Nicaragua’s sudden interest in purchasing a squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia could trigger a pointless arms race between one of the smallest and one of the largest militaries in Latin America.
Nicaragua says it wants combat jets to fight the war on drugs. But that argument has failed to convince anyone. Instead, skeptics wonder if Nicaragua's efforts to purchase military aircraft isn't somehow tied to its canal plans, or — more likely yet— an effort to assert a stronger military presence in disputed Caribbean waters bordering Colombia.
Though Nicaragua has legal claim to Caribbean waters out to 200 miles off its eastern shore, Colombia has all the naval muscle in the area — a fleet of 232 ships, including submarines and battleships. Nicaragua, meanwhile, has only a few dozen coastal patrol boats, which are basically suped-up pangas equipped with spare parts stripped off of intercepted drug boats.
Nicaragua's acquisition of a few Russian MiGs wouldn't shift the balance of power with Colombia, but it would give the government of Daniel Ortega a much louder presence over its troubled waters.
“Nicaragua is sending the wrong message…and it's not a friendly message,” Colombian Senator Jimmy Chamorro, who heads the congressional commission on national defense, told Fusion. "We aren't perturbed, but we're taking note. Colombia will be prepared for anything that might happen."
Part of Colombia's preparation could be a modernization of its own air force, something the country's military has been lobbying for for years. Now that Nicaragua is in the market for Russian fighter jets — something that's sure to be discussed during this week's visit to Managua by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — the Colombian military might finally have the excuse it has been waiting for to buy new aircraft of its own "with the air superiority to create a credibly dissuasive force," according to international defense industry publication defensa.com.
Southern neighbor Costa Rica, a country without an army, is watching the situation with mild apprehension. Costa Rican officials last month took their concerns about Nicaraguan armament directly to Washington for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to Costa Rica's foreign ministry. To the north, the former head of the Honduran armed forces has also expressed concern that the Sandinistas' purchase of fighter jets could disrupt what's known as the "reasonable balance" of armed forces in Central America.
Nicaraguan Brigadier General Adolfo Zepeda says other countries have nothing to worry about. He says the fighter jets — Nicaragua's first modern combat planes since the former Somoza dictatorship sold off its P-51 Mustangs and F-47 Thunderbolts in the early 1960s—will be “strictly for defensive" purposes in the drug war, and never used as "attack jets.”
Military experts, however, say Nicaragua's argument lacks cogency for two reasons. Firstly, fighter jets are are not used to fight the war on drugs; and secondly, they are precisely offensive weapons.
An asymmetrical arms race
It's not the first time Ortega's government has fantasized about buying Russian MiGs. During the war against U.S.-backed contras in the 1980s, the revolutionary Sandinista government started building a military airstrip in anticipation of purchasing Soviet fighter jets. But Fidel Castro eventually talked the Sandinistas out of it and convinced them to buy MI-25 helicopters instead. The Cuban revolutionary leader reportedly warned the Sandinistas that the U.S. would bomb the MiGs on the runway before they ever got off the ground to fly their first combat mission.
Since Nicaragua didn't need fighter jets during times of war, it's sudden urge to own them now has struck many as strange. Equally odd, however, is Colombia's concern about losing its "air superiority" to Nicaragua, whose current air force consists of only a few rustbucket Soviet-era transport helicopters—one of which exploded in flight in 2012, killing all 10 soldiers on board.
Nicaragua’s military is the mouse that roared. With a budget of only $73 million, Nicaragua's entire defense spending is less than half of 1 percent of the $14 billion that Colombia spends each year. Put another way, Colombia's military budget is bigger than Nicaragua’s entire economy—and by several billion dollars.
So the question of how Nicaragua plans to buy the jets is as mystifying as the why.
With MiGs priced at $29 million a pop, even if Nicaragua were to spend its entire 2015 defense budget purchasing Russian fighter jets, it could still only buy two planes— hardly enough to challenge Colombia's "air superiority."
Some of the answers to the MiG mystery might be tucked into a secret accord signed last month between the Nicaraguan Army and its Russian counterparts. But no one other than the signatories of that document knows what it says.
"The agreement is totally top secret; the National Assembly's commission on peace and defense hasn't even been allowed to see it, which is in violation of the laws of this country," said opposition congressmen Alberto Lacayo, who sits on the defense commission. "All we have heard is the rumor that the army plans to buy six jets, and they cost around $30 million each. But don't know where that money is supposed to come from."
Lacayo admits he has no idea why the Nicaraguan military would want to buy Russian fighter jets — a purchase he calls wasteful and "entirely unnecessary."
"We know it's not for the war on drugs, and I don't think it's for the canal either," the congressman told Fusion. "I don't believe there's ever going to be a canal."