "training visits." That means Venezuela's air force officers have eaten a lot of free surf'n'turf dinners at off-base bar & grills in Florida and Texas, and washed 'em down with a lot of expensive Scotch, all on Lockheed's or Uncle Sam's tab. It means every pilot in the Venezuelan AF has been offered a free trip to Disney World so his kiddies could get their pictures taken with Miguel Mouse.
That sort of thing is how you build alliances these days. I realize it ain't the romantic side of war, it ain't John Paul Jones transferring his command to the Serapis as the Bonhomme Richard slipped beneath the waves, but it's how things are done.
And it will pay off if we ever have to slap down Chavez, because either his AF won't fight at all or it will turn on him, bomb the Presidential palace and side with the Yanquis. There's no such thing as a Leftist fighter pilot. The job just doesn't allow for it -- takes too much ego, too much confidence. To put it bluntly, you have to be a talented jerk to be a fighter jock. Just think of the guy who always played QB in neighborhood football games, the smiley asshole you hated but knew was going to win, and multiply that by, oh, a thousand. That's your average fighter pilot.
If you think those dudes are going to turn on their drinking buddies from the USAF to back up a loudmouth commie army fuck like Chavez, you're dreaming.
And that brings us to the real reason Chavez is spending all those petrodollars on useless Russian fighters: he's scared of a coup, not an invasion. So he's trying to create a new wing of the air force, trained on non-American hardware and loyal to him. It's the oldest trick in the book, creating a parallel military force to protect yourself from the established armed forces.
Trouble is, it takes a long time to create a loyal air wing -- years of bribing the pilots with those steak dinners and Disney trips. Chavez is trying to do it overnight, which is hopeless, a sign of desperation. For one thing, it takes real talent and years of training to create a fighter jock.
Chavez'd be better off putting all his loyal Communistas in charge of tank divisions, because tanks are pretty simple hardware compared to jets. You can put your nephew in charge of a tank brigade and hope he'll learn how to find the right gear to set up a perimeter around your palace when the coup starts. Try putting your drunk-but-loyal brother-in-law a in fighter cockpit and odds are you're going to be watching amateur video of his Su-30 starring in "Venezuela's Funniest Air Show Disasters," careening his fighter into a crowd and fricasseeing half your constituency.
So no matter what angle you look at it from -- purely military, political, technological -- buying fighter jets to defend your country from the US is sheer stupidity.
That's why the really scary anti-US forces don't waste their time and money on it. They know how to fight US-type forces without aircraft. Hezbollah has no air force, unless you count the low-cost RPVs they used to scout Israeli positions. Like all good guerrilla armies, they put their resources into making the sky as unsafe as possible for enemy aircraft. That means lots of SAMs, including antitank weapons that have shown well against choppers, and training your men to hit chopper tail-rotors with unguided RPGs -- one of those lessons our ex-allies in Afghanistan developed against the Russian Mi-24s and then turned on us in Somalia and Iraq.
Right now, the technology is tilting toward the defense. Every year, shoulder-fired guided missiles get better and cheaper. And every year, fighter jets get more insanely expensive. What that really means is, the line between guided missile and manned aircraft is getting blurry except in one area: cost.
To make a plane a man can fly in, you need to spend really sick amounts of money, whereas missiles that can acquire that plane as a target, follow it through chaff and EW countermeasures and kill it, are relatively cheap (and getting cheaper). In fact, the missile has to win sooner or later, because it's not limited by all the stresses that can kill a human body. The missile can pull any g's you can pack propellant for; the pilot can't. To make the cockpit a livable place you need to turn it into the world's most expensive intensive-care unit, then build the armament around that. The missile has no veins to pop, no eyes to squeeze, no lungs to burst. It's not that much more expensive than a Discman, and it can turn that magnificent fighter jet into splatter video. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
So when Chavez buys fighter jets, he's telling us as surely as if we had him on tape that he's not a serious opponent. If he was, he'd arm the way Hezbollah armed: low-cost guided missiles to send IN HUGE NUMBERS at high-value, manned targets. I'm stressing "in huge numbers" because the cost differential means the guerrilla army, assuming it's got the money, can roll the dice a hundred times and still win, because a hundred guided missiles are still way, way cheaper than a single manned target like that Israeli gunboat Hezbollah hit with an anti-ship missile, or the Merkavas they knocked out with guided and unguided RPGs.
Well, Chavez has the money, that's for sure. But he didn't buy the Russians' brilliant new antitank missile, the RPG-29, that killed a whole bunch of Israeli tanks. He didn't even buy the good ol' RPG, which can put the fear of God into chopper pilots. The only shoulder-borne weapon he bought was 100,000 AK automatic rifles. What's that tell us?
Now nobody is a bigger fan of the AK "bullet hose" than me. But you can't resist a US invasion with automatic rifles alone, or even with AKs as your primary small arm. When Hezbollah drew the IDF into kill-zones, they used the AK to protect their RPG teams, like the English used pikemen mainly to protect their archers, who were the real offensive weapon against French heavy cavalry.
So what can Chavez do with a mix of Russian fighter jets and AKs? It's pretty obvious. These are the weapons a nervous Commie needs to set up a parallel military, loyal to his regime, to discourage a coup from his own armed forces -- not to stop a US invasion.
The reason he didn't buy any of those beautiful Russian anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles is because they don't require a lot of personnel. He wants manned aircraft, fighters and choppers, because they're labor-intensive machines that create big military units, hopefully loyal ones. He wants people whose paychecks depend on him, El Commie Grande, and shoulder-fired missiles don't have political loyalties.
So it's clear what these big arms purchases mean. Chavez ain't scared of Bush. Sad truth is, nobody's scared of that jerk any more, except maybe patriotic Americans like me, because the only country Bush ever really damages is America.
So don't get distracted by all that UN yelling. Watch the hands, like boxing coaches say. And Chavez's hands are saying he's scared to death of his own military, not ours.