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Africa and South America , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

How Capable is Venezuela of Defending its Airspace? Part One

The Most Vulnerable Target State?

August 21st - 2017

Amid the recent political unrest in Venezuela U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to use a 'military option' to reach a resolution the United States would see as adequate - indicating a potential military operation to remove a government which has long stood in the way of Washington's designs on the South American continent. Unlike other threats of regime change wars made by the United States, Syria, Iran and North Korean being prime examples, a military operation against Venezuela appears a far more feasible prospect. Unlike Syria the country is not protected by an extensive Russian military contingent - meaning that war with Venezuela would not risk potentially leading to a direct conflict with Russia. Unlike Iran, Venezuela does not have an arsenal of tens of thousands of ballistic missiles capable of blocking the critical oil shipping straits of Hormuz and devastating the military bases of the United States and the population and oil production centres of its allies throughout the region. Military action against North Korea meanwhile is impossible for a number of reasons, not least their state of preparedness, advanced and fortified air defence, missile and tunnel networks throughout the country, and uniquely unified population lacking any significant fifth columns - all without mentioning their nuclear arsenal, submarine fleet, special forces and protection by Russian air defences among several other factors. For those analysts who speculate that the United States needs to wage war regularly for economic and political reasons, Venezuela appears by far the most vulnerable of all the potential target states.

Military intervention by the United States would almost certainly involve heavy use of its air and missile forces, as has been the case for all such American interventions since the Second World War - or in the case of missile technology since the first cruise missiles were developed. While Venezuela has negligible domestic military industries their military has invested heavily in anti access area denial (A2AD) weaponry to protect national airspace from advanced enemy air and missile attacks. The county is one of the few operators of the advanced S-300VM, the most capable Russian made specialised anti missile system relied on by Russian forces themselves as the best defence against enemy cruise missile attacks. This specialised S-300 variant was deployed to protect Russia's forces in Syria alongside the S-400, and exceeds the S-400 in its anti missile capabilities. Venezuela has operated two battalions of these systems since 2012, which are supposedly capable of neutralising any cruise missile attacks by any known missile systems. Assuming that these S-300VM systems are properly manned and crews have received high standards of training, this would make U.S. cruise missile strikes on Venezuelan military targets extremely diffiuclt.

As well as advanced anti missile systems, Venezuela also operates advanced air defences specialised in targeting aircraft. In 2013 the country recovered the first of its 20 ordered Buk-M2E SAM systems, some of the most advanced anti aircraft systems produced by Russia. These systems have a higher potency against aircraft than any other systems the U.S. Air Force has ever engaged, and though they have a short range relative to systems such as the S-300 they are even more lethal at short range - with a single system capable of engaging up to 24 targets. With an accuracy of 0.9-0.95 against aircraft - making it more potent that longer ranged systems at medium and short range, and a real threat to any hostile aircraft in Venezuelan airspace. Combined with the anti missile capabilities of the S-300VM, which are also very much capable of targeting enemy aircraft within 200km, Venezuela has by far the most advanced air defence system on the continent - far more capable than any the United States military has ever encountered.

Augmenting its advanced SAM systems, Venezuela's Air Force is far from impotent in its capabilities. The country fields a small fleet of 16 American made F-16A multirole fighters, though these antiquated aircraft can be quickly and effectively countered by the U.S. Air Force's own air superiority fighters - much as they easily countered the similarly capable MiG-29 fleets of Iraq and Yugoslavia. F-16As will not prove a challenge even for the United States' older F-15 variants. Venezuela has indicated that it places little value on the defensive capabilities of its F-16 fleet, and has even indicated in the past that it is willing to sell the fighters.

The backbone of the Venezuelan Air Force and the true source of its potency lies in the 23 Su-30MK2 fighters it fields, the most potent Russian air superiority fighters other than the Su-35. Few countries in the world are able to field such capable aircraft - and the United States has yet to engage any air force with fourth generation air superiority fighters - much less those as advanced as the ones that comprise Venezuela's fleet. The Su-30MK2 are to date more capable than any American air superiority fighters other than the F-22, and assuming that the country has trained its pilots to reasonable standards this fleet will be a potent threat to the U.S. Air Force far beyond anything it has yet to face.

While Venezuela's general military capabilities are negligible compared to those of the United States, it may well prove capable enough at defending its airspace to deter an American intervention - or else make such an intervention far more difficult that it was in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Panama, Yugoslavia or any other theatre the U.S. Air Force has operated in in decades. The presence of such advanced air defence systems and air superiority fighters would necessitate the deployment of F-22 fighters and stealth bombers - which is itself a risk as if these untested cutting edge capabilities are neutralised by Venezuela's Russian made SAMs and fighter aircraft then it would seriously undermine American military prestige worldwide - a risk which achieving strategic goals in the small South American country may well not be worth.

Continued in Part Two

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