Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Though it boasts the second largest military in the Americas, Brazil’s new government has its hands full, as it attempts to bring about stability after the turbulent exit of the previous president.

This article looks at aspects of Brazil’s defence and security in relation to recent political developments, its standing as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) of the US, and how that offers major co-operative opportunities for the country’s defence, as well as highlighting regional challenges facing the new government and the country’s security forces, not least the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.

Protecting the Amazon is one of Brazil’s greatest security challenges. The image shows US and Brazilian soldiers conducting a simulated medical evacuation mission in Resende, Brazil, 8 December 2021. The training mission was part of exercise Southern Vanguard.
Credit: US Army/Cpl Jacob Wachob

Politics of the Moment

Brazil’s new leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula as he is known, is the country’s 39th president, having won a knife-edge election to beat the divisive incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, currently residing in Miami, though poised to return in March, if latest reports, at time of writing, are to be believed.

For Lula, who officially took office on 1 January 2023, governing Brazil isn’t something new. He was also the 35th president between 2003 and 2010, so knows better than most what typically awaits, although the state of play left behind by the previous government is anything but typical, with Lula, in his first speech after regaining office, vowing to ‘rebuild a country in terrible ruins’ and denouncing the policies of the divisive and destructive Bolsonaro.

Having won the October 2022 election, one of Lula’s first moves was his announcement that José Múcio, a veteran politician and negotiator, would be Brazil’s next defence minister. Lula called him a friend who could not be ‘better prepared to look after defence’, saying he expected Múcio would handle the job and that the armed forces would fulfil their main mission of looking after the country’s security. Múcio will certainly need to ensure relations between the armed forces and the new president get off on the right foot, for while many posts in the previous right-wing government were held by members of the military, this is something unlikely to continue in Lula’s new leftist administration. The good news from several accounts, so far, is that senior military officials, past and present, already seem to have indicated their support for the new defence chief, saying, the first civilian defence minister since 2018 was a wise choice that has been well received by the armed forces.

Brazil has South America’s largest aggregate armed forces, renowned as some of the most capable and effective operatives in the world.
Credit: Rafaela Biazi, via Unsplash

That said, things got off to a rocky start with the riots on 8 January 2023 and the apparent attempted insurrection that marred the start of this new presidency – over 1,000 people were arrested after thousands of pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators stormed and vandalised government and judicial buildings. Even members of the army were suspected of playing a part, though this has since been dismissed as unfounded by the new defence minister. Although the dust is still settling, with other disturbances having taken place and trials and prosecutions still expected after full investigations, Lula is now getting on with the business of government. In line with security and the bolstering of key relationships at the top of his agenda, his first overseas visit came in the form of a trip to Washington DC in early February, to meet Joe Biden and to rebuild and refresh positive relations with the US.

USMC troops in support of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force UNITAS LXIII provide cover for a Brazilian amphibious assault vehicle conducting an amphibious assault training event during exercise UNITAS LXIII in Itaoca, Brazil, 16 September 2022.
Credit: USMC/Lance Cpl David Intriago

Amazon Security on the Agenda

One key item on the agenda was the protection of the Amazon rainforest with both presidents pledging to co-operate, and with the US announcing its intention to fund forest conservation to the tune of anywhere from USD 4.5 Bn to USD 9 Bn made to Brazil’s Amazon Fund, depending on what Biden can get approved. During the visit, the US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, and Brazil’s Environment Minister, Marina Silva, also took part, with Kerry having apparently already been to Brazil to meet the new administration and agree on the details of this fresh environmental cooperation. Kerry said the forest had to be protected against those destroying it, which was a test for all humanity and vital – as the “lungs of the Earth” – in the fight against climate change, which, itself, poses an overarching threat to global security.

Brazil’s military is a key, established overseer of the Amazon’s protection, with the Brazilian Air Force, (Força Aérea Brasileira, FAB), conducting activities under the Amazon Protection System, or SIPAM. With average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon having reached a 15-year high during the Bolsonaro years, the FAB and defence ministry have their work cut out if they are to achieve the new president’s announced goal of striving for zero deforestation. Importantly, during Lula’s first term as president, deforestation dropped off sharply. He has now committed to reinvigorating environmental protections and programmes with the aim of eliminating deforestation altogether, but that will only be possible with the full support of the new defence minister and his relevant commanders. Only time will tell how Amazon protections improve under this new government.

The FAB flies humanitarian missions as well as missions in cooperation with other government agencies, such as the Federal Police, to counter illegal activities. Humanitarian missions often deliver basic commodities to the Yanomami, a group of approximately 35,000 indigenous people who live in some 200–250 villages in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Venezuela and Brazil. Credit: FAB/Edwaldo Costa

Defence, Security and MNNA Status

Also discussed, according to a vague White House statement, was the two leaders’ interest in intensifying bilateral cooperation in, amongst other things, defence. Brazil has been a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) with the US, a designation assigned to it in 2019 under the Trump Administration, though 18 other nations were also assigned this status by previous US administrations. Other MNNAs include: Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, South Korea, Thailand, and Tunisia. Under US law, being an MNNA provides foreign partners with certain benefits in areas of defence trade and security cooperation, although it does not involve any security commitments.

