The examples in South and Latin America of countries with a small military are numerous:

  • Mexico: only five F5F fighters, an old airplane that was nearly obsolete in the 1990s. The navy is only a patroller navy, despite Mexico having a very long coast
  • Brazil: a little more F5F, but no more modern fighter. The same thing than Mexico can be tell for its navy, but some modernizations, like the submarine Scorpene acquisitions, are changing the situation

However there are also some counter examples:

  • Chile: a strong army, air force and navy with capacities in the polar circle
  • Venezuela: despite the economic difficulties, a very powerful air forces with numerous F-16 that were acquired when the USA thought they could have better relations with them

This is not an historic situation, as the video points out for Argentina, for example: in the 1980s, the Argentinian military was far stronger than it is currently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fg5amio4jU

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    You seem to be asking about armies, but giving examples that are more relevant to an air force, which will be a separate branch of the armed forces. Can you please edit and clarify?
    – Joe C
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 15:26
  • i think the air force is particularly relevant as it is a way to secure the independance of a country and its borders Similar numbers exist for all the heavy hardware of the land army Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 15:37
  • For clarity I've edited to ask about "military": ie all branches, army, navy and airforce.
    – James K
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 16:46
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    So who exactly is Mexico or Brazil going to invade, or be invaded by?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 17:57
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    @totalMongot i think the air force is particularly relevant as it is a way to secure the independance of a country It is more relevant to those countries that use it continously around the world in "police actions". So if you are comparing those countries against the USA, UK, France you should factor that those countries are acting outside of their borders in a way that Mexico or Peru do not, and factor that in...
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 8:50

4 Answers 4


Military forces cost money. Countries in South America are relatively poor (compared with the US, Europe or Gulf states.

Military forces are enlarged in response to a perceived threat. There are currently few international conflicts in South America, compared with the Middle East.

In recent history, much of South America has been ruled by military dictatorships. The new, more democratic, governments do not want to create powerful generals that could threaten a coup-d'etat.

Among the South American countries that you mention with larger militaries, Chile is a wealthier nation, and Venezuela has had oil money, which have enabled them to grow their military.


Expanding on James K's good answer, which raises the cost and the desire to limit the risk of the military taking over:

  • Brazil and Mexico also have oil money and an army to show for it.

  • Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are in the 20 largest armies in the world (in that order).

Next, consider the threat level. Mexico's example is arguably the most illustrative. It's so outclassed on its norther border that it's basically pointless to even try to match the US military's might. And its southern neighbors don't even register as a threat.

A similar scenario plays out throughout Latin America: your neighbors are either so big that they're way out of your league, about the same size as you, or so much smaller that they're not a threat.

Your actual threats in practice are aren't neighbors. Latin American countries haven't had a long tradition of going to war with one another in recent decades -- not for conquest anyway. Rather, they're local guerrillas (e.g. Colombia), gangs (e.g. El Salvador), or drug lords (e.g. Mexico); and to a degree, western powers (e.g. the US eating up Mexico or the UK defending the Falklands). The first requires land troops rather than an air force; the other, well, what can you do?

One exception: Chile's northern border. Chile took a bite out of Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific, stripping the first of its sea access and the other of a chunk of territory. And as you've noted, Chile is rather well armed.

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    Brazil and Argentina are both signed up to the NPT. There is not likely to be a substantial nuclear weapons program in either country. (Both had nuclear aspirations in the past)
    – James K
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 9:01
  • "Brazil and Argentina have nuclear weapons" whoa whoa whoa, when did this happen? Are you sure they are not just like Japan; capable of producing atomics at will? If they do have nuclear weapons their programs would be more secretive than Israel, which seems somewhat unlikely.
    – user8398
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 11:47
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    @inappropriateCode: My bad; I've edited the answer to fix that. What I learned in my early childhood seems to have stuck. It seems they were merely developing the capabilities at the time, and therefor regularly appeared in maps of countries that were suspected to have nukes at the time. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 11:52

