Tag Archives: Colombia

Boats, Budget, and Boots: The Colombian Navy’s Challenges in International Cooperation

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Rafael Uribe Neira

Introduction

In recent years the Colombian Navy has undergone a well-planned but less-than-well executed modernization to exert sea control and counter regional threats in both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. After significant changes in doctrine and procurement, the institution still struggles to contribute to regional security despite being a key U.S. partner in the region. More than a decade of doctrinal transformations and a more determined role in international cooperation and defense diplomacy runs the risk of losing momentum and clarity. At least three issues speak of the encroaching challenges the navy must face in order to consolidate itself into what it calls a “medium regional force projection navy.” Serious problems in the procurement of new frigates, budgetary issues, and an oversized force structure are working against the navy’s ambitions. Because of the Colombian security forces’ resilience, and particularly the navy’s institutional capabilities, the country’s military has the potential to creatively adapt its scarce resources to provide security against common threats, but it is facing a string of obstacles along the way.

Colombia’s Success Story and the Role of the Navy 

The Colombian Navy has engaged in maritime security cooperation since the early 1990s through the signing of understanding agreements with the U.S. and regional navies to fight drug trafficking. By the mid-2000s, the value of international cooperation was institutionally acknowledged in the Naval Strategic Plans, but second to the need to counter domestic insurgencies and their sources of income. As with the other branches of the Colombian military, the actual value of international cooperation was mainly seen in the reception of security assistance rather than providing security in the international arena.

This trend, however, changed in 2008 with successes the security forces achieved against the insurgencies within the country. By 2009, the Ministry of Defense (MinDefensa) acknowledged the increasing value of the capabilities Colombian security forces gained in the fight against drug traffickers and guerrillas and its potential to offer solutions to similarly crisis-ridden countries worldwide. This has led to the acknowledgement that the Colombian Navy is not only a recipient of military aid, but also a net security provider and exporter. This has spurred its maritime ambitions. Through the Plan Estratégico Naval 2015-2018 (Naval Strategic Plan 2015-2018) and the Plan Naval de Desarrollo 2030 (Naval Development Plan 2030 or NDP 2030), the navy articulated for the first time the purpose of consolidating itself as a “medium regional force projection navy.” This plan, among other changes, devised a vision of the navy able to exert defense diplomacy, to take part in peacekeeping missions, and to export security in the form of training courses utilizing experience earned in longstanding internal conflicts against insurgencies.

Along with the continuing formulation of security and foreign policy, the Colombian Navy takes part in international naval exercises to signal its willingness to interact in multilateral security fora. Colombia has participated in in multinational exercises such as SIFOREX, UNITAS, RIMPAC, TRADEWINDS, and PANAMAX for years. The deployment of the offshore patrol vessel 7 de Agosto to the Horn of Africa to support the multinational force Atalanta and NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield between 2015 and 2016 (although not officially part of it) marked a turning point. These deployments constituted a robust step to qualify Colombia as a NATO “Global Partner” in 2018 and establish the country as a reliable partner capable of providing counterterrorism and maritime security support.

Sailors from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam handle mooring lines from the Colombian navy corvette ARC Narino (CM-55) during its arrival for a scheduled port visit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tiarra Fulgham/Released)

Many of these transformations can also be understood as the result of sustained investment of U.S. security and economic aid. Since the late 1990s, plans such as Plan Colombia, now renamed Paz Colombia (Colombia Peace) and most recently Colombia Crece, (U.S.-Colombia Growth Initiative) this year have helped to train and modernize the military forces to the point of being considered a success story, whose results should and can be replicated in other parts of the region and the world. In this sense, Colombia stands as a reliable regional actor for U.S. foreign policy to provide security solutions in both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. However, such trends are not exempt from challenges and strategic uncertainty in the short and medium term.