According to the US Department of State, the full gamut of benefits and privileges Brazil has gained as an MNNA, are:

  • Eligible for loans of materiel, supplies, or equipment for cooperative research, development, testing, or evaluation purposes;
  • Eligible as a location for US-owned War Reserve Stockpiles to be placed on its territory outside of US military facilities;
  • Can enter into agreements with the US for the cooperative furnishing of training on a bilateral or multilateral basis, if the financial arrangements are reciprocal and provide for reimbursement of all US direct costs;
  • Eligible, to the maximum extent feasible, for priority delivery of Excess Defence Articles transferred under section 516 of the Foreign Assistance Act (if located on the southern or south-eastern flank of NATO);
  • Eligible for consideration to purchase depleted-uranium ammunition;
  • Eligible to enter into an MOU, or other formal agreement, with the US Department of Defense for the purpose of conducting cooperative research and development projects on defence equipment and munitions;
  • Allows firms of an MNNA, as with NATO countries, to bid on contracts for maintenance, repair, or overhaul of US DoD equipment outside the US;
  • Allows funding to procure explosives, detection devices, and other counter-terrorism research and development projects under the auspices of the Department of State’s Technical Support Working Group.

For Brazil, MNNA status offers the country a crucial tool to bolster its technological capabilities and aid its role in the regional security challenges it faces; the designation also provides a channel for constructive dialogue between the two countries on any mutually relevant security issues. It gives Brazil privileged access to the US defence industry and offers opportunities for joint military exchanges, exercises, and training with the US DoD.

In 2020, for example, Brazil received more than USD 100 M of US defence materiel and services. At another level, however, being an MNNA represents having a formalised partnership in the areas of defence and security with the US, and one that could become much closer and strategic in its aims.

Humanitarian mission flown by FAB into a remote region.  Credit: FAB/Edwaldo Costa

Indeed, perhaps the biggest strategic concern in the region is the influence and reach of China, for which Brazil’s MNNA status could play a major role in reducing that potential threat. In recent years, China has extended its presence in many ways, from vaccine diplomacy to huge investments underpinning infrastructure projects across the country; Brazil actually became a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was created by China as a direct development financing alternative to the World Bank. Though Brazil is not (yet) a participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and even if this were to be a possibility in the future, there would be good reason for its MNNA status to be nurtured in order to enhance defence and security ties with the US to the extent that they eliminate that as a possibility and help ensure that Chinese influence in the region is reduced.

Regional Threats

Bordering almost every other country in South America, Brazil has a major role to play in maintaining regional stability, particularly when it comes to countering transnational criminal organisations. Its MNNA status has a major part to play in enabling it to function effectively in this regard. Across the continent, security conditions have been deteriorating for many years with increasing deforestation due to often illegal agricultural practices, the narcotics trade, illegal gold mining, as well other activities, such as human trafficking.

Across the Brazil-Colombia border, for example, contraband smuggling in the form of narcotics and arms is a major problem, as well as illegal migration, trafficking in wildlife, plants, and timber, and also major illegal exploitation of mineral resources. As if these are not enough for the security forces to handle, Colombian insurgent incursions into Brazil’s territory remain an issue.

The smuggling of firearms and narcotics is also an ongoing problem along the Uruguay-Brazil border and between Venezuela and Brazil, Colombian-organised illegal narcotics and paramilitary activities penetrate Brazil’s border region with Venezuela.

The country is, undeniably, a significant transiting hub, as well as a final destination, for cocaine, most of which enters Brazil from those neighbouring countries which produce the drug, typically Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. From Brazil, much of that cocaine is then smuggled to West Africa and Europe. However, an increasing amount remains in-country where it feeds major domestic drug consumption; Brazil has now become the world’s second-largest consumer of cocaine hydrochloride and cocaine-derived products.

A pararescue airman assigned to the 103rd Rescue Squadron of the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Squadron, works with a Brazilian counterpart on a simulated casualty on board one of the wing’s HC-130 Combat King II search and rescue aircraft during a medical evacuation mission as part of Exercise Tapio in Campo Grande, Brazil, 24 August 2022.
Credit: US ANG/Maj Michael O’Hagan

With that in mind, through its MNNA status, the capabilities of Brazil’s security and military forces in counternarcotics, border security, and counterterrorism can still be bolstered and enhanced, which, in turn, will help the US to increase its own national security in relation to some of the most sophisticated criminal organisations in the region, whose reach stretches far beyond Brazil’s borders.

In recent years, Brazil has increased the pace of modernising its military, with US cooperation and activities between armed forces playing a major part. In early 2021, it was agreed at senior military level to develop partnerships and hold military exercises together under a five-year plan. Things got underway in December that year, when US and Brazilian forces held a combined exercise, CORE 21 (Combined Operations and Rotation Exercise), which was the first combined event performed by US troops in Latin America. Taking part was a 750-strong task force from Brazil’s 5th Light Infantry Battalion and 240 marines from the 101st US Army Air Assault Division. And in September last year, a longstanding, multinational maritime exercise conducted annually in Atlantic and Pacific waters around Central and South America, UNITAS LXIII, took place with Brazil as host nation. Two US Naval vessels and a submarine joined more than 20 ships and 5,500 personnel from 19 partner nations for training operations off the coast of Rio de Janeiro to enhance security cooperation and improve coalition operations.

Members of Special Boat Team 22 train Brazilian counterparts on the steps and procedures of a visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) during UNITAS LXIII, 13 September 2022. UNITAS is the world’s longest-running maritime exercise, and was hosted by Brazil in 2022.
Credit: USMC/Cpl Ethan Craw

Final Thoughts

Without MNNA status, such exercises, together with the acceleration of its military modernisation programme, might not be as straightforward. It’s a fact that Brazil has South America’s largest aggregate armed forces, renowned as some of the most capable and effective operatives in the world and which frequently take part in international peacekeeping operations in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. The nation’s MNNA status is an opportunity not only for Brazil, but with huge support from the US, to upgrade its military capabilities and technological sophistication, to mutual benefit. Through greater investment in its armed forces, their equipment, and additional capabilities in new domains, such as in space, Brazil will be able to achieve a critical edge in meeting, head-on, its traditional regional and domestic security threats.

Tim Guest