Tag Archives: Colombia

Narco Submarines: A Problem That Will Not Sink

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By Alejandro Sanchez

In the past year a number of narco submarines have been seized in several Latin American states. Narco submarines continue to be a problem as hemispheric security forces combat drug trafficking. Unfortunately for every narco sub that is seized, another is under construction. While recent successful operations should be applauded, combating narco subs needs a regional strategy of its own.

This commentary is a continuation of previous articles published by CIMSEC on this issue: “An Update on Narco Submarines and Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies’ Efforts to Thwart their Operational Effectiveness,” “Narco submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology,” as well as the author’s “U.S. Southcom vs Caribbean Narco Pirates.” The incidents mentioned in this commentary will focus on events that have occurred over the past year. (The colloquial term “narco sub” will be utilized for these platforms, though we will later do a more thorough analysis of their characteristics.)

Recent Narco Sub Incidents

In recent months, several narco submarines have been seized in various Latin American states. For example, on 5 August, Ecuadoran marines located one in the Las Delicias area, close to the border with Colombia. For Colombia, a narco sub was seized in an operation by army and naval personnel in the San Juan and Baudó Rivers in the Choco department in late July. The platform, which was carrying approximately four tons of cocaine, was apparently manufactured by ELN rebels. The Colombian Navy explained that this was the first time a narco sub was operating in a river, and that it probably took some five to six months to be constructed. Not long after, in mid-August, the Colombian Navy located yet another narco sub, this time in the Nariño department and with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs. This one measured 14 meters, with a diesel motor and propellers, the Navy explained in a communiqué.

On the Ecuadorian Colombian border, the Colombian National Navy located and seized a submarine that had the capacity and autonomy to transport approximately five tons of cocaine. (Colombian National Navy photo)

Narco subs have also been located in Central America. For example, a narco sub, reportedly 16 meters in length and capable of transporting up to five tons of drugs, was found in Guatemala in mid-April. Months later, in late July, the Costa Rican Coast Guard found a similar illegal platform on a beach. Local authorities believe that the vessel, with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs, had a motor problem and was discarded by the crew, until it washed ashore and got stuck in the sand.

Catching Them At Sea

The aforementioned examples highlight one fact. So far, the vast majority of narco-platforms are captured in the mainland (meaning either on dry land or “docked” in some body of water), either before they depart or upon arriving to their destination.

As far as the author has been able to find, in the past couple of years, there have only been a couple of narco subs intercepted in open waters. One was in July 2015, when during a “joint operation, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and assets from the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine, intercepted a “narco submarine” off the coast of El Salvador,” Business Insider explains. The platform was carrying over 16,000 pounds of cocaine.

U.S. Coast Guardsmen board a narco sub as part of a drug seizure in September 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

More recently, in early September 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche intercepted a narco sub in the Pacific Ocean off the Central American coast. The Cutter reportedly launched two vessels and an armed helicopter in pursuit. U.S. personnel caught up with the sub, apprehended five suspects, and thwarted a scuttling attempt by pumping water out of the interior of the sub.” By preventing the sinking of the sub, the USCG seized more than 5,600 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated value of USD$73 million.

Who Finds The Narco Subs?

Nowadays, several Latin American and Caribbean navies and coast guards are undergoing a modernization process, which includes the acquisition of new platforms. For example, Colombia and Mexico are domestically manufacturing new fleets of patrol vessels. Christian Ehrlich, a director of intelligence for Riskop, a Mexican Strategic intelligence and risk control company explained to the author that  the Mexican Navy is in the process of adding Damen Sigma 10514 frigates to its fleet, “this will provide a decisive boost to Mexico’s Maritime Domain Awareness but unfortunately it will be some time before this system has an acceptable operational level” (construction for the first of the new frigates commenced in mid-August). Meanwhile The Bahamas is in the final stretch of its ambitious Sandy Bottom Project, via which it is obtaining a fleet of different patrol boats from Damen Group. Similarly, in late June IHS Jane’s reported that Louisiana-based shipbuilder Metal Shark and Damen will construct near coastal patrol vessels (NCPVs) for regional U.S. partners like “the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala.” It is worth noting that Mr. Ehrlich, remarked how Mexico possesses aircraft like CASA CN—235 and Beechcraft King Air 350ER for ISR; Colombia also possesses similar assets.

