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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 Demobilization of Latin America’s Only Carrier: Brazil’s NAe Sao Paulo

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 W. Alejandro Sanchez

On 14 February, the Brazilian Navy announced that it will suspend the modernization of carrier NAe Sao Paulo (A12) and commence its demobilization and subsequent decommissioning. Oddly, the news is simultaneously surprising and unsurprising at the same time. The Brazilian Navy regarded the extension of the carrier’s operational life as one of its priorities, however, ongoing technical difficulties and rising costs have made it more feasible to get rid of it than to extend its service life. As Brazil is the only Latin American country that possesses an aircraft carrier, its decommissioning must be properly discussed in terms of regional geopolitics.

A Brief History

Brazil has possessed two carriers: the first one was NAe Minas Gerais (A11), a Colossus-class vessel that served in the Brazilian Navy from 1960 to 2001. The vessel, formerly known as HMS Vengeance (R71), was constructed by the United Kingdom during World War II and sold to the South American nation in 1956.

Minas Gerais was replaced by Sao Paulo, a Clemencau-type French carrier formerly known as Foch (F99). The vessel was constructed in the late 1950s and Brazil purchased it in 2000 in a deal reportedly worth USD 12 million; it arrived in the country in 2001. Sao Paulo reportedly displaces 32,800 thousand tons, is 265 meters in length, and its air wing is constituted of A-4 Skyhawk aircraft. Sao Paulo was an important component in the training of Brazil’s naval pilots, and it also participated in exercises with countries like Argentina. However, it also spent time docked undergoing repairs and upgrades.

The French shipyard Direction dês Constructions Navales et Services (DCNS) announced in December 2013 that it had “performed a ship check on the forward catapult” of Sao Paulo. On November 2015, IHS Jane’s reported that cracks had been found in the hull of the carrier, but the Brazilian Navy denied the report. Unfortunately, there were also deadly accidents aboard the platform: a May 2004 fire in the engine room killed three crew members. A second fire on February 2012 killed sailor Carlos Alexandre dos Santos Oliveira.

Demobilization Plans

The Navy’s decision to demobilize the platform is a slight surprise to the author of this commentary, who just this past September quoted the Brazilian Navy’s commander saying otherwise. At the time, the author asked Admiral Eduardo Leal Ferreira, commander of the Brazilian Navy, a question about Sao Paulo’s future at an on-the-record event at the National Bureau of Asian Research on 26 September, 2016. The Admiral explained that “we are working with DCNS to find a technical solution to have its propulsion system renewed.” Moreover, the Admiral listed the carrier as the third of the navy’s priorities, after the submarine program (PROSUB) and the construction of the Tamandare-class corvettes. What a difference a few months can make.

The Brazilian Navy’s communiqué explains the reasoning behind the decision to demobilize the carrier: upgrading it signifies “a high financial investment, there are technical issues and [the process will] require an extended period [of time].” The modernization process apparently could have taken a decade, by which time the AF-1 group would have to be retired, making it necessary to buy a new air wing suitable for the old ship. In an e-mail interview with this author, Professor Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and assistant professor at the department of international relations of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, adds that “the explanation for this decision is the deep financial crisis that the Brazilian government is facing, with austerity measures being implemented as well as the expense cuts in many public policies.” In other words, given the scarce use of Sao Paulo and the expensive requirements needed to extend its operational life into the late 2030s, it is not surprising that the platform is being scrapped.  According to the Navy, the process will require three years.

With that said, the Brazilian Navy is already looking past Sao Paulo and maintains the aim of having a carrier in its fleet. The aforementioned 14 February communiqué explains that a new carrier remains the Navy’s third priority after PROSUB and the corvettes as “obtaining a new carrier will be substantially cheaper than modernizing Sao Paulo.”

This statement raises questions like: will Brasilia once again acquired a used platform, or will it embark on the more ambitious, but probably more costly, goal of manufacturing a new one? In recent years there have been occasional reports that DCNS has offered its PA2/CVF carrier project to Brazil to eventually replace Sao Paulo. We will have to wait and see how the Navy’s medium- and long-term plans are affected by recent developments. It is likely that Sao Paulo will be replaced eventually since, as Professor Santoro explains, “the importance of a carrier to Brazil has been highlighted in every major policy document of the Armed Forces, such as the National Defence Strategy.”

