A decade ago, the term BRIC was coined. Brazil, Russia, India and China, explained Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, were all on the brink of significant economic development which would propel them in the coming decades into the first rank of global powers. That economic growth is undeniable, but there is more to global influence than the size of one’s coffers, and fighting power is a vital aspect thereof; as Mao had it, “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Defence Dateline Group is assessing the military power of each of the four countries in turn, to determine if they can yet qualify for that status, or if they are on their way to doing so. In the last article, China and India were examined. It is now the turn of the two remaining BRICs: Russia and Brazil.
Like India and China, both countries are already regional giants, with the military, economic and diplomatic power to influence the politics of their smaller neighbours. Yet the first rank of global powers have interests – and the ability to pursue those interests – well beyond their shores. Can Brazil and Russia be said to have these attributes?
Shrinking Russian influence
A few short years ago, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an undisputed global titan, with power on a par with America. It ruled half of Europe and half of Asia, to boot. It sponsored client states on every continent and its massive nuclear arsenal was enough to destroy the world many times over.
Present-day Russia is a much-diminished force. In diplomatic terms, it retains a UN Security Council veto, and control over much of Europe’s gas. Yet it is notable that its role in the modern world is more often that of spoiler of Western initiatives, rather than as a superpower propounding its own agenda.
On paper, this reduced global influence is only partially reflected in Russia’s military power. The Russian armed forces reportedly have a little over a million active duty personnel, and a budget of $56 billion, making them the fifth largest power by both expenditure and troop numbers. The Russian navy is thought to have around 200 active combat ships, and to be the world’s second largest by tonnage. Estimates of Russian air force strength: an inventory 1205 strike fighter jets (a mixture of modern and older Sukhois and MiGs), 164 bomber aircraft, and 301 attack helicopters (mostly Mil Mi-24Vs). Unlike India, supporting capabilites are not neglected – the air force boasts 307 transport planes (mostly Ilyushin IL-76s and Antonov AN-12s), 232 transport helicopters (principally Mil Mi-8Ms), 18 aerial refueling aircraft (IL-78s) and 19 electronic warfare aircraft (Beriev A-50s). All arms are complemented by enormous reserves of equipment and personnel.
Yet the military masses represented on paper may exist solely in that medium. There are significant doubts as to how many ships are in fact operational; photographs of vessels rusting in harbour tell their own vivid story. ‘Jane’s Fighting Ships’ reports that many such surface platforms are only nominally operational, in order that the crews may continue to draw wages. It is a similar story for ground forces. What is by all means a large land force is widely undermined by corrupt and disinterested officers supervising unwilling conscripts and brutal NCOs. True, the limited conventional operation against Georgia in 2008 was generally judged to be a success. But the Russian army has proved unable – despite extreme brutality – to defeat rebels in Chechnya or elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Even the supposed cream of the Russian armed forces, Spetsnaz, has been embarrassed in recent years, especially by the botched attempt to end a hostage crisis in a Moscow theatre in 2002. Promised budget increases only sometimes materialise.
The demise of Russian military power can be exaggerated. They retain large, if deeply flawed, forces. They also, of course, have the world’s second most powerful nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 1,900 warheads. Assorted military upgrade programmes are in the pipeline. At present, Russia is certainly a global power, if not quite a superpower. Yet it differs from the other BRICs in that it is moving in the other direction. Where China, India and Brazil are all rising powers, Russia has plateaued (if not embarked on a downward spiral). High gas prices, sturdy equipment and residual power will allow it to play a global role for several decades to come. Sheer size and willingness to use its power mean it will always be a regional giant capable of affecting the destinies of its smaller neighbours. But without a major change in Russia’s governance, demography and economy, it will not be a superpower again anytime soon.
Brazil ponders its potential
Of all the BRICs, Brazil is presently the smallest. China, India and Russia all have larger gross domestic products (calculated by purchasing power parity, IMF 2010 figures). China and India have far larger populations, as well as markedly higher GDP growth rates (IMF 2010 figures). Brazil is the only one of the four to lack nuclear weapons, and both Russia and China wield a UN Security Council veto, another diplomatic asset Brazil lacks.
This relatively lesser power is reflected in Brazil’s armed forces. It has around 327,000 personnel, less than a third of Russia’s strength, and around one seventh of China’s. At $28 billion, military expenditure is not so very much less than India, but trails well behind Russia and China (SIPRI 2010 figures), although additional funds are available for upgrade programmes. And while Embraer and other Brazilian defence firms are economic successes, none are in the top 100 global defence manufacturers.
Brazil's naval modernisation plans include acquiring four Scorpene subs from DCNS.
Brazil argues that it is looking to expand its military power. In 2008, a National Defence Strategy was published, with an emphasis on technology transfer to lift Brazil’s power. A number of modernisation programmes are under way, with the most notable a hotly contested contract to provide fighter aircraft to the air force, and a 2009 deal to purchase four Scorpene submarines from DCNS. Under the PEAMB programme, naval modernisation will eventually encompass two aircraft carriers, four helicopter carriers, 30 escort ships, 15 submarines, five nuclear submarines and 62 patrol ships. The Brazilian navy sees its mission as driven by blue-water operations - not brown.
Yet this is not reflected in actions, or budgets. In February 2011, $2.4 billion of cuts to the defence budget were announced. The left-of-centre Worker’s Party, in power since 2002, has prioritised domestic poverty relief over expansive military expenditure. Though the previous president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had global ambitions, Brazil’s forays onto the global stage were mostly as diplomatic mediator. Two prime examples were his intervention with Turkey to head off Iranian nuclear ambitions, and leading the global South in arguments over food subsidies at the Doha round of global trade negotiations. In terms of hard power, it remains to be seen whether the enormous proposed naval upgrade programme survives intact.
A final and uneasy verdict
The BRIC label was designed to apply to economics, but has come to symbolise a wider shift in the global distribution in political power. In truth, in the military arena it is of only limited utility as an analytical tool. It disguises too many differences, in both ambition and capabilities. Russia has the ambitions to be a global power – and while it presently possesses those capabilities, those capabilities are degrading. Brazil, meanwhile, does not have the capabilities – not for lack of cash, but because its politicians lack that ambition (though its generals certainly do not). China and India are the most ambitious. China has all the necessary resources to compete with the US, and intends to do so. India, meanwhile, is threatened by an ambitious Pakistani and by the enigmatic rising phoenix that is China.
For the moment, the US remains the hegemon, able to project power nearly anywhere, with exceptions carved out in the immediate vicinity of these rising powers. Yet it may be safely assumed that the list of these exceptions will grow, first in East Asia, and then later in South Asia and South America.
With this shift will also come an inevitable change in global defence purchasing patterns. The more the BRIC states seek to influence first their immediate regions, and then the world, the more their defence investment will begin to mirror the hi-tech industries of the US defence complex. Meanwhile, as the extension of the US defence umbrella becomes less sustainable in neighbouring states, they will have to look to defend themselves, and purchase accordingly. It is within these structural re-adjustments of global military power that European industry must position themselves.