Nevertheless, in spite of more modern navies and coast guards, locating narco subs at sea continues to be a problem. In an interview with the author, Gustavo Fallas, a journalist for the Costa Rican daily La Nacion, explained that “[Costa Rica] depends on the Americans to combat [narco submarines]. In 2006 we detained a submersible with three tons [of drugs] and it was thanks to an American frigate. In 2012 we chased another one in the Caribbean, and it was also after the Americans alerted us. For those reasons it is vital to have U.S. aid to locate these platforms.” Mr. Fallas added that Costa Rica must create a shield (meaning more vessels, radars, personnel) to prevent drug traffickers from using the country as a warehouse or transit path for drugs.

Unfortunately, Randy Pestana, a policy analyst at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, has a gloomy assessment about regional naval forces vis-à-vis narco subs. Mr. Pestana explained to the author how “relying on partner nations to stop, slow, or detain these shipments is difficult in itself as they do not have the necessary tools to do so unless provided by the U.S.” Of a similar opinion is Mr. Ehrlich, who stated to the author that “there isn’t a navy or coast guard in Central America with the [necessary platforms] to detect, follow and interdict [narco submarines].” 

In other words, Central American navies will continue to rely on the U.S. (be it SOUTCHOM or the Coast Guard) to monitor maritime areas in order to combat, among other threats, narco submarines. This is problematic, since, as Mr. Pestana remarked, even U.S. security agencies have limits to their abilities, particularly nowadays when the U.S. has other security operations and geopolitical concerns around the globe. Furthermore, there is the problematic and ever-present red tape, namely, “the inability of the U.S. to respond to an identified narco submarine without permission from higher leadership. This often led to the narco submarine to either get away, or move out of the U.S. areas of operation,” the FIU expert explained.

How To Find A Narco Sub

Locating a narco submarine at sea is a tricky business. In an interview with the author, Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Naval officer and an expert in airborne maritime patrol, provided an excellent analysis on this problem.

As previously mentioned, the term narco submarine is commonly utilized for these vessels, however they are not really submarines. As Mr. Pedreros explains, these platforms are semi-submersibles, meaning that they cannot go completely underwater, and if they can do so, it is for brief periods of time. (“Narco submarine” is still a catchier name than “narco-semi-submersible” though). However, even if these vessels cannot fully dive, they are nonetheless difficult to locate at sea. Mr. Pedreros explained how some of these platforms have electronic motors, which makes them more silent than diesel engines, making them harder to find with passive sonar. “When it comes to semi-submersibles, utilizing  sonar is not very efficient,” Mr. Pedreros concludes. Adding to the problem is that the vessel is pretty small, and “once at sea, the submersibles have 20 percent of their structure above the surface,” making them hard to pinpoint by radar.

A narco submarine found by the Costan Rican Coast Guard (MSP)

Mr. Pedreros recommended maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as an ideal tool to combat narco submarines at sea, as these aircraft possess superior sensors and radars for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Obviously, locating the target is only part of the solution, because then it has to be intercepted. “The aircraft must work with together with a vessel to capture the submersible. In other words, there are three components in this process: an aircraft (MPA), a vessel, and a light boat that can board the submersible and detain the crew,” the retired Chilean Naval officer explained. As previously discussed, various Latin American and Caribbean navies are acquiring OPVs with attached light boats, while Colombia and Mexico have platforms for maritime patrol, fulfilling the requirements by Mr. Pedreros; what is needed is greater multinational support, apart from additional platforms. 

The Future of the Narco Sub

It would be naïve to assume that recent successful operations by regional security forces will convince drug traffickers to stop investing in narco submarines. There is simply too much money to be made in drugs, and the subs cost only around USD$1 million to manufacture. Even if five narco subs are stopped, drug traffickers only need one or two successful deliveries to make up for their losses.

Moreover, recently seized narco subs show they are becoming more technologically advanced, including bigger in size so they can transport greater quantities of contraband. The narco sub seized in mid-July in Choco had space for a crew of four, measured 9 meters in length by 4 wide, had radars, stabilizers, ballast weights and was powered by over 100 batteries, according to the Colombian daily El Colombiano.

Indeed, the (brief) history of narco subs shows a trend towards modernization, particularly as drug lords are always looking for new methods to transport drugs, from Cessna aircraft and go-fast boats during the Pablo Escobar era to drones and narco subs nowadays (though of course, narcos continue to utilize the former as well). Mr. Pestana drives this home remarking how “top drug traffickers are relatively smart and have a good grasp on technology and history.” Moreover, the attractive wages narco-organizations can afford to pay means that they can hire “former engineers or other trade workers,” as Mr. Pestana explains, to continuously improve previous designs.

