The Best Little Air Force You’re Barely Aware Of

Brazil’s feisty air arm battles eco-criminals—on a budget


On Aug. 10, 2011, four Brazilian air force A-29 Super Tucano attack planes took off from Campo Grande in southern Brazil, flew to a spot 45 miles northeast of São Gabriel da Cachoeira and together dropped eight 500-pound bombs.

Their target: a dirt airstrip, hacked out of the lush rainforest canopy, suspected of belonging to a drug cartel or one of the many smuggling outfits that are steadily pilfering the Amazon rainforest of its minerals and wildlife.

The bombs exploded in thunderclaps of noise, smoke and earth. Circling the airstrip, the propeller-driven A-29s’ two-person crews confirmed that their bombs had cratered the strip and rendered it useless, for now.

The traffickers had other airfields—and might even repair the one outside São Gabriel da Cachoeira. Battling criminals in the Amazon is a “war without end,” in the words of Al Jazeera blogger Gabriel Elizondo. But it’s a war without end that the Brazilian air force is capable of waging.

Overlooked by most foreign observers focused on conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia and on the high-tech arms race between the U.S. and China in the Western Pacific, Brazil has quietly marshaled one of the world’s most impressive air forces—and unleashed it on criminal groups threatening the planet’s most ecologically important forest biome.

The Força Aérea Brasileira, “FAB” for short, is all the more impressive because of its unique structure—combining ultra-sophisticated surveillance and communications systems with tried-and-true 1970s-vintage jet fighters plus turboprops like the A-29 that, despite being only a few years old, at least look like something out of World War II.

And the FAB is also notable for being cheap. In an age when many air forces insist on buying increasingly expensive warplanes and therefore must buy fewer and fewer of them—in effect, unilaterally disarming—Brazil’s air arm thrives on a very small budget of just a few billion dollars a year. That’s possible because its leaders eschew whole categories of technology that, while appealing, aren’t actually helpful in South America.

But what’s most inspiring is why Brazil organizes its air force the way it does and buys the equipment that it does. More than most air arms, the FAB is shaped by an apparent clear sense among its civilian and military leaders of what their air force is actually for.

In a word: strategy. When it comes to air power, Brazil seems to have one. And in practice, that strategy translates directly into bombs, dropped by turboprop attack planes, exploding on some smugglers’ airstrip amid the richest forest ecosystem on the planet.

Brazilian air force E-99A. Wikipedia photo

Aerial history of the Amazon

The FAB formed in 1941 and fought with the Allies in Europe in World War II. The modern Brazilian air force arguably was born in 1975, the year the first supersonic F-5E fighters, built by American firm Northrop, entered service. Thirty-nine years later, the F-5 is still Brazil’s top warplane—and has recently been overhauled with cutting-edge sensors, comms and weapons.

Today the FAB boasts 77,000 personnel and more than 700 aircraft, including 57 F-5s, 53 domestically-built A-1 subsonic attack jets and 99 Super Tucanos plus spy planes, support aircraft, transports, trainers and helicopters. The FAB is the biggest air force in South America, but manpower and equipment don’t tell the whole story. Brazil’s strategy is strongly evident in what aircraft the FAB operates—and how.

Santiago Rivas and Carlos Filipe Operti, writing in Combat Aircraft magazine in 2012, said it best. “Brazil first has to demonstrate total control over its own territory, and especially in the resources-rich but volatile Amazon region.” Brazil contains a third of the world’s rainforest—1.8 million square miles in all, or 60 percent of the country, by area. The humid forest harbors much of the world’s biodiversity and sequesters potentially atmosphere-altering carbon.

But the Amazon has been poorly governed. Vast and valuable but with little official infrastructure, the forest is being plundered by uncounted thousands of illegal miners, loggers, animal traffickers and drug producers whose illicit activities undermine the Brazilian state and threaten the world’s ecological health. In 1990, the federal government in the capital Brasilia launched an ambitious program to encompass a renewed emphasis on internal law and order.

Called System for the Vigilance of the Amazon, or SIVAM, the $1.5-billion program was meant, first of all, to generate information about Brazil’s nearly two million square miles of dense forest. There would be surveillance satellites, data stations and, most impressively, a fleet of high-tech reconnaissance and communication planes specially equipped to tie together complex data streams.

The system would help authorities to monitor temperatures, precipitation, forest cover and fires, by extension allowing them to keep tabs on—and target—trafficking and illegal mining and logging.

In short, SIVAM was designed as a data network meant for environmental protection, law enforcement and internal security. But it evolved to also become one of the world’s first comprehensive battlefield networks, seamlessly connecting all of the FAB’s major warplanes.

When those Super Tucanos bombed that illegal airfield near São Gabriel da Cachoeira three years ago, they did so based on intelligence gathered by Hermes 450 drones and passed along to the attack pilots via SIVAM datalinks. That’s exactly the kind of thing the U.S. military has spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars fitfully trying to perfect, with only modest success.

Brazil’s singular focus on one problem—Amazon security—plus the discipline that comes from resource constraints, combined to make SIVAM a success, laying the foundation for impressive future improvements in the FAB’s ability to wage war at home and abroad.

“The Brazilian design of the system is world-class,” the U.S. Air Force stated in 2004, “and the way it has grown and adapted fits the needs of the country and the world.”

