Recommendations for changes in the Brazilian defense apparatus: taking steps for reforming the country’s security sector

by Juliano da Silva Cortinhas · February 3rd, 2022.

The sources of insecurities to Brazil’s population are many.  According to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, there were 23.6 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020, which added up to more than 50,000 murders during that year (FBSP, 2021: 14). Over recent years, the Brazilian government’s attempt to tackle insecurity has led to an escalation of violence. As such, armed forces and how they operate needs to be considered to address insecurity. Additionally, the politicization of the security sector and institutional inefficiencies weaken Brazilian democracy. In this context, there is a strong need for security sector reform.

From the independence (1822), to the proclamation of the republic (1889), and the political disruptions of the 20th century, Brazilian armed forces have played a central role in the country’s political history. The armed forces’ involvement in politics peaked when it led a coup in 1964 and took power until 1985. It highlights the tendency of Brazilian armed forces to intervene domestically and operate as if its main raison d’être is to ‘pacify Brazil’, a tendency demonstrated by Souza et al (2017).

With the implementation of a new Constitution in 1988, more attention should have been paid to set up an effective civilian control of the armed forces in Brazil, which is an essential characteristic of  any consolidated democratic regime (Desch 2001; Welch 1976; Bruneau and Tollefson 2006). Three interrelated features demonstrate that there is still considerable space for improvement to build a functional defense sector in Brazil.

Firstly, the Brazilian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is under-capacity, and since its creation, has been militarized. Comparing Brazil to nations with armed forces of comparable strength illustrates how far this militarization has come. In the UK’s MOD, the ratio of civilian to military staff is a little over 1:4; meanwhile in the French MOD, this ratio stands at a touch over 1:3. In Brazil’s MOD by contrast, there is only one civilian administer for every 740 retired or active military.[1] With this lopsided ratio, the Brazilian MoD lacks capacity to adequately secure a civilian control of armed forces and ensure armed forces operate efficiently. In order to improve its control over its defense planning, budget and procurement processes to guarantee strategic coherence and focus on national needs, this ratio must increase.

Secondly, there is no political definition of the role of the armed forces in the country. Although Brazil’s most important defense documents (the National Policy of Defense and the National Strategy of Defense) state that national defense is designed “preponderantly to counter foreign threats”, armed forces have constantly operated domestically. Armed forces have engaged in missions requiring a significant number of personnel. For instance, the military has been involved in fighting crime in the Rio favelas, providing water to populations affected by drought in the Northeast, building infrastructure or combating the spread of mosquitoes, among other things. Today, Brazil spends around 80% of its defense budget on personnel costs, leaving little room for the acquisition and maintenance of equipment. By way of comparison, the UK and France respectively spent 30,6% and 28% of their defense budget on personnel cost.[2] [3]

Thirdly, the armed forces’ political engagement has been a source of insecurity to the Brazilian democracy, a trend reinforced in a context of conservative populism. It is not uncommon for Brazilian armed forces to position themselves in politics and attempt to influence the legislative and judiciary apparatus.[4] A recent trend of militarization of Brazilian politics can be observed as estimates show that around 6,100 military personnel (active and retired) were appointed to political positions.  Thus, it is clear that the defense sector has gained an important platform to intervene in politics. The growing influence of military in politics suggests that consolidating the civilian control of the armed forces is becoming an increasingly difficult prospect.

In summary, the politicization of Brazil’s armed forces and the militarization of Brazilian politics is a main obstacle to Brazil’s transition to a fully-fledged democracy. Defense sector reform is a necessary step in Brazil, including the professionalization of armed forces and ensuring that they are “fit for purpose”. Two reforms, in particular, seem urgent:

  1. Reforming Brazil’s MoD by readapting its structure and processes to enable stronger civilian control.
  2. The formulation of a Defense policy paper defining the role of armed forces in Brazil based on a national threat assessment.

These reforms will create the conditions to right-size Brazil’s military and to rebalance the country’s defense budget.

[1] According to the Military Balance (2021), Brazil maintains around 370,000 active military, while France and the UK respectively maintain around 200,000 and 150,000 personnel. While the UK has around 58,000 civilians working for the MoD and France has more than 62,000, Brazil has only 1,525 staff fulfilling the role of civilian control and two thirds of these positions are occupied by active and retired military.

[2]Ministry of Defence (2019) UK Defence in Numbers

[3] Ministère de la Défense (2017) Annuaire statistique de la défense.

[4] Brazilian Democracy Under Military Tutelage – Verfassungsblog

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