Final Thoughts

From a scholarly point of view, the appearance of the narco sub is a fascinating development as it highlights drug traffickers’ ingenuity as they continuously think of new ways of transporting their contraband. Unfortunately, this represents an ongoing problem for regional security forces, as new narco subs become more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, even though many narco subs have been stopped, it only takes one successful trip to make a large profit.

In spite of several successful operations, combating narco submarines requires both a multiagency and multinational strategy of its own. Mr. Ehlrich stresses the necessity to disrupt the construction of these platforms (which requires cooperation between police and military units). As for when narco submarines are at sea, the Greater Central American region requires united front, such as a regional anti-narco submarine task force. By combining resources, in which member states can contribute platforms to create the three-platform interception teams that Mr. Pedreros described, this unit would ideally be more successful at locating narco subs at sea, and not just in inland waterways. This will decrease the region’s dependency on the U.S., which Mr. Pestana and Mr. Fallas highlighted.

Unfortunately, narco submarines are a problem that will not sink, hence new strategies are needed in order to combat them more efficiently.

 Alejandro Sanchez Nieto is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The author would like to thank the various experts that contributed to this commentary:

Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence, Riskop; External Analyst, Mexican Navy

Gustavo Fallas, Journalist, La Nacion (Costa Rica)

Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Navy Officer, expert in aero-maritime patrol. He participated as a Tactical Coordinator Officer (TACCO) in different missions overseas onboard Chilean Navy P-3 Orion aircrafts. Missions include Anti Submarine Warfare, Anti Surface Warfare, Anti Terrorism missions and Search and Rescue operations. He is currently based in Washington, DC. doing consulting for several Defense and Security companies.

Randy Pestana, Policy Analyst, Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, Florida International University

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Members of the Colombian Navy stand guard on a seized submarine built by drug smugglers in a makeshift shipyard in Timbiqui, Cauca department. Colombian authorities said the submersible craft was to be used to transport 8 tons of cocaine into Mexico. (REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga)

The Colombian Navy: South America’s Powerhouse?

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The author would like to thank Colombian Rear Admiral (ret.) Luis Fernando Yance Villamil and Colombian General (ret.) Enrique Peña Diaz for their comments and information, which were of invaluable help for this report.

This past August, tensions flared up between Colombia and Venezuela after three Venezuelan soldiers were injured in an incident along their common border. The situation worsened as Caracas started deporting undocumented Colombians that live in Venezuela. Thankfully, diplomacy prevailed and the incident did not escalate. Nevertheless, this is not the first time that the two South American countries have been at odds with each other.  The two states had confronted one and other before, specifically at sea in 1987 and more recently in 2008.

Donate to CIMSEC!

The focus of this analysis is not to theoretically discuss what would happen if Colombia and Venezuela went to war. Rather, we aim to take this possible inter-state conflict as a point of departure to discuss the status of the modern Colombian Navy. For decades, the Colombian Navy’s security operations have revolved around combating maritime crimes like drug trafficking. Nevertheless, a Navy’s raison d’être is to protect a country’s waterways from internal and external threats. Given recent acquisitions, including two German submarines, Colombia’s Navy can certainly be cataloged as a regional powerhouse with a strong deterrent capability.

Lack of Warfare: A Brief History

There is an obscure but also amusing fact about Latin American navies in general: they have not participated in inter-state warfare in decades. As I have discussed in previous analyses, the last time two Latin American countries went to war with each other was the land-based conflict Peru and Ecuador in 1995. Moreover, the last time a Latin American warship fired a missile at another warship was during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War between Argentina and the United Kingdom.

Colombia is well known for the internal conflict that has plagued the country for decades. When it comes to inter-state wars, Colombian Army units and Navy vessels participated in the Korean War, via the UN, while the last conflict Colombia fought with a neighboring state was the 1932-1933 war with Peru, which was centered in the Amazon. In the past few decades, there have been isolated incidents which brought Colombia to an inter-state war. Most recently in 2008, there was a bizarre incident in which Colombian troops attacked a FARC insurgent base in Ecuador without requesting Quito’s permission. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez deployed his troops to the Colombian border, declaring that he would go to war with Colombia to protect its ally Ecuador. Prior to that, there was the aforementioned 1987 incident in which the ARC Caldas, a Colombian corvette, entered waters that Venezuela claims as its own. Both countries deployed troops to their borders, and Venezuelan F-16 warplanes flew over the ARC Caldas and other Colombian vessels in the disputed area. As was the case with this most recent incident, the crises in 1987 and 2008 ultimately did not escalate.

