Comment: Joining the big league

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What does it mean when the LAAD 2011 show attracts its largest audience two months after the Brazilian government announced a 26.5% cut in defence spending this year?

Perhaps it suggests the world's aerospace and defence industry has nowhere else to turn.

The Stockholm International Peace Institute has reported that Latin American military spending jumped 5.8% last year, even as overall world spending on national security inched up by less than 2%.

Undoubtedly, Latin America's share of the world pie will not maintain last year's growth trend in 2011, with Brazil - the region's biggest military spender - chopping its procurement accounts by nearly $1.5 billion this year alone.

But the exhibitors and trade visitors swarming even the poorly ventilated halls of the Rio Centro complex did not have their eyes set on short-term deals.

Rather, the defence industry sees Brazil as a country that could become the world's sixth- or seventh-largest economy in a few years, but has a severely outdated security infrastructure and is under pressure to improve rapidly before the football World Cup takes place there in 2014.

They see an air force with a collection of frontline fighters more often found as museum pieces in other parts of the industrialised world.

And they see a political class committed to building up the country's role in the region and the world.

So, the industry looks forward to 2012. Next year, Brazil is likely to award billions of dollars' worth of contracts for new fighters, frigates and, possibly, a $7 billion frontier surveillance system.

At the same time, Brazilian manufacturer Embraer will be finalising the design of the KC-390 tanker-transport, and the air force's technology laboratory will be preparing to launch the ambitious 14-X scramjet-powered, hypersonic waverider.

The question remains, of course, whether Brazil is ready to pull the trigger. The country's population has always been focused on internal security, but has never shown an appetite for building up the apparatus of national security. And the ambitions of the Brazilian armed forces cannot be sustained without the support of the population.

When the next LAAD show convenes in 2013, perhaps we will know better if Brazil's people are ready to afford the global ambitions of their politicians.

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