A Carrier-less Brazil and Latin America?

In previous CIMSEC analyses (e.g. How Peaceful is the South Atlantic?) the author discussed the generally calm South Atlantic geopolitics, which can be expanded to calm Latin American and Caribbean in general. There certainly are still some maritime border disputes and occasional incidents, but the region has been free of inter-state warfare for decades (the last regional war with a maritime theater of operations was the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War). Moreover, Brazil enjoys cordial relations with its neighbors, hence the Brazilian Navy probably does not require a carrier to protect its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Nevertheless, the Brazilian Navy and several scholars and experts do believe in the necessity of having an aircraft carrier. “Brazil has thousands of miles of coastline, major offshore oil reserves, and more of 90 percent of its foreign trade comes from the sea, hence a carrier is an important tool for naval and foreign policy, as it serves both as a deterrent and helps naval forces in the open sea, among other activities,” Professor Santoro notes.  Additionally, a carrier would help Brazil’s power projection, demonstrating to the world that it has a blue water navy.

The Sao Paulo’s usefulness would likely be different if it had proved to be a global asset. For example, Sao Paulo could have been deployed to peacekeeping missions that Brazil participates in, such as the UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) or the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The platform would have been a welcomed addition to the multinational humanitarian operations in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

The Brazilian Navy carrier NAe Sao Paulo (Wikimedia Commons)

As previously mentioned, Brazil is the only Latin American that has a carrier nowadays. The only other regional country to possess one was neighboring Argentina: the ARA Independencia (V1) and then the ARA 25 de Mayo (V2), a Colossus-class carrier decommissioned in 1997. In fact, other Latin American navies are turning to smaller platforms, particularly oceanic patrol vessels (OPVs) given their maritime security challenges.

Should Brazil eventually acquire a new carrier, this will hardly affect regional geopolitics. Brasilia enjoys cordial relations with its immediate neighbors and the Western Hemisphere in general. This is best exemplified by the fact that the PROSUB project, which includes constructing a nuclear-powered submarine, has not triggered a regional arms race to deter an “imperialist” Brazil.

Final Thoughts

By the end of the decade, carrier Sao Paulo’s time in the Brazilian Navy will come to an end, leaving behind a lackluster record. The vessel spent too much time in port undergoing repairs, and when it was out at sea, it was for standard training missions, never participating in a defining operation that validated its acquisition. Moreover, Brazil likely does not need a carrier to protect its EEZ from neighboring nations, Latin American geopolitics being what they are, as compared to a large fleet of OPVs (the Tamandare corvettes will probably fulfill this role). Nevertheless, Brazilian experts, as well as the Navy, do regard the carrier as an important component of their maritime defense system as well as a critical platform to project Brazilian naval power.

Should Brazil eventually obtain a new carrier, this hypothetical platform should participate in multinational naval operations, such as Operation Atalanta in the Horn of Africa to combat piracy. The carrier could be utilized as a launching pad and an at-sea command center for humanitarian missions akin to the Operation Unified Assistance, in which the Carrier Strike Group Nine, led by U.S. carrier Abraham Lincoln, helped Asia Pacific nations after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In other words, if the Brazilian Navy continues to regard a new carrier as a priority, while arguably unnecessary for traditional defense purposes, such a platform can be utilized for various helpful initiatives around the globe.

 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 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: View of the forward flight deck of the Brazilian aircraft carrier Saõ Paulo (A12), in 2003. Four McDonnell Douglas AF-1 (A-4) Skyhawk fighters and an Argentine navy Grumman S-2T Tracker are visible. (U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News September-October 200)

Exponaval 2016 and Latin America’s Arms Fairs

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 W. Alejandro Sanchez

Chile organized the 10th Exponaval exhibition from 29 November – 2 December. The arms fair brought dozens of defense companies to northern Chile, where they showcased their latest maritime defense technology with the hope of securing new contracts. Arms fairs are a common event in the defense industry and they regularly take place in locations across the world, hence the success of Exponaval is particularly relevant as it will help Chile, and Latin America, cement its place in the global arms fair circuit.