Between Big Ambitions and Serious Drawbacks: Major Combat Vessels  

Colombia’s expansive ambition to assert itself as a capable regional security actor also meant a reevaluation of current and future naval assets. Since 2015, the Plan Orion, Plan Puente, and Plan Faro (Plans Orion, Bridge and Lighthouse) intended to replace Colombia’s aging major ships. As a result, the navy acquired two second-hand German Type 206A submarines from the German Navy in 2012 to replace the old, Italian SX-506 submarines, and modernized the two existent Type 209/1200 submarines. Additionally, it built three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) in Colombia with a license provided by the German shipyard Fassmer. Plan Faro also initiated what many consider the “crown jewel” of the Colombian Navy: the PES program.

The PES program stands for Plataforma Estratégica de Superficie (Strategic Surface Platform). It calls for the construction of up to eight frigates displacing 5,000 tons to replace the four German-made frigates of the Almirante Padilla class (FS 1500 – Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, Kiel) currently in service.

However, some of these plans have suffered increasing delays. Only three out of four OPVs have been built and the PES project has reduced its scope and suffered delays despite only having reached the design phase. As a consequence, the new frigates projected will be limited to about 3,500 tons and their number will be reduced to only five vessels. They are no longer going to be built by 2027 or 2028 and no new date has been set. By 2019, there was no progress in the development of the PES project, as stated in COTECMAR’s 2019 report. So far the navy has put into service a donated South Korean corvette and declared the need to buy two second-hand frigates to fill the created gap. Among the possible candidates are Australian, Spanish, British Type 23, and German Bremen-Class (F-122) frigates. Any decision concerning the future selected vessels should take place next year, according to informed voices in Colombia close to the procurement process.

As stated in the Plan de Desarollo Naval 2042 (Naval Development Plan 2042 or NDP 2042) released earlier this year, the navy placed the PES program under the so-called PROCYON program. PROCYON (Fleet Building and Optimization Plan) also includes the PLOTEOS program which calls for the replacement of the four submarines in the silent fleet, the building of a logistics support ship, four additional patrol vessels, two amphibious transport docks, and at least one new maritime patrol airplane.

Vital to the success of these platforms is the growing shipyard industry and particularly COTECMAR (Science and Technology Corporation for the Development of Naval, Maritime and Riverine Industry), the state-owned shipyard company. The experience collected by the local maritime industry in the building of locally-designed riverine and seaworthy vessels contributes to work on the planned frigates and other major combatants. In Colombia, COTECMAR built Patrulleras de Apoyo Fluvial (Riverine Support Patrol Ships or PAF) type ships. The PAFs are domestically designed and used by the Colombian Marines for inshore security on the rivers and inland waters of Colombia, providing a cost-efficient solution for marines in domestic security operations.

The positive experiences earned at home with the PAFs helped raise the ambitions and scale of naval shipbuilding. In this sense, COTECMAR continued through the construction of coastal patrol vessels (CPV), three already-in-duty offshore patrol vessels (OPV) built between 2008 and 2017, and more recently an oceanographic vessel with Antarctic seagoing capabilities, as well as five Golfo de Tribugá class amphibious landing crafts (680 tons each). The Golfo de Tribugá class is particularly relevant, as it constitutes an international success for the Colombian shipyard industry. As important as the domestic market is, COTECMAR actively seeks to create new sources of revenue by selling crafts for dual-use, i.e. for civil and military purposes. Strategic partners such as Central American states procured amphibious landing crafts, which can be used for military operations or humanitarian aid relief operations. In 2019 and 2017, COTECMAR delivered two intercepting speed boats (Multi-Mission Interceptor 35 or MMI 35) used to fight drug trafficking and a logistics support vessel to the Honduran Naval Force for $13.5 million, as already discussed by Alejandro Wilder Sánchez on CIMSEC. A similar support vessel was sold to the Guatemalan Navy (Armada de Guatemala) for $11.7 million in 2019.

Despite these modest achievements, it remains to be seen whether the national industry will take root and be competitive in the coming years against well-established international shipyards. Additionally, and as Sánchez also pointed out, the low volume of orders from international markets puts Latin-American shipyards in dire need of establishing a brand. For the Colombian case this means that there is still a long way to go before COTECMAR and Colombian maritime ambitions can be credible actors in the region capable of building frigates. In consonance with the imperatives of such long-termed planning, the National Development Plan uses a timeframe of 20 years or five presidential administrations to replace its main surface and submarine vessels.