This leads to one conclusion: there is no one in service in the Colombian Navy that has experience in an inter-state conflict. Moreover, no missile or torpedo has been launched from a Colombian warship or submarine in generations. Certainly, this fact does not minimize the capabilities, bravery, and overall professionalism of Colombian sailors who have plenty of experience in combating insurgents, drug traffickers, and other criminals in the country’s territorial waters and throughout the country’s numerous rivers. If anything, Colombia’s success at stopping maritime crimes (in April, it seized 1.3 tons of cocaine in Pacific waters) highlights how this service has adapted and transformed itself into a force that can face both traditional and asymmetric security threats. Nevertheless, it is an amusing factoid that, as powerful as the Colombian Navy is, experience in inter-state conflicts is beyond scarce among its personnel (though the same can be said of other regional navies).

A Force to be Reckoned With

Unlike its neighbor Brazil, Colombia does not possess a carrier, nor is it constructing a nuclear-powered submarine. Nevertheless, its Navy has carried out acquisitions in recent years to modernize its fleet. The most important was the 2012 acquisition of two German-made submarines, class U-206A. The

Colombia acquired two updated U-206A Submarines (pictured here) from Germany.
Colombia acquired two updated U-206A Submarines (pictured here) from Germany.

submarines have been upgraded (they served in the German Navy for over three decades and were decommissioned in 2010) and, at the time of this writing, are been transported from Germany to Colombia via the freighter BBC Saphire.

As for other acquisitions, Bogota has purchased a “fast ferry” transport vessel, the ARC Juanchaco, from the Dutch shipbuilding company Damen. Moreover, Colombia has also acquired a 76mm gun, an Oto Melara 76/62 Super Rapid (SR) Gun Mount, from the Italian company Finmeccanica. It will be placed aboard an offshore patrol vessel that the country is currently constructing. Finally, the Colombian Navy’s official website offers a detailed list of acquisitions and upgrades for 2015; due to space issues we will not discuss them here, but it is worth noting that these include modernizing the country’s frigates and upgrading bases like ARC Bolivar and ARC Malaga.

Additionally, the country’s naval military industry is rapidly evolving. Case in point, the Colombian state-owned shipyard COCTEMAR recently delivered to the Navy the amphibious landing vessel BDA Golfo de Uraba, which can transport supplies to coastal and fluvial areas. This is the second of six vessels of this class that COCTEMAR is constructing for the Navy.

In terms of training, Colombia carries out military exercises with its neighbors and allies – Colombian warships are currently involved in the UNITAS 2015 exercises with U.S. and other Latin American vessels. Furthermore, the Colombian Navy participated in

The Colombian Navy offered tours during RIMPAC 2014.
The Colombian Navy offered tours during RIMPAC 2014.

RIMPAC 2014 and carried out naval exercises with Ecuador in August. Finally, a crew of Colombian sailors is getting some first-hand experience in combat operations as the patrol vessel ARC 7 de Agosto has been deployed to the horn of Africa to participate in Operation Atalanta.

Issues and Challenges

While the Colombian Navy has carried out important acquisitions and modernization of its vessels, there are problems among its personnel. Just this past May, Bogota revealed a massive fraud operation among the country’s armed forces in which some 160 million Colombian pesos (around $52 thousand USD) were stolen from the military’s coffers. Among those arrested as part of this criminal ring were three naval personnel and one civilian that also worked for the Navy. The criminals utilized online transactions, using fake documents to wire money from the naval cadet school Almirante Padilla, to personal bank accounts.

Moreover, the education that Colombian naval cadets are receiving may be called into question. The research group Sapiens Research publishes reports of Colombia’s best universities: in 2014, the best military university was the Universidad Militar Nueva Granada, which came at a respectable number 25. As for the navy’s cadet school, the Escuela Naval de Cadetes Almirante Padilla came at a dismal number 90, just above the Air Force’s postgraduate school. Colombian naval cadets receive  good training at sea – this is best exemplified by how its flagship and training vessel, the ARC Gloria, has travelled around the world to provide aspiring naval officers with hands-on experience. Nevertheless, the education they receive on land at their university can greatly be improved if it wants to compete with some of Colombia’s best universities.

Another worrisome development is the training that Colombian marines are receiving. Earlier this year, the Colombian news agency La F.m. uploaded a video showing marines being threatened and physically beaten by their trainers as part of an advanced training course. The marines were punched and kicked by their supervisors, even when they fell to the ground, all the while being verbally insulted. (Click here for the graphic video, in Spanish).