Exponaval 2016

The Chilean government and Navy give great importance to Exponaval (full name Exhibición y Conferencia Internacional Naval y Marítima para Latinoamérica) as exemplified by the participation of President Michelle Bachelet, who gave a speech on 29 November to officially open the arms fair. The country’s defense minister and military authorities were also present. Unsurprisingly, during her speech, President Bachelet took a moment to praise her nation’s state-run shipyard Astilleros de la Marina (ASMAR) as it is constructing, with support from the Canadian company Vard, a new ice breaker for the Navy, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018. Exponaval 2016 was held at the at the Concon naval base in Viña del Mar, northern Chile. It is also important to note that the recent arms fair was actually a two in one event, as  the 10th Exponaval was also the 5th Trans-Port (full name, Exhibición de la Industria Marítima Portuaria para Latinoamérica), an exhibit of port industries in Latin America.

President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, delivers remarks at Exponaval 2016 (Exponaval photo)

As for the type of technology that was exhibited, some examples include Russia’s Rosoboronexport, which displayed “Project 12150 Mangust fast patrol boats, the Varshavyanka-class (Project 636) submarines and Amur 1650 class submarines among other vehicles.” A number of British companies were also present, as Mercopress news agency explains that “companies exhibiting on the Department of Trade’s Defence and Security Organisation’s stand include: Leafield, SEA, MOD Disposals Agency and Ultra Electronics. Other UK companies exhibiting include BAE Systems, MBDA, Qinetiq, Kelvin Hughes, Lloyds Register and Thales.”

Additionally, there were also important developments among Latin American maritime defense industries. Case in point, a representative from Colombia’s Corporación de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo de la Industria Naval Marítima y Fluvial (COTECMAR) told the defense news agency IHS Jane’s that “a joint programme between Brazil, Colombia, and Peru to develop a new river patrol ship is now under way, with design work expected to conclude in the second half of 2017.” The project dates back to 2015, but it is an important development that there is already a (still somewhat distant) deadline for the completion of the design.

Apart from the sales booths, there were several technical presentations via which experts shared their knowledge. According to Exponaval, the presentations included representatives from renowned defense companies like Navantia, MBDA Missile Systems, SAAB Group as well as Chile’s ASMAR.

Booth of Chilean state-owned shipyard ASMAR (Exponaval 2016 photo)

Even more, the Chilean Navy had  prominent participation in the fair, as it carried out exercises for the audience. This included a simulation in Valparaiso Bay of a vessel carrying radioactive material that is taken over by terrorists, where Chilean naval forces demonstrated how they would react to this hypothetical crisis.

Other Latin American Arms Fairs

It is worth noting that other Latin American countries also have arms fairs, though Exponaval stands out as it focuses on maritime defense technology. For example, Chile organizes another arms fair for aerial technology, the FIDAE-International Air & Space Fair (Feria Internacional del Aire y del Espacio). As for other regional states, Brazil organizes the LAAD Security–Feira Internacional de Segurança Pública e Corporativa (International Fair of Public and Corporate Security); Colombia has the Expodefensa International Fair of Defense and Security (Feria Internacional de Defensa y Seguridad); while Peru organizes the SITDEF–International Show for Defense Technology and Disaster Prevention (Salon Internacional de Tecnologia para la Defensa y Prevencion de Desastres).

Like with Exponaval, other governments and militaries provide support for these fairs in their respective nations. For example, while Exponaval 2016 took place at the Concon naval base, SITDEF 2017 will reportedly be held at the Peruvian Army’s headquarters in Lima.

Significance

What is the importance of Latin America organizing arms fairs? This author would argue that the main objective is to demonstrate that Latin America should not be regarded as a sole importer of military technology, but also a producer and a “showcase center” where deals can be made. President Bachelet voiced a similar idea in her welcome message as she stressed how this arms fair “allows a meeting between [suppliers] from the naval defense and maritime industry with official delegations from Latin American navies and the port agencies from other countries.”