Budgetary Issues, Navy Size, and Security Cooperation

A more pressing difficulty in putting into motion the plans of constructing new platforms lies in the growing budgetary issues MinDefensa has faced in the last years. Although the Colombian budget for security and defense is the second largest in Latin America after Brazil’s at $10.8 billion (2019), military spending for procurement is dwindling. In fact, $466 million or about 4.3 percent of the defense budget was allocated for acquiring military hardware in 2019. In comparison, MinDefensa still allocated 9.1 percent to procurement in 2011, a number that diminished to 5 percent by 2017, according to a report on defense and security spending by the National Office of the Inspector General. For 2020, the budget for procurement further shrank to 2.9 percent.

The navy naturally does not escape this trend. While its budget has been relatively stable at between 6 percent and 7 percent of defense spending in Colombia, the share of procurement has steadily decreased as well. According to the NDP 2042, the navy invested 19 percent in the acquisition and replacement of new material in 2011. By 2019, that number had decreased to 10 percent. The bulk of navy spending is for personnel. During the same timeframe it grew from 57 percent to 69 percent. For the Armada Nacional, increased spending on personnel means fewer resources for procurement and other vital investments, which enable the projection of capabilities in the region.

Most worrisome is the fact that the navy does not seem to seriously tackle this issue in the NDP 2042. The institution puts its hopes in a budget it anticipates will increase in the future and which will result in a more competitive maritime market than the navy is currently boosting. The navy defines itself as a force, which will reduce its personnel spending by about 50 percent by 2042 without detailing how it plans to cut back and prioritize other items in the coming years. In practical terms, the navy expects the political leadership to increase its budget to put in motion the needed investments at some point in the future. Nevertheless, an economy hit with a worldwide pandemic and a resulting 15.7 percent loss in GDP makes that less than likely in the coming years.

Instead of pressing for a larger budget, it would make sense to reconsider the size and purpose of the Colombian Marine Corps, which makes up the bulk of the Colombian Navy. Traditionally used to combat insurgents, criminal organizations, and employed to extend the state’s reach in the most remote areas, the Colombian Marines do not possess relevant coastal defense capabilities or the required capabilities for amphibious power projection. When compared to similar forces in the region the Colombian Marine Corps is clearly oversized. According to a recent chapter in The Military Balance journal, the navy relies on a force of 56,400 men and women, while the Colombian Marines amount to almost half of that number: 22,250, which is larger than equivalent units such as the Brazilian (16,000) or the Mexican Marines (21,500). Offsetting this large size however is the fact that that the Colombian Navy does not use junior enlisted personnel and relies on marine conscripts for those jobs, inflating the size of the marine corps relative to the navy.

Although Colombian Marines also have the responsibility for securing all of Colombia’s considerable river system, which has over 18,000 kilometers of navigable waterways, many of their responsibilities overlap with those of the Colombian National Police and face the need to change with a transformation in domestic security. This naturally belongs to a larger discussion about the roles of the security forces after the 2016 peace agreement. Despite its disproportionate size, there is no plan to downsize the amphibious branches in the coming 20 years. The NDP 2042 mentions no restructuring other than increasing urgent capabilities.

Reducing the size of the naval infantry has the potential to free up valuable resources, which could be used to equip the force with specialized capabilities and deploy it to peacekeeping missions. Strengthening projects such as the building of two amphibious ships (LPDs) and the navy’s CENCOPAZ (Training Center for Peacekeeping) is a clear step in the right direction. CENCOPAZ co-leads the training of peacekeepers in Colombia and constitutes one of those national centers in which the Colombian security forces train to share their know-how in riverine operations, humanitarian de-mining, and anti-kidnapping.

Despite the progress in adapting the navy for more intense international cooperation, there are concerning trends it should seriously address. The projected LPDs are still in their conceptual stage and do not have the priority the PES program enjoys. Even with Colombia cooperating with NATO as a “Global Partner” as military-political enticement for international cooperation, plans to send navy peacekeepers as part of UN or NATO missions have seen little progress. Between 2014 and December 2019, MinDefensa reports 858 “certified soldiers” for peacekeeping operations out of 5,000 it originally planned to put through the training. The navy offers a slightly different number: in its 2015-2018 management report it states that CENCOPAZ trained 909 military, police, and civilian members in different courses for UN peacekeeping missions between 2015 and 2018, and points out that 687 (76 percent) come from the navy.