The video sparked a debate on whether such training methods are acceptable (arguably to train the marines to deal with extreme pain in case they are captured by insurgents) or if they should be regarded as humiliating and unnecessary. As a response to the video, Admiral Hernando Wills, commander of the Navy, announced that the officers that beat up the marines had been kicked out of the service. The naval officer explained that “military training is demanding, but under no circumstance does it justify physical abuse.”

Finally, as part of my research, I was unable to find reports of accidents regarding Colombian vessels. This is certainly a positive development, particularly as other branches have suffered accidents in the recent past (one of the Air Force’s Kfir warplanes crashed in December 2014 during a training exercise). With that said, problems among naval personnel, from corruption cases to controversial training, or lack of good education among cadets, must be dealt with in order to continue optimizing the country’s maritime force.

Analysis

While the Colombian Navy has acquired some major equipment, particularly two submarines and new landing vessels, it would be wrong to assume that it is partaking some kind of aggressive weapons-purchase spree. Rather, the Colombian Navy is going through a modernization process to maintain its ability to carry out operations, such as combating maritime crimes, as well as maintaining a deterrent capability from outside threats.

Ultimately, the operations of the Colombian Navy rest on its personnel and its equipment. As previously mentioned, there have not been any major accidents regarding warships or submarines while the recent acquisitions and modernization of vessels leads me argue that the Colombian Navy is in ideal shape to continue its operations and deal with any foreseeable conflict. As for the personnel itself, the corruption case is a problematic incident but has not affected the overall status of the Navy. Of more concern are the (videotaped) cases of physical and psychological abuse against marines during training courses.

The Caracas Question

This analysis would not be complete without discussing Venezuela-Colombia tensions. The two governments have a long history, including been part of the same country in the 19th century. However, tensions have regularly escalated, particularly as they both claim the oil-rich Gulf of Venezuela, which prompted the 1987 maritime crisis. Tensions increased during the presidencies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, which culminated in the 2008 incident. Sadly, even after the two leaders left power, occasional flare-ups continued, such as this past August.

It is important to note that under Chavez, Caracas spent billions of dollars on Russian and Chinese equipment for the Venezuelan armed forces, but the main beneficiaries were the Army and Air Force. Recent open-source reports hint that the Venezuelan Navy is doing the best with what it has, which means repairing old vessels, like the submarine Caribe, S-32, and its Lupo-class frigates. The country’s acquisitions program can be regarded as modest – one recent example is the purchase of Damen-built patrol vessels.

While it is not my goal to discuss a theoretical Colombia-Venezuela conflict, the information currently available regarding both navies provides a strong advantage to the Colombian Navy, as it has seasoned personnel with combat experience due to their anti-drug trafficking operations and the ARC 7 de Agosto vessel operating in the Horn of Africa. Of course, the caveat here is that the Colombian Navy has not participated in an actual inter-state conflict in decades (but then again, neither has the Venezuelan Navy), which means Colombian naval personnel lack that particular kind of combat-experience. As far as the equipment  goes, the current purchases provide the Colombians a formidable force, particularly when it comes to its submarine fleet.

Furthermore, the Colombian Navy enjoys strong relations with regional navies, which means that it participates in valuable multinational training exercises. For example, the ongoing UNITAS 2015 exercises have warships from Colombia, Peru, Mexico, the U.S. among others. On the other hand, the Venezuelan

PHOTOEX from UNITAS 2015
PHOTOEX from UNITAS 2015

Navy carried out exercises with the country’s Air Force in June. Inter-agency exercises are important, but the Venezuelans are at a disadvantage as the Colombian Navy learns tactics and techniques from other navies.

Regarding the U.S., close Bogota-Washington relations are no secret, both at the political and military level. When it comes to navies, apart from participating in joint maritime exercises, there are often meetings between the senior naval command of both countries. Case in point, this past January, Admiral John Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations of the U.S. Navy, traveled to Colombia to meet with Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon and the commander of the Navy, Admiral Hernando Wills.

Given the plethora of current analyses discussing how far the U.S. government (and military) will go to support their allies (i.e. via NATO in Europe or to protect Taiwan in the Asia Pacific), it is necessary to briefly discuss U.S.-Colombia relations if the South American state went to war; a Colombia-Venezuela conflict being the most plausible scenario. It is safe to say that the U.S. will not go to war over Colombia. Nevertheless, we can deduce that the U.S. would support to its ally, particularly if it is in a war against Venezuela, which has been a thorn in Washington’s side since the dawn of the Chavez era. Specifically, I would argue that Washington would focus provide intelligence to Bogota – a precedent would be the U.S. supplying intel to the UK against Argentina during the Falklands War.

