The Brazilian army just bought $65 million worth of Astros mobile rocket launchers from the weapons firm Avibras. It’s a small part of a $685 million deal to buy three batteries of modernized Astros launchers through the end of the decade—while upgrading Brazil’s existing arsenal.
The latest deal features five launchers and 15 support vehicles, including carriers and communications trucks. The launchers themselves are superficially similar to the powerful American MLRS—with some important differences.
But why is Brazil buying all this firepower?
Brazil doesn’t need a big ground army, and it doesn’t face any conventional threats. The answer is that this is about keeping the Brazilian weapons industry alive—with the future goal of selling missile launchers in the Middle East.
These weapons are long-range rocket artillery. The American MLRS uses 227-millimeter rockets—and can also sacrifice the rockets for long-range ballistic missiles.
By contrast, Astros uses a customizable set of rocket pods with either 127 millimeter, 180 millimeter or 300-millimeter rockets. The choice is between more and smaller, shorter-range rockets—or fewer, heavier longer-range rockets.
The largest Astros rockets can travel 56 miles. But none of these come close to matching the range of MLRS-launched ballistic missiles.
Avibras is working on a long-range cruise missile, the AV-TM300, which is to be compatible with the launcher. This cruise missile will be slower and pack less of a punch. But at least, Astros will be able to strike targets at long ranges—and perhaps at less cost than the American system.
The other thing is that the Astros is a precision-strike weapon. It has a newer, advanced radar and upgraded electronics support equipment. The AV-TM300 can also guide towards its target using GPS.
But what’s so odd is that Astros is built in Latin America. Brazil faces no serious international foes. It doesn’t have to worry about being invaded.
“None of Brazil’s neighbors has a reason or the capacity to threaten Brazil,” wrote Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations in Sao Paulo. “This is unlikely to change in the future.”
The country has a stable economy. Brazil’s biggest threats are arguably climate change and natural disasters. Its historic rival is Argentina, but a war between Brazil and Argentina is unthinkable today.
Organized crime—and high rates of homicide and kidnappings—are serious problems. Guerrillas operating along Brazil’s borders are another worry.
But heavy artillery is useless at fighting small rebel groups that can blend into thousands of miles of rugged, hilly and jungle terrain. Let alone gangsters in the slums.
Brazil is building the missiles to keep its military-industrial base going—with the aim of shopping the missile launchers around Africa and in the Middle East. A steady stream of government contracts supports Avibras and keeps its production lines viable.
Brazil knows a thing or two about selling weapons. During the 1980s, Avibras was one of the few Brazilian arms companies that was successful overseas.
It sold dozens of earlier-generation Astros launchers to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Saudi Arabia bought dozens. Other buyers included Qatar, Bahrain, Malaysia and Angola.
When the United States and Soviet Union made up the bulk of the global arms trade, Brazil found a profitable niche selling budget weapons to the Third World.
But during the 1990s, Brazil’s defense industry headed toward rocky times. The combination of the end of the Cold War, Brazil’s transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, and the end of the war between Iran and Iraq all contributed to a drastic reduction in money flowing into the country’s arms industry.
Avribas was one of the last Brazilian military companies to file for bankruptcy, which it did in 2008.
Now Avribas is back, and Brazil is counting on the increasing ease of selling advanced weapons around the world. More countries than ever have the means to buy and field precision-guided weapons—along with satellites and drones.
“The current trend involves diversification of suppliers, even for major equipment like precision rocket artillery,” noted Defense Industry Daily.
That will trouble Washington. In Latin America, Brazil takes on the role of a mediator, as a big country bordering 10 smaller countries—some of which are much less stable. Particularly Venezuela and Bolivia. Brazil also plays the role of mediator internationally, which allows Brazil to punch above its weight.
This also means Brazil is less reluctant to sell precision-guided weapons to countries unpopular with the United States. After all, Brazil is not building—and buying—the missiles with the intent to use them in Latin America.