A Sober Look at the Future

The development of the Colombian Navy in the last decade has revealed an assertive regional naval force with the potential to evolve into a provider of regional security. This vision has materialized under the purpose of becoming a “medium regional force projection navy” with the right tools to exert sea control and cooperate with others to share what the Colombian military has learned during its historical fight against insurgencies and criminals.

All of this, however, seems to be at risk. There are at least three caveats to Colombian ambitions for international cooperation that are manifesting themselves in the navy. First, a well-structured procurement program intended to replace key combatants like frigates, has lost momentum. Second, naval defense spending leaves little leeway for the navy since manpower costs are hampering the ability to acquire the right tools to fulfill institutional missions. This, thirdly, intimately relates to the disproportionate size of the Colombian Marine Corps. They also have the potential to project the security solutions against terrorism and drug trafficking the national military is proud of, but can only be effective if they decrease in size.

In this context, the Armada Nacional should start thinking more about creating a slimmer and more effective navy in the face of political uncertainty, low budgets, and probably a long-lasting pandemic in Latin America. Otherwise, it may compromise its future of securing peace through international cooperation. 

Rafael Uribe Neira graduated in Juny 2020 with distinction from M.A. Peace and Conflict Studies at the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany. He focuses his research on civil-military relations, narratives in security aid, and lots of pop culture. Since his time as a research assistant at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) in the fall of 2018 and as an intern at the UN in Colombia in Winter 2018/2019, he developed a keen interest in the Caribbean and its global ties. Follow him on Twitter @RafaelUribeN.

Featured Image: Colombian Marines board an amphibious assault vehicle at the beach in Ancon, Peru, July 16, 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)

Assessing Colombia’s Recent Naval Platform Delivery to Honduras

The Southern Tide

Written by W. 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 W. Alejandro Sanchez

Colombia Delivers Vessel for Honduran Navy

On 4 November, the Honduran Navy (Fuerzas Naval de Honduras: FNH) received a brand new multipurpose vessel, FNH Gracias a Dios. What makes this delivery significant is that the platform was constructed by a Colombian company, Corporación de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo de la Industria Naval Marítima y Fluvial (COTECMAR). Hence, this deal is important as it serves as an example of a Latin American military industry successfully selling platforms to another regional state.

This commentary is a continuation of an August 2016 essay by the author for CIMSEC, titled “The Rise of the Latin American Shipyard,” which discussed regional shipyards and their attempts to sell their platforms to international clients.

The Deal

Gracias a Dios was delivered fairly quickly, as the Honduran and Colombian governments signed a contract on 21 November 2016. The platform is a Short Range Logistic Support Ship (Buque de Apoyo Logístico – Cabotaje: BAL-C), it measures 49 meters, has a max speed of 9 kts and can transport up to 120 tons of cargo. The vessel has a ramp and a hydraulic crane so it does need a port to unload its cargo. Construction was carried out by the aforementioned Colombian company COTECMAR, in its facilities in Cartagena. Apart from assembling the vessel, COTECMAR trained 17 Honduran naval personnel, while three Honduran naval officers will study in the Colombian Navy’s institute of higher education, Escuela Naval Almirante Padilla, as part of the Tegucigalpa-Bogota deal, worth USD$ 13.5 million.

Gracias a Dios will be utilized by the Honduran naval force for coastal operations including relief support after natural disasters. The Honduran government and media in general have applauded the new asset; for example the daily La Tribuna explained that “this is a multipurpose vessel, its main missions will be to transport food, fuel and machinery to inaccessible areas in Honduras.” The newspaper also quoted the commander of Gracias a Dios, Lieutenant Israel Onil Sánchez, who explained that the vessel can be at sea up to 40-45 days. Meanwhile, President Juan Orlando Hernández  highlighted how the vessel can transport up to four speedboats, which will help combat drug trafficking across Honduras’ waters.