It's not just Latin American countries but Canada as well and again, there's a good reason. For much of it's existence as a nation, the United States Foreign Policy has been based on some form of Monroe doctrine, which holds that the United States will deal with problems in the Americas and not make trouble in the Europe, Asia, and Africa unless they start problem first. It's easy to under-fund the military when the most powerful military in world says "Not in my back yard" and you're in the Backyard. It's also very difficult for anyone to invade a country in the Americas as it's separated by an ocean and very difficult to commit landing forces if you can't stage in an American overseas dependancy, of which, only a handful of countries still have and most aren't set up to handle that without the US noticing (the largest Border France has with any nation is Brazil). It should be notable that the US only fought three major wars against foreign powers in the Americas (The War of 1812, against Britain via Canadian Colonies), The Mexican-American War, which lost huge swaths of Mexican territory, and the Spanish-American War (which resulted in Spain losing most of its American Colonies).

That isn't as other people are pointing out reason to doubt other nations in the Americas. Brazil, for example, was the first nation in the Americas to field a post Dreadnaught-styled Battleship (which before nukes were a thing, was the weapon that sparked an arms race) and was Third in the world to have one (following Britain and Germany). At the time, there was a lot of speculation as to just how Brazil did that as it wasn't a nation known for it's navy before it launched it's battle ship and many thought that it only got one from stealing plans from either Britain or Germany (it in fact did not). Today, Brazil is anticipated to soon launch a nuclear sub, though it won't be part of any nuclear launch capability (no nuclear missiles), just help it be stealthy. Additionally Argentina was on the losing end of the only naval battle to take place post WWII and again, part of the problem was a nation that was only recently reduced to second best navy in the world (it was able to put up the fight it did in large part because Britain had so slashed it's Navy).

It's also important to understand that many South American Nations also have some uneasy distrust of the military as Military Juntas were quite popular Post World War II and didn't tend towards Communism, which also meant they weren't undermined by the U.S. which means they will let you play with their toys to some degree. Brazil was by far the largest of these nations and because of it's historically terrible navy, it didn't get to see much action in either world war despite being an Allied Nation in both of them. Modern Brazillians and military observers are quick to note that Brazil's greatest Military success was invading and holding itself (In World War I, the Brazillian fighting forces arrived in France mere days before the 11/11/18 Armistice was signed, ending the war. While they saw more action in WWII, by this time the citizens of Brazil so often joked that "You would sooner seen a snake smoking a pipe (which is their version of the "when pigs fly"), then the Brazillian Army at the front" that to this day, the BEF insignia is a snake with a pipe! Even when it was in control of the country!) Not only that, but since the military did have a lot of control in the back half of the 20th century in Dictatorship forms... most of them have ousted these leaderships in favor of a democratically elected government and fairly recently too. Most of the voting public in those nations are not likely to support a strong military any time soon.

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    "Monroe doctrine, which holds that United States will deal with problems in the Americas". Didn't you mean to write create problems? ;-) Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 14:14

Many South American countries have terrain that offers a strong defenders' advantage, and specifically is extremely favorable for guerrilla warfare. That means annexation of a territory by an enemy force is very expensive for the enemy and thus not economically viable. This means less of a military is needed to defend, and less of a military is needed to attack (because there are no good targets to be attacked).

The 2 exceptions are Argentina and Uruguay, which do not require an expensive military because they are not currently facing a credible threat. In the 1980s, Argentina was more ambitious and therefore faced a significantly more credible threat.

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    Argintina did not face a threat, credible or otherwise. Its military decided to engage in conquest of a foreign territory.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 17:55
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    @jamesqf That's the English perspective, which has merit, but differs from the Argentine perspective.
    – Peter
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 18:10
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    I'd say it's the perspective of just about everyone other than the Argentines, and one supported by facts. (I'm not British, BTW.)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 17:17
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    If imposing yourself by force upon a territory where literally over 90% do not want you isn't aggressive colonialism... what is? P.S. I'm not English.
    – user8398
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 12:16
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    Since 1833 the islands have been under British administration, and have remained happily British (the islanders even sound British). The Argentine government, a then military dictatorship whose economy was failing, decided to invade. The idea that Argentina's aggression was somewhat defensive is on par with Japanese scholars arguing that Japanese activity in Korea and China was defensive. Both claims are ridiculous. The claim that the Argentine government was in the right (or equivalent) is condoning colonial dictatorship, nothing less.
    – user8398
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 12:24

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