Operation Ostium, conducted by the Brazilian Air Force (FAB, per its Portuguese acronym) since March, has reduced suspect air traffic on Brazil’s borders with Bolivia and Paraguay by 80 percent. The operation has reinforced surveillance of the region’s air space with the temporary installation of mobile radar stations in towns near border areas such as Chapecó in Santa Catarina, and Corumbá in Mato Grosso do Sul. Aerial operations from FAB bases have also been enhanced, and military aircraft have been deployed to towns and cities such as Cascavel and Foz do Iguaçu in Paraná, and Dourados in Mato Grosso do Sul, the main base of operations, located 100 kilometers from Paraguay’s border.
At the beginning of July, during a visit to the town of Vilhena in Rondônia (northern Brazil), Minister of Defense Raul Jungmann told the press that Ostium had mobilized 800 military personnel and more than 30 aircraft. A-29 Super Tucano fighter aircraft, E-99 airborne early warning and control aircraft, and R-35A and RA-1 reconnaissance aircraft, as well as AH-2 Sabre and H-60 Black Hawk combat helicopters, among other models, are being deployed in this operation. The operation is coordinated by the Airspace Operations Command (COMAE, per its Portuguese acronym), located in Brasília. Monitoring also involves the TPS-B34 radar system, capable of 360-degree scanning, and of tracking several targets simultaneously.
FAB considers Ostium to be one of its most important operations against illegal aerial activity in the border regions. According to the Air Force Social Communications Center (CECOMSAER, per its Portuguese acronym), 150 suspect aircraft have been intercepted since the operation began on March 24th.
General Gerson Nogueira Machado de Oliveira, the commander of the FAB Airspace Operations Command, explained that Ostium is intensifying control of the airspace in the border regions. “This operation is part of the federal government’s Integrated Border Protection Program under which the Air Force is responsible for controlling national airspace. This is an interagency initiative, mainly in conjunction with the Federal Police. We have an intelligence database which we use to monitor a number of aircraft in Brazilian airspace,” he said.
Intercepting unlawful aircraft
One such interception took place on June 25th. A FAB A-29 Super Tucano forced a twin-engine aircraft to land in the region of Aragarças, Goiás in the midwestern region of Brazil. The aircraft, carrying 500 kilograms of cocaine, defied all orders to land. On this occasion, the pilots of the fighter fired “warning shots,” as dictated by the protocol for airspace policing measures, pursuant to the Aerial Detention Law.
According to information from the Air Force Press Agency, warning shots were required after two route-modification orders went unheeded. The intention is not to hit the suspect aircraft but to demonstrate the fighter’s firepower and enforce standards. FAB also used the E-99 airborne early warning and control aircraft to aid in detecting and intercepting the twin-engine aircraft, as well as intelligence work in conjunction with the Federal Police.
Aerial Detention Law
Since the decree was signed in 2004, FAB has intercepted more than 2,000 suspect aircraft in Brazilian airspace. According to Gen. Machado, interception is part of the air force’s daily activities.
The law stipulates that before being classified as hostile and therefore subject to forced detention measures, aircraft will be considered suspect if they enter Brazilian airspace without an approved flight plan, coming from regions that are known to be sources of production or distribution of narcotics. Another situation is when aircraft omit information necessary for air traffic control authorities to identify them, or if they fail to comply with orders from the latter, especially when on a route presumably used for the distribution of narcotics.
The four phases of interception
The Aerial Detention Law stipulates four phases of interception: verification, intervention, persuasion, and detention. “FAB conducts coercive measures in a progressive manner, whenever a measure is not heeded and the target is considered hostile, stronger measures will be implemented, up to forced detention of the suspect aircraft,” CECOMSAER explained to Diálogo. Once called in by COMAE, FAB interceptors can undertake verification measures, which involve, among other things, long-distance identification, confirmation of the aircraft registration, and crew interrogation via the international emergency channel, as well as visual signs, according to internationally established rules for the mandatory identification of all aircraft.
If the pilot of a suspect aircraft fails to respond properly, intervention measures will be employed. In this case, according to CECOMSAER, suspect aircraft are obliged to change their routes or to land. If these orders are not obeyed, the fighter pilot moves to the persuasion phase, where warning shots may be fired, as was the case involving the twin-engine aircraft in June.
The last phase of the interception procedure occurs when the aircraft is considered hostile. In this case, shots are fired to damage the suspect aircraft, a process that must follow a strict protocol. According to FAB, all radar and aircraft involved in interception must be under Brazilian Air Defense authority control, and the entire operation must be recorded in audio or video.
Furthermore, interceptions may only be conducted by qualified pilots and air defense controllers, according to standards set forth by COMAE. The procedure has to be conducted over sparsely populated areas that are related to routes presumably used for drug trafficking.