There are now five BAL-Cs in operation: Colombia operates four – two in its Pacific fleet and two for the Caribbean fleet – in addition to one for the Honduran Navy.

The Significance

The significance of the Colombia-Honduras deal should not be understated. As a general rule, Latin American or Caribbean navies acquire new naval platforms from extra-regional suppliers, be them governments (e.g. the U.S) or shipyards (e.g. Damen Group). Hence, this deal is a sort of modern milestone since it is between two regional nations with a Latin American company being the supplier. (It is worth noting that COTECMAR has previously sold riverine patrol boats to Brazil.)

The successful delivery of Gracias a Dios has encouraged COTECMAR to be more aggressive in order to acquire new foreign clients. A recent report by IHS Jane’s explains that the company is now looking at countries like Peru, the United Arab Emirates, and landlocked Paraguay as potential customers – and according to Jane’s negotiations with Lima and Asuncion are advanced. Lima’s interest in these platforms is understandable, as Peruvian ships, like the BAP Eten, were involved in support operations recently, when torrential rains affected the country’s northern regions earlier this year.

BAP Eten (La Republica)

Additionally, it will be important to monitor other Latin American shipyards, like Argentina’s Rio Santiago, Chile’s ASMAR, Ecuador’s ASTINAVE, or Peru’s SIMA as these entities are also constructing platforms for their respective navies, but could also attempt to export them. When it comes to Mexico for example, ASTIMAR has constructed 10 Tenochtitlan-class coastal patrol vessels for the Mexican Navy.

Nevertheless, this is unlikely to occur. In an interview with the author, Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence at Riskop and Non-Resident Fellow at the Mexican Navy Institute for Strategic Research, explained that,

“Currently, there are no concrete plans to build OPVs or Coastal Patrol Vessels for any country in the region. Some years ago, some Central American Navies showed interest in acquiring the Mexican-made Oaxaca-class OPVs. But let’s be honest, given the Mexican Navy’s small budget, our shipyards can only concentrate on fulfilling the MX Navy’s operational requirements. That is certainly a shame, since the Oaxaca Class OPVs are well-proven, highly capable vessels for maritime security-oriented navies.”

It is important to mention the geopolitical ramifications of the Gracias a Dios deal. The vessel and other initiatives as part of the agreement will inevitably bring the Honduran and Colombian navies closer, and joint naval exercises will probably occur in the near future.  This is important because of one factor: Nicaragua. The Central American nation has taken Colombia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) due to a maritime border dispute over Bogota-controlled islands and territory in the Caribbean. ICJ rulings in 2016 were generally regarded as very favorable towards Managua, but the two sides have returned to the Court for subsequent demands.

From this perspective, it makes sense that Bogota is approaching Tegucigalpa via defense-related initiatives, as this will serve to counterbalance Managua’s Caribbean ambitions. While armed conflict between Colombia and Nicaragua is extremely unlikely, Bogota can always benefit from having additional allies among states that border the Caribbean and Nicaragua itself.

Final Thoughts

It would be far-fetched to suggest that the recent Colombia-Honduras deal for a logistics vessel will dramatically change the dynamics of Latin American and Caribbean sales regarding naval platforms. Without a doubt, regional navies will continue to look to extra-regional suppliers, including more experienced shipyards, for new (or refurbished) vessels. This is particularly true for more complex platforms such as submarines (Brazil’s submarine program notwithstanding). Moreover, as Mr. Ehrlich mentions, apart from competition, the other main obstacle for these shipyards to grow is lack of political support for these entities.

With that said, the COTECMAR-FNH deal does set an important precedent, as navies with limited defense budgets in Latin America and the Caribbean may start turning to their immediate neighbors regarding the acquisition of new platforms instead of investing in more expensive assets from more distant suppliers.

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

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: Gracias a Dios logistics ship. (Cotecmar)

Narco Submarines: A Problem That Will Not Sink

The Southern Tide

Written by W. 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 W. 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.

W. Alejandro Sanchez 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.

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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

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