In a 22 August commentary for CIMSEC entitled “The Rise of the Latin American Shipyard” the author discussed how various Latin American nations are constructing their own naval platforms and are even attempting to sell them to foreign customers. Since said commentary was published there have been new developments in the region: Colombia’s COTECMAR has signed a contract with Honduras and another one with Panama for logistic multipurpose vessels; Peru’s Servicios Industriales de la Marina (SIMA) has reached an agreement with Bolivia to sell its navy a riverine hospital ship; finally Ecuador’s shipyard Astilleros Navales Ecuatorianos (ASTINAVE) on 10 November “announced it is to construct three passenger boats for the Panama Canal Authority.”

Hence, regional arms fairs are particularly important for Latin American defense industries as they they allow for opportunity to showcase their products to regional navies and international firms in order to attract future sales. The aforementioned deals by ASTINAVE, COTECMAR and SIMA highlight that intra-regional naval platforms sales are already happening, and future arms fairs will benefit these companies in their eternal quest for new customers; hence it should not come as a surprise that SIMA and COTECMAR were present in Exponaval.

This brings us to the obvious question: to what extent do the exhibitions and meetings made during these arms fairs, such as Exponaval, result in actual contracts? Exponaval naturally summarized the recent fair as a success, explaining how over 140 company experts gave presentations, while putting the number of attendees at over nine thousand visits. Additionally, regional navies deployed some of their platforms, including Argentina’s corvette Robinson; Brazil’s Niteroi-class frigate Constitucion; Mexico’s patrol vessel Centenario de la Revolución; while the United Kingdom deployed the frigate HMS Portland and the tanker RFA Gold Rover.

As for contracts, Exponaval’s declared in a statement that deals were made for more than USD $800 million, but “this amount is related to the projects that the participating navies have in development for the next few years.” Hence, we will have to wait and see if in the coming months announcements are made about contracts between Latin American navies and maritime defense companies, and whether they can be traced back to Exponaval 2016.

Final Thoughts

The Exponaval 2016 arms fair which recently took place in northern Chile should be regarded as a success for local government and maritime forces. It was reportedly well-structured, with over a hundred companies showcasing their maritime defense products, it hosted thousands of visitors, and even featured visiting warships from friendly nations. Santiago also demonstrated the accomplishments of its state-run shipyard ASMAR as well as the professionalism of its naval forces. Ultimately, we will have to wait to see if, indeed, Exponaval (not to mention other Latin American defense fairs) can reliably serve as a place where suppliers and customers can meet and ultimately reach sales agreements.

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 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: Model submarine at Exponaval 2016 (Exponaval 2016 photo)

The Status of Brazil’s Ambitious PROSUB Program

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 W. Alejandro Sanchez

In spite of Brazil’s political crisis, the Brazilian Navy has continued with its ambitious project of domestically constructing a new fleet of submarines, including a nuclear-powered platform. The first Scorpène-class submarine is expected to be launched in 2018, an important development though a couple of years behind schedule. However, the question remains: does Brazil require today, or will it require in the foreseeable future, an advanced submarine fleet?

The PROSUB Program

A 2009 contract between the Brazilian Navy and French conglomerate DCNS “covers the design, production, and technology transfer required for four Scorpène-class conventional submarines, and the design assistance and production of the non-nuclear part of the first Brazilian nuclear powered submarine, including support for construction of a naval base and a naval construction site.” This contract was the result of a defense agreement signed in 2008 by then-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his French counterpart, then-President Nikolas Sarkozy. This project is known as the Submarine Development Program (Programa de Desarrollo de Submarinos; PROSUB).

At the time of this writing, SBR-1 Riachuelo (S-40) is nearing completion as it is expected to be launched in 2018 and delivered to the Navy in 2020. The next submarine, SBR-2 Humaitá, will be launched in 2020, while SBR-3 Tonelero (S-42) and SBR-4 Angostura (S-43) are scheduled to be completed by the early 2020s.