Ultimately, the question is: Is a war between Colombia and Venezuela inevitable? The fact that the crises of 1987, 2008 and 2015 did not result in conflict speaks well of how both governments preferred dialogue over war. Even more, just this past October, senior naval officers from both countries met in Maracaibo, Venezuela to discuss bilateral cooperation to combat crimes, including drug trafficking, along their common border. Such meetings are important confidence-building mechanisms to improve military relations.

Nevertheless, a maritime border in the Gulf of Venezuela has yet to be agreed upon by both governments, which will probably lead to another 1987-type incident in the future. Moreover, the Venezuelan economy remains in a dire state, and the Venezuelan government has turned to constantly accusing foreign actors, namely the U.S., of trying to destabilize it. Even more, Caracas has also accused Bogota of trying to destabilize its economy and fomenting the mega-inflation that Venezuela is currently experiencing. The bottom line here is that accusations over economic warfare and/or unresolved border issues will likely bring about a new round of incidents in the near future. Hopefully these will not end up in a conflict but, in this author’s personal opinion, the Colombian military may be wondering if Venezuela may try to ignite a conflict in order to divert attention from its internal problems (a la Argentina during the Falklands War).

Conclusions

When discussing maritime strength among military powers, it makes sense to focus on navies with either nuclear-powered vessels or in terms of modern equipment. When it comes to Latin America, assessing a navy’s strength is somewhat different as all tend to possess a mix of (sometimes very) old equipment, sprinkled with the occasional new vessel. The Colombian Navy has such a mix of warships and submarines – it has brand-new, domestically-manufactured, landing ships while its “new” German submarines are already over three decades old. Nevertheless, this author would conclude that it enjoys a high level of readiness (best exemplified by successful operations against maritime crimes). While nobody wants war, if it does occur, Colombia’s Navy is certainly a powerhouse to be reckoned with.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

Donate to CIMSEC!

The Brazilian Navy: Green Water or Blue?

Although much attention has been directed toward the uncertain fate of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that were being built in Saint-Nazaire, France for export to Russia, there has been considerably less reporting on Brazil’s quiet naval expansion. The Brazilian Navy has frequently been dubbed a ‘green-water’ force to distinguish it from conventional ‘blue-water’ or ‘brown-water’ navies. Whereas a blue-water navy is concerned with operations on the high seas and engaging in far-ranging expeditions, brown-water navies are geared toward patrolling the shallow waters of the coastline or riverine warfare. Green-water navies, however, mix both capabilities, focusing mainly on securing a country’s littorals but also retaining the ability to venture out into the deep waters of the oceans.

For several decades, this green-water label has been accurate to the Brazilian Navy. Although possessing a vast array of inland patrol ships and river troop transports to exert sovereignty over Brazil’s many rivers and drainage basins, the Brazilian Navy also boasts the BNS Sao Paulo, a Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier purchased from France in 2000. But there has recently been a shift in Brazil’s maritime priorities, suggesting that it may soon be more accurate to regard the Brazilian Navy as a blue-water force with some lingering vestiges of brown-water capabilities. Begun under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil from 2003 until 2011, and intensified under the Dilma Rouseff’s current government, Brazil has been on a shopping spree for military hardware. Although this has included procuring 36 Gripen NG multirole fighter aircraft from Saab for use by the Brazilian Air Force, much of the recent contracts have pertained to the purchase of vessels intended to modernize the Brazilian Navy. Brazil’s five Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines, acquired from Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, will be joined by four Scorpène-class diesel-electric attack submarines to be built domestically with completion of the first vessel expected in 2017.

In March 2013, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated a domestic shipyard at which Brazil’s first nuclear-powered submarine – the fittingly named BNS Alvaro Alberto – will be built with French support. Delivery of the completed vessel is not expected until 2025 but the success of the project would bring Brazil into a very small club of countries with operational nuclear-powered submarines: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, and China.S34 Tikuna

The Barroso-class corvette commissioned in late 2008 also seems to have inspired a new series of ships for the Brazilian Navy. The domestic shipbuilder Arsenal de Marinha do Rio de Janeiro has been contracted to build four vessels based on the design of the Barroso-class but with “stealth capabilities” and which will possess both anti-ship and anti-air armaments. Delivery of the first of these new stealth corvettes is expected in 2019 and as such many specific details about the design are currently unknown. Furthermore, delivery of two new Macaé-class offshore patrol vessels is expected in 2015, while an additional two will be delivered in 2016-2017, bringing Brazil’s fleet of these patrol vessels to seven in total.

