CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela plans to obtain air defense missiles to guard strategic sites such as oil refineries and major bridges against any air strike, a top military adviser to President Hugo Chavez said Tuesday.
Gen. Alberto Muller said Venezuela is looking to buy surface-to-air missile systems from Russia or another country to defend refineries, hydroelectric dams and "other strategic points in the country."
"They are for air defense," Muller told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "They are not for attacking anybody... We are not the United States of America. We don't have imperialist ambitions."
Chavez, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has repeatedly warned against a possible U.S. invasion, and his government is bolstering military defenses in Venezuela, one of the world's largest oil exporters. American officials insist they have no such military plans, but Chavez insists Venezuelans must be ready just in case.
Russia's Interfax-Military News Agency reported Tuesday that between 10 and 12 Tor-M1 missile systems could be supplied to the South American country. The ITAR-Tass news agency said that report was denied by Venezuela's Defense Ministry, but Muller said there are indeed plans to purchase missiles, though he did not say what type.
Chavez said last August that Venezuela planned to install an advanced air-defense system with missiles capable of shooting down approaching enemy warplanes, and said his military was looking at systems produced by Russia, Belarus and Iran.
John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank based in Alexandria, Virginia, said Venezuela's neighbors should not be alarmed by Chavez's plans to obtain surface-to-air missiles because such systems usually have a limited range and are not meant for offensive purposes.
"Typically, a surface-to-air missile, if it's a fixed defense system, is going to have a range of several miles. It might have a range of a couple dozen miles, but that's about it," Pike said.
The Tor-M1 system consists of eight missiles mounted on a launch vehicle. The system can identify up to 48 targets and fire at two targets simultaneously at a height of up to 20,000 feet.
Other military deals by Venezuela already have concerned U.S. officials, who see the left-leaning Chavez as a threat to stability in Latin America.
Despite U.S. efforts to block other countries from selling arms to Venezuela, Russia has signed military deals worth an estimated US$3 billion with Chavez's government, making it his largest weapons supplier.
Venezuela is buying 100,000 Russian-made AK-103 assault rifles — a modern version of the original Kalashnikovs — and a license to produce its own at the first Kalashnikov factory in South America. Contracts also include 24 Su-30 fighter jets and 53 Russian-built helicopters.
Venezuela is also looking into building unmanned planes, possibly with help from countries including Iran, Defense Minister Gen. Raul Baduel said Monday. He said the remote-controlled planes would be used for surveillance and border patrols.
Iranian and Venezuelan officials signed an agreement in September to jointly build "Fajr-3" planes, according to details published Monday in the government's official gazette.
Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been increasingly united by their deep-seated antagonism to Washington.
Pike said Iran has experience in building unmanned planes and that some of them have been supplied to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.