CARACAS (Venezuela): Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez travels to Russia this month seeking to buy 24 Sukhoi SU-30 combat aircraft that analysts say could make Venezuela one of South America’s most potent air forces.

A deal for the modern, long-range jets complete with weapons, training and maintenance would cost Chavez nearly $1 billion as the former soldier beefs up his military and worries US officials who already consider him a regional menace.

Chavez, a Cuba ally in a stand-off with Washington, says the new jets were needed to replace US-made F-16 fighters after Washington banned sales of US weaponry to Caracas, citing Chavez’s ties to Cuba and Iran.

Military experts say the Russian aircraft, if the deal goes through, would put Venezuela on par with Chile’s advanced air force in terms of hardware, but said it would take several years of training and configuring equipment such as radars for Venezuela to make the most of such jets.

“It depends on how they arm the SU-30s. A full armaments fit will make them much more capable than anything in the region with the exception of Chile’s new F-16,” said Tom Baranauskas at US consultancy Forecast International.

Two Sukhoi SU-30MK jets arrived in Venezuela from Russia over the weekend for a demonstration during Venezuela’s July 5 independence day parade where the government also put on show its recently purchased Russian helicopters and new AK-103 Kalashnikov rifles.

Critics question why Venezuela would need such a high-performance jet and US officials have already said they will seek to talk Russia out of making the sale.

But Chavez has ordered troops to train to repel a possible US invasion of Venezuela, the world’s No. 5 oil exporter. Washington dismisses that as saber-rattling from a strongman using his country’s petroleum wealth to spread what Washington calls an anti-democratic message.

He has steadily moved Venezuela away from its traditional alliance with the United States and curbed US military cooperation even while still selling most of the country’s oil to US markets.

Chavez even said recently that he could imagine the jets firing missiles at a US aircraft carrier off Venezuela’s main La Guaira port on the Caribbean coast.

“A Sukhoi jet could attack an invading navy floating off La Guaira and they don’t miss, my brother,” he said.

Venezuela was the first South American country to receive US F-16 fighters when it bought 24 fighters in 1982. Experts say the government has 21 of the jets but estimate only 10 are in service.

The SU-30MK aircraft is a highly mobile, two-seater jet used for ground and naval strikes, experts said. China, Indonesia and India all use SU-30 variants.

“This is the heaviest fighter sold south of the border ever,” said Richard Aboulafia at Teal Group aerospace and defense consultancy. “But repairing, maintaining and training with these planes is a different story.”

For Russia, the jet deal is a good source of export income and the Kremlin generally brushes off Washington’s concerns over its weapons sales as attempts to freeze it out of the arms market, said Steven Pifer with Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“This means the Brazilians will probably think about buying similar weapons, the Argentines will think the same, so will the Peruvians and the Chileans,” said Enrique Obando, president of Lima’s IDEPE security think tank.

“Now there will be a weapon with a capacity that didn’t exist before.”—Reuters