The first two S-BR boats in the assembly hall. (PROSUB photo)
The first two S-BR boats in the assembly hall. (PROSUB photo)

It is worth stressing that the Brazilian Navy is particularly interested in learning how to manufacture the submarines domestically, rather than relying on DCNS to construct and assemble the submarines abroad. For example, in July, the Brazilian company Nuclebras Heavy Equipment (Nuclebrás Equipamentos Pesados; NUCLEP) delivered the stern section of Humaitá to Itaguaí Construções Navais (ICN) which is assembling the platform in Rio de Janeiro. According to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, “the submarine’s hull has been divided into five sections and to date … four sections of SBR 2 [have been delivered]. The final one is scheduled to be delivered in November.”

As for the nuclear submarine SN-BR Alvaro Alberto (SN-10), the Brazilian Navy’s PROSUB webpage reports that it is still in the developmental phase and that actual construction will commence in 2017 and be completed by 2025. “The transfer [of the submarine] to the Navy is expected to take in 2027,” the Navy explains.

A word should be said about the status of the shipyard, also part of PROSUB, since the Navy wants the capacity to construct more of these platforms in the future. To this end, a 750,000 square meter complex is under construction in the municipality of Itaguaí (Rio de Janeiro). In 2013, the Metal Structures Manufacturing Unit (Unidade de Fabricação de Estruturas Metálicas; UFEM) was inaugurated, with then-President Dilma Rousseff in attendance. Among other tasks, UFEM will manufacture the metal hull structures of the platforms.

The DCNS and Other Issues

It is necessary to highlight that the construction of these platforms has not been a smooth ride. A 1 March 2013 article by Reuters reported that “the first conventional submarine [will be completed] in 2015 and the nuclear-powered submarine will be commissioned in 2023 and enter operation in 2025, the Brazilian Navy said in a statement.” The timetable was perhaps too ambitious as the first submarine Riachuelo is now scheduled to be launched in 2018, three years later than originally reported. Similarly, the nuclear platform is now expected to be ready by 2025, not 2023. Part of the reason for the delay has to do with the country’s recent economic crisis which has affected the budget of governmental agencies, including defense.

Due to space considerations, we cannot provide a full account of Brazil’s political crisis over the past year with regards to the Lava Jato revelations. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, which is involved in PROSUB via its ICN unit, has been implicated in the scandal. (Ret.) Admiral Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, considered the father of Brazil’s nuclear program and a major supporter of the nuclear submarine (see his biography in Togzhan Kassenova’s commentary Turbulent Times for Brazil’s Nuclear Projects) has also been implicated in illicit activities. He was sentenced to 43 years in prison this past August for corruption and money-laundering. While PROSUB itself has survived the recent crises, these scandals raise the question whether there will be new allegations of illegal activities surrounding the construction of these platforms in the near future.

The other problem with PROSUB is that sensitive information about the Scorpène-class subs may be out in the open as DCNS has suffered a massive intelligence leak. This past August, the Australian daily The Australian published documents which “detail the secret combat capability of six Scorpène-class submarines that French shipbuilder DCNS has designed for the Indian Navy.” According to reports, the DCNS leak includes more than 22,000 pages about the Indian platforms.

Regarding this incident, Brazilian Rear Admiral Flavio Augusto Viana published a letter stating that “the Brazilian submarines were designed along specifications made by the Brazilian Navy, which means that there are differences between our submarines and those of other countries.” Therefore, the Brazilian Navy, “does not foresee any impact on the construction of the SBR.” The author is not qualified to compare the Brazilian and Indian Scorpène-class subs, however it is likely that there are some general similarities between the two models.

tun_razak
Scorpène-class Malaysian Navy submarine Tun Razak in the shipyard of Navantia-Cartagena (Spain) a few days prior to its delivery. (Wikimedia Commons)

At this point it is worth remembering the words of Admiral Eduardo Leal Ferreira, commander of the Brazilian Navy, who spoke at a recent 26 September event entitled “Addressing Challenges in the Maritime Commons” at the National Bureau of Asian Research. An article written by the author for IHS Jane’s Defense, quotes Admiral Ferreira stating that the PROSUB program is the Navy’s main priority, followed by upgrading the fleet’s frigates, and then repairing the Sao Paulo(A-12) carrier. In other words, PROSUB, in spite of delays, budget issues and other incidents, will continue.

Discussion

Given that PROSUB is well underway and by next decade we will see a modern, domestically constructed, Brazilian submarine flee. The question is: why does Brazil need these platforms?

The standard reason is for Brazil to monitor and protect its 7,500 kilometers of coastline and vast maritime territory, including its natural resources (the discovery of underwater oil reserves is an often-mentioned fact), from domestic and foreign threats. In his remarks for NBAR, Admiral Ferreira added that the Atlantic Ocean is an open ocean, not a closed sea, so Brazil requires a blue water navy, hence the importance of the submarine and aircraft carrier program. The admiral also highlighted the necessity to have freedom of navigation, implying a blue water navy is necessary, “so when there are problems in the South China Sea or the East China Sea or wherever, we won’t be affected.”

This author argues that Brazil does not have any major inter-state issues that would make the submarines, a platform suitable for conventional warfare, necessary. The reality of South American geopolitics is that Brazil’s relations with its 10 neighbors, including one-time competitor Argentina, remain quite cordial. Hence, the possibility that a regional state would attempt to aggressively take control of part of Brazil’s exclusive economy zone is too remote to realistically contemplate.

Additionally, while Brazil has pursued the submarine program (among other platform acquisition projects), this has not sparked a regional arms race for fear of an “imperialist” Brasilia trying to take over a neighbor’s territory. In other words, regional states do not appear threatened by Brazil’s PROSUB program, highlighting the current status of regional geopolitics and the general success of confidence building mechanisms (for example Brazil has a constant presence in regional military exercises, such as hosting UNITAS Brasil 2015 and serving as the deputy commander for PANAMAX 2016 – Multi-National Forces-South), which make the possibility of inter-state warfare remote in this region.

Likewise, there is little chance that an extra-regional power will deploy a fleet to Brazilian waters a la Spanish Armada to take over its oil platforms. While it is true that the U.S. did send a fleet, led by the USS Forrestal, to support Brazil’s military coup in 1964, bilateral, regional and global geopolitics are not the same as five decades ago.

Without a doubt, Brazil deserves a well-equipped and modern navy that can address its 21st century challenges, protecting its maritime territory, particularly the offshore oil platforms, and cracking down on maritime crimes like drug trafficking (or other types of smuggling) or illegal fishing. However, this author argues that submarines are hardly the appropriate platforms for these tasks. A fleet of oceanic patrol vessels (OPVs) along with a robust air wing would be more suitable for coastal and oceanic patrol, including the interdiction of suspicious vessels.

Final Thoughts

In his September remarks at NBAR, Admiral Ferreira explained the need for Brazil to possess a blue water Navy in case of a hypothetical armed conflict in the South or East China Seas. This author has not found a direct correlation between the two issues: if an incident took place, would Brazil need to deploy its platforms to the open seas in defense of freedom of navigation? While the Admiral’s statement is not clear, the wider goal is to obviously increase the power projection of the Brazilian Navy by making it a blue water navy. This explains PROSUB’s priority, as this will be a major source of pride regarding the country’s naval capabilities, including the ability to manufacture these platforms.

Additionally, Admiral Ferreira highlighted that the Brazilian Navy is a dual-purpose navy as “we are not just a war-fighting Navy like the U.S., we have other collateral tasks, we are coast guard, we are maritime authority for safety of the sea [and] we have lots of tasks in the Amazon basin.” Indeed, the Brazilian Navy has a variety of tasks. However, the question remains if a fleet of four Scorpène-class submarines and one nuclear-powered submarine are the ideal platforms to carry out these duties when OPVs and frigate-type platforms (which the Navy is upgrading) are more suitable for these tasks.

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 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: The interior of the Brazilian Navy submarine Tapajó (Guilherme Leporace / Agência O Globo)