Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel is in Moscow negotiating the purchase of Russian attack helicopters to reinforce Venezuelan army units deployed along the border with Colombia. President Hugo Chavez announced the $40 million deal after five Venezuelan army soldiers and a woman engineer with state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) were killed in a Sept. 17 ambush by rebels with the 10th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The ambush occurred in the Venezuelan border state of Apure in a sector called Mata de Cana between the towns of La Charca and La Victoria, less than 15 miles from the border with Colombia. Colombian rebel groups, cross-border drug traffickers and other smuggling organizations have long overrun the area. Although the Chavez government immediately imposed an information blackout on the incident, Venezuelan military sources say it appears the FARC killed the soldiers by mistake. The soldiers were traveling in a curiara, or indigenous canoe, and were so poorly dressed that from a distance of 50 to 100 yards they likely appeared to be civilians, possibly criminal smugglers. From the FARC's perspective, this would make them competitors for control of criminal enterprises along the border, and therefore legitimate targets. If the FARC unit had identified the soldiers as members of Venezuela's military, it is likely the rebels never would have fired at the canoe. The FARC has a tacit non-aggression pact with the Chavez government, and the rebels would not have violated that pact consciously. Chavez has maintained for several years that Venezuela's side of the border is heavily defended by some 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers reinforced with armor, air and ground transport and electronic surveillance systems designed to locate and identify potential enemies, including Colombian rebels. This claim is inaccurate. The truth is, operational readiness levels within the Venezuelan army, air force and navy are so critically low that if war with Colombia were to break out today the Colombian army could easily capture and hold large swathes of Venezuelan territory, such as the state of Zulia, which accounts for close to 40 percent of Venezuela's total crude oil production. Venezuela's armed forces (FAN) are among the poorest, least prepared military institutions in Latin America, despite the country's substantial oil revenues. The FAN is tactically and operationally incapable of keeping Colombian rebel groups outside Venezuelan territory. On paper, the army has close to 70,000 soldiers, but actual troop strength is closer to 40,000. The army's troubles did not begin when Chavez assumed the presidency in early 1999. For example, in 1990 a 150-man company was commanded by one captain, two lieutenants, three sub-lieutenants and 10 sergeants. However, by the time Chavez became president the same 150-man company was commanded by one captain, one sub-lieutenant and two sergeants. Moreover, in 1999 the average frontier battalion had 740 soldiers on paper, but actual troop strength was only 320 men commanded by one lieutenant colonel, 10 officers and 10 sergeants. These ratios have grown much worse since Chavez assumed the presidency and slashed defense spending by more than 40 percent in order to weaken the FAN and dilute its capacity to launch a successful coup. According to a classified study done in mid-2001 by the army's military intelligence division and obtained recently by STRATFOR, the army was a hollow shell three years ago. International defense standards for developing countries state that operational readiness levels for 11 key measures of military offense and defense capabilities should never drop below 70 percent. In Venezuela's case, however, the army's capabilities in nine of 11 key measures of operational readiness levels were far below that 70 percent floor in 2001. The situation today is far more critical, sources say. For example, in terms of troop strength the Venezuelan army's operational readiness levels in 2001 were only 56.69 percent. In terms of food supplies, its readiness levels were only 40.25 percent, and weapons capabilities were only 23.22 percent. Several lower-ranking officers who have commanded army forces on the border during the past three years say their soldiers lacked uniforms, boots, helmets and body armor. They also say their troops were sent on combat patrols without sufficient ammunition to engage hostile forces such as the FARC, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and other border bandits. The officers add that border unit commanders frequently had to rent privately owned commercial vehicles from local residents to transport patrol troops into high-risk border areas. The classified study done in 2001 also rated the army's communications capabilities at only 20.90 percent, combat medevac capabilities at 44.48 percent, ground transport capabilities at 39.36 percent and armored vehicle capabilities (including tanks) at only 48.92 percent. On paper, Venezuela's armored offensive capabilities are significantly more substantial than Colombia's. For example, Venezuela's army as of May 2003 had an armored component that included 81 AMX-30 main battle tanks, 36 AMX-13 light tanks, 80 British-made Scorpion-90 light tanks, 75 M18 Hellcat tank destroyers and nearly 300 U.S.-, French- and Brazilian-made personnel carriers. The Venezuelan army also was equipped with more than 100 105-mm and 155-mm self-propelled and towed artillery howitzers, 175 106-mm recoilless rifles and more than 220 Brandt 120 mm and 81 mm mortars. The classified army readiness study obtained by STRATFOR states that as of mid-2001, the army's armored operational readiness levels were only 48.92 percent overall. Of 528 armored vehicles, including main battle tanks such as the AMX-30 and light tanks such as the Dragoon 300 and the Scorpion, 336 were operational and 189 were inoperative. Individual weapons systems readiness levels on paper looked good for systems such as the AMX-30 battle tank (71.76 percent) and the Dragoon 300 and Scorpion tanks (97.03 percent and 97.62 percent, respectively). However, these averages do not tell the full story. Army sources say retrofitting work done in recent years on the AMX-30 battle tanks by Metalurgica Van Dam, a Venezuelan metallurgical firm with no prior experience in modifying tanks, effectively destroyed the combat capabilities of these systems. A battle tank's turret must rotate 360-degrees, but Van Dam's "retrofitting" work made it impossible for the tank turrets to rotate more than 80 degrees in either direction. This means in combat the tanks can be flanked and destroyed easily from the sides and rear by infantry units armed with light anti-tank rockets. Van Dam also cut through the armor of the AMX-30 tanks in such a way that the tanks were split completely in two. As a result, the armor of these tanks can now be penetrated by ammunition as light as a .30-caliber machine gun bullet, according to military sources. This means an infantry soldier armed with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) can penetrate the turrets of these tanks and kill the crews inside with as much ease as a hot knife slicing through butter if the rocket impacts directly on the welding seam. In addition, the Dragoon 300 and Scorpion light tanks might show adequate operational readiness levels on paper, but they lack munitions. These tanks can be deployed, as some were deployed in April 2002 to protect Chavez in Miraflores from the 900,000 unarmed protesters who marched to the presidential palace demanding his resignation. However, in an armed engagement these tanks would quickly run out of ammunition, which in effect would make them useless. The only two measures where the army exceeded the 70 percent floor were air transport (73.91 percent) and electronic warfare (80.05 percent). However, more than half of the army's helicopters are not equipped with weapons systems capable of providing close air-ground support. In effect, the army's air transport command is used mainly to ferry generals around the country on official and personal missions. Moreover, the army's electronic warfare systems have been withdrawn from border regions and redeployed mainly to Caracas and central Venezuela, where they are used to conduct electronic surveillance of all communications inside Fort Tiuna, Palo Negro and other bases. Instead of intercepting Colombian communications, the Chavez government is using its electronic surveillance systems to spy on Venezuelan army units in a permanent effort to locate and identify officers that could be conspiring against him.