But why is there this rapid buildup in maritime forces for Brazil? To some degree, these new procurement projects are intended to offset the Brazilian Navy’s diminished capabilities following the retirement of 21 vessels between 1996 and 2005. This would not explain the focus on vessels with longer-range expeditionary capabilities, though. Some observers may attribute the acquisition of ships with capabilities clearly not intended for the patrol of inland waterways, such as the new “stealth-capable” Barroso-class corvettes, to the threat posed by Guinea-Bissau’s instability. That Lusophone West African country, which has been dubbed a “narco-state”, has been a major hub in the international drug trade; Colombian cocaine often makes its way to Guinea-Bissau from the Brazilian coast, only to then be exported onward to Europe. But President José Mário Vaz, who was elected by a decisive margin to lead Guinea-Bissau in May 2014, has quickly moved to crackdown on corruption in the Bissau-Guinean military and seems set to make counter-trafficking a priority during his term in office. Even if Brazilian policymakers believe it may be necessary to exert a stronger presence in the South Atlantic to discourage narcotics trafficking, a nuclear-powered attack submarine is not at all the right tool for the task.

Rather, it seems most likely that there are two principal factors motivating Brazil’s naval procurement projects. With regard to BNS Alvaro Alberto and the potential acquisition of a second aircraft carrier, Brazil craves the prestige of at least appearing to be the leading maritime power in the Southern Hemisphere. Participation in major international maritime exercises, such as the IBSAMAR series conducted jointly with Indian and South African forces, are intended to promote a view of Brazil as a power that ought to be respected and consulted, particularly as Brazilian policymakers continue to pursue a permanent seat for their country on the United Nations Security Council. More importantly, however, the shipbuilding projects on which Brazil has embarked are intended to build up domestic industry and contribute to economic growth.

Brazil is already attracting considerable interest as a shipbuilder. In September 2014, the Angolan Navy placed an order for seven Macaé-class offshore patrol vessels, with four to be built at Brazilian shipyards. Over the past several years, Brazil has exported various vessels and equipment for use by the Namibian Navy. Equatorial Guinea has expressed its intent to acquire a Barroso-class corvette from Brazil for counter-piracy purposes. The A-29 Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft intended for close air support and aerial reconnaissance, is produced by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer and has been exported for use in roughly a dozen national air forces. If Brazilian industry is successful in producing submarines and stealth corvettes, demand for Brazilian military hardware will only grow, generating impressive revenue and creating many jobs.

 Of concern, however, are Brazil’s long-term intentions with regard to the construction of BNS Alvaro Alberto. There are few navies in the world with the infrastructure and know-how necessary to successfully operate one or more aircraft carriers; after all, the club of those countries with aircraft carriers in service is limited to just nine. But the export of nuclear-powered attack submarines would undermine the international community’s non-proliferation treaty and could potentially harm international peace and stability. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been rumored to occasionally entertain plans to obtain a nuclear-powered submarine, while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has allegedly expressed a private interest in obtaining Soviet-era nuclear-powered submarines from the Russian Federation. This is not to say that Brazilian authorities would consider exporting such vessels to Iran, North Korea or other such regimes, but there is certainly a market for future submarines modelled on BNS Alvaro Alberto. It will be necessary to keep a very close eye on the Brazilian shipbuilding and nuclear industries in the 2030s, especially as domestic demand for this class of vessel is satisfied. 

To obtain a deeper understanding of Brazil’s long-term strategic goals and to perhaps exert some degree of influence over Brazilian arms exports, it would be advisable for NATO to seek a partnership with the country. In August 2013, a partnership was established between NATO and Colombia, demonstrating that the Alliance certainly is interested in security affairs in the South Atlantic. Brazil could also contribute much know-how to NATO members, especially as the Alliance attempts to find its place post-Afghanistan. Clearly, there is much work to be done in the area of trust-building if such a partnership is to be found prior to the expected completion of BNS Alvaro Alberto: as Colombian officials visited with NATO counterparts to discuss the partnership, Brazilian policymakers were among those Latin American figures who condemned Colombia for the initiative.

Partnering with Brazil will be very challenging diplomatically, but it is an effort that must be made. This rising power will soon find itself with a blue-water navy and, as such, military vessels flying the Brazilian ensign will become an increasingly frequent sight in the South Atlantic.

Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of CanadaThis article can be found in its original form at Offiziere.ch

Should NATO Pay Attention to the South Atlantic?

Does a NATO-Colombia partnership make sense? Is cooperation with Brazil realistic? Will NATO be needed to fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea? Has NATO any role to play in the wider South Atlantic area?

 

Membership for Colombia?

Recently, Colombia’s president suggested that his country could become NATO member. However, although the Colombian government eventually back-pedaled, a new NATO-Colombia partnership is on the table. For what purpose would Colombia want to join NATO? NATO’s European expeditionary capabilities are shrinking without an end in sight. Hence, NATO as a whole would not have been able to give a credible defense guarantee for Colombia. Only the US can do that, but Washington and Bogota would not need NATO to accomplish that.

 

Officially, NATO says that there is an “open channel for future cooperation” with Colombia. In diplomatic language, such words could mean anything. If the idea does not die in the next months, we will probably see only talks. During NATO-Colombia talks, status-quo and collective defense oriented member states would oppose any measures lifting NATO-Colombia cooperation to a strategic level. Nevertheless, working level efforts and engagement such as training and education would probably not get a veto, as NATO already has working level contacts worldwide.

 

Unfortunately, a working level cooperation between NATO and Colombia does not have much to offer. Colombian forces could contribute to NATO missions as Argentina did on the Balkans in the 1990s. Due to political exhaustion and austerity the era of large-scale NATO missions is coming to an end. Thus, Colombia will not get an opportunity to decide whether to contribute or not. Any NATO-Colombia partnership would just include the unspectacular – but useful – measures NATO is doing with all other partners: training, education, best practices sharing, et. al. In consequence, do not expect much with political worth from a NATO-Colombia partnership.

 
Partnership with Brazil?

Brazil wants Western powers to stay out of its sphere of influence in the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover, the US would be reluctant to give a less capable NATO roles in South America. There would be no benefit for Washington. Thus, there are few real prospects of a substantial NATO-Brazil partnership. Cyber-Security may be an issue of common concern. Certainly, any publicly known NATO-Brazil cyber-cooperation would provoke debates nobody needs and reactions by third parties such as China.

 

Nevertheless, there is one area where Brazil could have an interest in NATO. This is AWACS. In the past, at major events, such as the Greek Olympics 2004 or the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine 2012, NATO’s AWACS planes have helped to coordinate air traffic and to monitor the airspace. Brazil is going to host the World Cup 2014 and the Olympics 2016, but is lacking sufficient AWACS capabilities. NATO could help out, but Brazil would have to ask.

 

What we will surely see is an increasing outreach from NATO member states to Brazil. Beside Portugal (remember the common history) and the US, Germany has a “strategic partnership” with Brazil, which has not delivered anything strategic, yet. Moreover, before 2030 Brazil is going to replace its aging aircraft carrier. As the country is unable to build one on its own, Britain and France may be candidates where Brazil could go for carrier-shopping. Otherwise, China will be happy to deliver.

 
Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Regarding piracy, the situation in the Gulf of Aden is getting better, while the problem in the Gulf of Guinea is worsening. Right now, the Western African piracy is only taking place in the littorals, not on the high seas. Thus, it is now appears up to those  littoral  states to solve their problems in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

 

A new NATO operation would only have to be considered once the pirates reach the Atlantic’s high seas. However, international attention for the problem is already there. The international community has gained counter-piracy experience from the western Indian Ocean. Do not expect a NATO-particular mission soon; the problem may already dealt with. Moreover, even if the Western African pirates would turn high seas, it is far from sure that austerity-suffering NATO would take on that job. Some national states (France, Britain, Portugal, USA) could try to act on their own or countries like Brazil would try to underline their global ambitions with action.

 

Perspectives

With an eye on geopolitics, the South Atlantic is on a calm track due to the lack of great power conflict. Today Brazil is facing a social and economic crisis. However, World Cup and Olympics will do their share to bring Brazil’s politicians, people and economy back on a good track. The only plausible scenario for a great power conflict is – in the long term – a triangle of competition between the US, China and Brazil; the latter as a swing state. China’s attention in the South Atlantic is growing and the US will not stay passive.

 

Nevertheless, the there is no role and therefore no need to for NATO to reach out to the wider Southern Atlantic area. Secretary General Rasmussen has traveled around the world during his time in office. As far as I know, he has never visited South America. Please leave it like that. There are more important areas, like the Eastern Mediterranean, to which NATO should pay attention.
Felix Seidler is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and a German security affairs writer. This article appeared in original form at his website, Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik.