Strategic Implications of Brazil's Military Operations
The Brazilian armed forces on Aug. 7 launched Operation Agata 5, the fifth in a series of military actions along the Brazilian border since August 2011. Agata 5 involves about 9,000 military personnel as well as fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and river patrol ships. The operation, which is taking place along Brazil's border with Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay, also involves about 1,000 members of various civil security and inspection services.
These operations ostensibly aim to curb cross-border criminal activities such as smuggling and illegal resource extraction; but they also serve a deeper purpose for the Brazilian military. Brasilia sees the operations as a way to familiarize its armed forces with recently acquired equipment in a relatively low-risk tactical environment. More important, the actions will help the military grow accustomed to Brazil's newly established military doctrine of joint force action, which involves multiple military service branches operating in a coordinated manner to improve fighting capabilities; this aspect has drawn the concern of neighboring states.
In June 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's administration unveiled the Strategic Frontiers Plan, which set the goal of permanently reducing transnational border crime by increasing the state's security presence in the remote areas where crime occurs. As part of the plan, the military was tasked with carrying out occasional security operations along certain stretches of the Brazilian border, with assistance from other departments including state and federal police, Brazilian intelligence, and environmental protection and customs agencies. Though the use of the military to conduct law enforcement work is not uncommon in Brazil, the 15-30 day crackdowns that characterize Operation Agata are notable for their scale and timing.
The operations take place as the Brazilian military is attempting to modernize not only its equipment but also its combat doctrine and command structure. This initiative was outlined in the National Defense Strategy, an ambitious policy paper published by the Brazilian Defense Ministry in December 2008 that sought to establish a framework for defending Brazilian territorial integrity and national interests.
The specific goals of the National Defense Strategy include deterring foreign enemy incursions by modernizing Brazil's defense industry, shifting toward greater electronic and communications integration, improving force interoperability and developing a rapid-response logistical capacity. The government has pursued these policies through the long-delayed acquisition of a modern fighter jet for the air force, new government subsidies for the defense industry and the formation of a Brazilian joint chiefs of staff in August 2010 to optimize coordination between each branch of the armed forces.
Operation Agata is the most recent effort by the Brazilian military to implement this new approach. Since the military is not targeting another conventional military but rather criminal elements like contraband smugglers and illegal loggers and miners that operate along border regions, engaging in these operations presents a low risk for troop casualties, hardware losses or vehicle destruction. However, the military still stands to gain valuable operational experience that it would otherwise be unable to acquire outside of an actual conflict. Brazil's approach is similar to Japan's participation in counterpiracy operations off the Somali coast.
The Agata operations have led to the first use of Israeli-built Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles, the most advanced version of the Amazon Vigilance System land- and air-based surveillance network and recently acquired Black Hawk helicopters. More important than the new equipment is the implementation of the new doctrine of joint action, especially in the rugged, remote and relatively unfamiliar terrain of the northern and northeastern border regions. The ability to efficiently execute a coordinated operation involving the army, navy and air force is one of the principal goals outlined in the National Defense Strategy. Sometimes the three branches act autonomously, while at other times they cooperate with each other to secure an objective, but all actions and orders are carried out and executed by a central authority.
Neighboring states have not failed to notice these repeated, thousands-strong military actions along the border. In an effort to allay potential fears, the Brazilian military has sent high-ranking officers to neighboring countries to address these countries' concerns, invited military observers from these countries on a number of opportunities and, whenever possible, has tried to coordinate joint crime-fighting operations with its military or police counterparts in neighboring states, as seen in joint efforts with Colombia and Venezuela. Above all else, the Brazilian government has stressed that these operations are meant to clamp down on criminal activity.
The stated purpose of these operations -- to fight border crime -- is a real one, as evidenced by the several hundred kilograms of drugs and the weaponry, munitions, explosives, vehicles and other contraband that have been seized. Illegal logging camps, prospecting bases and smuggler plane runways have also been destroyed in the Amazon during each operation. However, the Agata operations are only temporary efforts and will have minimal long-term impact on criminal activity. The borders are simply too long, remote and rugged (especially in the northern and northwestern jungle sections) for periodic security measures to fully eradicate crime. Still, the operations' potential to improve Brazilian military capabilities could have more important strategic ramifications.