FEW places illustrate the modern role of your Brazilian army better than Tabatinga, a town of 62,000 around the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not yet budged considering that the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there in the 1700s. But Júlio Nagy, the local commander, has his sights trained on unconventional threats. In February and March his troops intercepted 3.7 tonnes of cannabis. Just last year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. In the small army-run zoo-the place to find toucans, a jaguar and even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The final time a major Brazilian city was attacked is at 1711, when a French corsair briefly captured Rio de Janeiro. The country’s official defence review states that “at present, Brazil has no enemies”. Lacking bellicose neighbours, armed insurgencies or much appetite to project power abroad, the defence minister, Raul Jungmann, recognises how the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists point out that a dearth of military adversaries is not going to justify skimping on defence. Criminal gangs operating in border areas can overwhelm civilian police, and in the future Brazil hopes to deter foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining control over sprawling, varied terrain will not be cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. Along with the army’s own top brass say that its current form-heavy on low-skilled personnel, light on equipment, and increasingly diverted towards routine policing-is ill-suitable for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned throughout the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; in their 1st year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again once the junta fell in 1985, as being the new leaders sought to forge an advanced army under civilian rule. Since 1989 defence spending has fallen from 2.5% of GDP to 1.3%, roughly the regional average. Nonetheless, the army has retained enough influence to resist nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, the federal government has experienced to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, to which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. But its peacekeeping contribution ranks just in front of neighbouring Uruguay’s, whose population is smaller than that of nine different Brazilian cities. For the bulk of its forces, Brazil has instead adopted what Alfredo Valladão of Sciences Po, a university in Paris, calls a “constabulary mentality”-plugging the gaps left by domestic security bodies.
Most of these operations fall within the army’s mission. Federal law grants it policing powers within 150km (93 miles) of Brazil’s land border. International gangs have always been interested in the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is considered to possess owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army can also be accountable for “law-and-order operations”. Troops certainly are a common sight during events like elections or even the 2016 Olympics.
However, the army’s remit has expanded to mundane police work. Decades of overspending as well as a long recession have drained the coffers of the majority of Brazilian states. Although just 20% with their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still form an expanding share in the army’s workload. During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-twice the number through the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed by this trend. Unlike politicians and police officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Despite the shadow of your dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often position the army on the top.
Soldiers are trying to adapt to their new role. In a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they are subjected to tear-gas and stun grenades, so they know what such weapons think that before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the conclusion in the army’s 15-month mission to evict gangs. As soon as they left, the police resumed their trigger-happy ways. Soon the gangsters were back, too.
Nonetheless, blurring the lines between national defence and police force is perilous. Soldiers make costly cops: a day’s deployment of a few thousand could cost 1m reais ($300,000) on top of their normal wages. More significant, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy for the democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, never to maintain order daily. And transforming a last-resort show of force in to a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires to a much different role. A draft of the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the phrase appears only one-tenth as much because it does inside a similar British analysis from 2015-but long on desirable “capabilities”. Principally, it posits, Brazil must protect its natural riches. That risk may appear remote. However, if pessimistic forecasts of global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army for this priority is actually a daunting prospect. First, Brazil should strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for a permanent national guard, starting with 7,000 men, to relieve the stress around the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this concept.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear certainly are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders in the vast rainforest or the “Blue Amazon”, because the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will require a flexible rapid-reaction force, capable to intervene anywhere in a moment’s notice.
That will require modern equipment and small teams of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work towards contracts to limit those to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters of your defence budget goes toward payroll and pensions, leaving merely a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the usa, the ratio may be the reverse.
Prior to the recession took root, Brazil was moving towards these ends. In 2015 it consented to buy 36 Swedish Gripen fighter jets for $4.7bn. But spending on military equipment has fallen by two-thirds since 2012, leaving a roster of half-baked projects. An endeavor with Ukraine to develop a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. A location-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% in the border. A 32bn-real nuclear-powered submarine is nowhere near completion. Along with the country’s only aircraft carrier, never battle-ready, was mothballed in February.
In a ages of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Since the air force only provides one supply flight monthly to your border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais hourly. And also in January the army was called directly into quell prison riots inside the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again in a short time.