A U.S. Customs Hermes 450 drone. Wikipedia photo

Criminal behavior

Which is not to say there weren’t setbacks. A network meant to combat illegal behavior was developed, in part, by illegal means … allegedly. American defense contractor Raytheon won the contract to develop SIVAM—alongside Brazilian airplane-maker Embraer—in part by bribing a Brazilian lawmaker, according to press reports.

Meanwhile, scientists protested that the network was overly optimized for military use. “SIVAM is not a tool for scientific research,” said Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho from the Science and Technology Ministry. Sure enough, Brazilian air force Maj. Gen. Ramon Borges Cardoso was tapped to lead the project.

And the budget was cut year after year by fickle Brazilian politicians, steadily stretching out development. The first new satellite terminals were in place in 1999, after nearly a decade of work. Embraer produced the first SIVAM-specific support airplanes in 2000.

In total, SIVAM added 12 special planes—all modified business jets built by Embraer—to the FAB fleet: five R-99As with powerful air-scanning radars built by Swedish contractor Saab, plus three R-99Bs with synthetic aperture radars for mapping the ground and also four laboratory aircraft that test out the system to keep it fit.

The R-99As are early-warning planes like the U.S. Air Force’s E-3 AWACS—“battle managers” that detect enemy planes and steer friendly jets to intercept. The R-99Bs are equivalent to the Americans’ E-8C J-STARS, which famously tracked Iraqi ground forces during the 1991 Gulf War, guiding in attack jets that destroyed hundreds of Iraqi vehicles and killed thousands of soldiers.

Raytheon added radio datalinks to the R-99s “allow[ing] for near real-time downlink of multispectrum imagery and radar,” according to Raytheon. Anything the R-99s see in the air or on the ground, government officials on the ground can see, too. Likewise, the planes’ crews can see anything detected by ground-based radars.

In 2004, SIVAM got its first test. A wildfire threatened one of the Amazon’s many indigenous tribes. Smoke obscured the area, so an R-99B mapped the blaze with its radar. The full network was ready for use a year later in 2005.

Brazilian air force F-5 fighters. Defense Industry Daily photo

Back to the future

With SIVAM architecture in place, the FAB began adding firepower. In 2006, Embraer scored a contract to develop a new datalink called BR2, meant for looping the air force’s jet fighters and attack planes into the network.

The FAB paired the new datalink with standardization upgrades to its main warplanes—an improved plane gaining an “M” on its designation. “In due course, all F-5Ms, A-29Ms and A-1Ms as well as upgraded E-99s should share the same avionics suite, allowing these aircraft to exchange large amounts of data and even images in a secure way,” Marnix Sap and Carlo Brummer wrote in Combat Aircraft.

The FAB also added four, 34-foot-wingspan Hermes 450 drones to the network starting in 2011.

The F-5s are the backbone of the FAB and also its most interesting equipment. Old by any standard, the twin-engine F-5s are small, nimble and inexpensive, but lack the sheer power, speed and radar-evading stealth of far pricier U.S. Air Force F-22s and other modern fighters.

Rather than spend billions of dollars acquiring a small number of stealth jets—The Netherlands could only afford 37 F-35s to replace more than twice that number of older F-16s—Brazil is doubling down on a less expensive fighter design, backed up by basic attack planes like the Super Tucanos and A-1s.

The FAB recently operated 12 1980s-vintage, French-made Mirage 2000 fighters that were only half as old as the F-5s. But rather than upgrade the Mirages, Brazil replaced them with second-hand F-5s from Jordan—and brought these extra F-5s up to the FAB’s modernized standard.

Few air forces have ever taken this move of moving backward in time, giving up newly-made fighters for old ones. But the FAB seems to reason that a small fleet of the latest jets—flying and fighting all alone—is actually inferior to a bigger force of old, reliable fighters plugged into a cutting-edge information network.

That said, new fighters are in the works. In a few years, the FAB plans to begin replacing all its fighters and attack planes with a single type—the lightweight Gripen from Saab, the Swedish company that also makes the E-99’s radars and is adept at adding datalinks to warplanes. It’s a sure bet the Gripens will have the BR2 link.

Brazilian air force Super Tucanos bomb an illegal airstrip in 2011. Wikipedia photo

Into action

Between August and November 2011, the Brazilian military and police surged into the country’s frontier regions as part of the new Agata series of operations. As cops and soldiers patrolled below, E-99s and UAVs scanned for unauthorized airfields and signs of illegal activity. F-5s, A-1s and Super Tucanos swooped in to bomb the airstrips into oblivion.

By October, Agata netted 3,000 arrests and the destruction of three airfields. By December, drug seizures were up a staggering 1,400 percent, according to the government.

Subsequent Agata operations in 2012 and 2013 continued the trend of improved law enforcement. “Armed with GPS coordinates and intel, we’re flying deeper into the jungle looking for the target,” Al Jazeera blogger Elizondo reported as he accompanied Brazilian troops into the rainforest to blow up an illicit airstrip in May 2013.

The FAB’s main missions are to enforce Brazilian law across the vast, forested country and also to participate in regional operations and international peacekeeping. More to the point, “Brazil is looking to cement its position as the leading power in South America,” Combat Aircraft reporters Rivas and Operti wrote.

Thanks in no small part to one of the world’s most under-appreciated and connected air forces—one carefully tailored precisely for its nation’s purposes—the big green country is well on its way to achieving its goals.

And inasmuch as a stronger Brazil means protecting the vital Amazon, the whole planet benefits.

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