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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)

Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing

The Southern Tide

The following article is the first in CIMSEC’s newest column: The Southern Tide. Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide will address maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It will discuss the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It will examine 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

Introduction

In mid-March, Argentina’s Coast Guard shot at and sank a Chinese vessel that was illegally fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Across the globe, navies and coast guards are devoting more resources to combat illegal fishing, as this maritime crime is a major cause of the depredation of the global maritime ecosystem. Latin America is no exception to this phenomenon, with the March incident in the South Atlantic exemplifying a worst case scenario. This focus towards combating maritime crimes, like drug trafficking and illegal fishing, has prompted a shift in strategies, and by extension, acquisitions among Latin American navies.

Illegal Fishing

Some examples are necessary in order to contextualize the amount of illegal fishing that is occurring in Latin American waters. It is important to mention that the following incidents occurred within the past seven months, which stresses the current gravity of this problem.

Unsurprisingly, there is a significant amount of illegal fishing carried out by fishermen within their own country’s territorial waters. For example, in May a vessel was accused of fishing close to the Revillagigedo archipelago, a Mexican biosphere off Baja California. Officers from Mexico’s Secretariat of the Navy escorted the vessel to port to investigate the origins of its multiple-ton load.

Fishermen often travel to another country’s sea without regard to international maritime borders. For example, in mid-April the Chilean Navy stopped a Peruvian vessel 74km off the coast of Antofagasta (northern Chile). The vessel had over two tons of shark meat that it had illegally fished in Chile’s EEZ. As for Colombia, in mid-February, the Navy stopped a Nicaraguan vessel that was lobster fishing in a protected area in the San Andres archipelago in the Caribbean. Months later, in early May, the Colombian Oceanic Patrol Vessel (OPV) ARC 20 de Julio stopped a vessel flying the Jamaican flag also off San Andres. The vessel was carrying one ton of different types of fish, including the parrotfish, which is protected under Colombian law.

Similarly, the Peruvian Navy seized 26 ships between January and March of this year alone off the country’s northern regions (Tumbes and Piura), which were engaged in illegal activities. While most of these vessels were fishing without authorization, five of these vessels were Ecuadorean pirates that attacked Peruvian fishing vessels in order to steal their cargo. This highlights the link between fishing and piracy in Latin America (while this problem may not be comparable to piracy off the Horn of Africa, it is a security threat nonetheless).

pescadores_ecuatorianos
The Peruvian patrol vessel “Rio Zana” detained 21 Ecuadorean fishermen that were fishing without authorization in Peru’s northern waters (El Regional Piura / April 7 2016)

Nowadays, it is unsurprising to find Chinese fishing fleets sailing across Latin American waters, either on the Pacific or Atlantic side of the continent. In July 2015, Chile deployed its OPV Piloto Pardo and a Dauphin-type helicopter to stop a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels inside Chile’s EEZ. On that occasion, the Chilean Navy determined that the ships were not carrying out illegal fishing.

As for the March 2016 incident, three Chinese vessels were fishing without authorization in the South Atlantic, within Argentina’s EEZ. The Argentine Coast Guard utilized helicopters and vessels to chase the vessels as they ignored warnings to stop. Two ships managed to flee but the Argentines shot one boat, called the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010. To make matters worse, Buenos Aires argues that while the vessel sank, it tried to ram an Argentine ship. Ultimately, the crew jumped into the sea and several were rescued and arrested by Argentine Coast Guard while others were picked up by the remaining Chinese ships.

Argentine Coast Guard encounters Chinese fishing vessels. (CNN)

Enter the FAO

It is important to highlight that Latin American governments are approaching multinational organizations for support against illegal fishing. Case in point, in recent months numerous nations have signed agreements with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to unite against this crime. In fact, eight Latin American and Caribbean states (Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Guyana, St. Kitts and Nevis and Uruguay) have signed the legally binding Port State Measures Agreement  (PSMA).  It entered into force this past 5 June as the threshold for its activation was 25 countries and the PSMA now has 29 signatories (plus the European Union). This agreement is groundbreaking as it is regarded as the first international treaty that will directly address illegal fishing.

Moreover, in June, the Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama signed a separate agreement with the FAO to achieve “better sustainable management of fishery resources in the country safeguarding livelihoods, food production for local communities and marine ecosystems.” The FAO will now provide “technical assistance” to Panama City so the aforementioned Central American agency can formulate a national strategy to combat this crime.

Panama and FAO representatives sign agreement to cooperate against illegal fishing ( Panama 24 Horas / June 15, 2016)
Panama and FAO representatives sign agreement to cooperate against illegal fishing ( Panama 24 Horas / June 15, 2016)

The issue to keep in mind here is the greater attention that regional governments are giving illegal fishing, including requesting FAO support and pledges to fight this crime. This will have obvious repercussions in regional naval strategies and the acquisition of sea platforms.

New Objectives, New Platforms

The author argues that the possibility of inter-state warfare nowadays in the region is quite low in spite of several ongoing border disputes and occasional inter-state incidents (e.g. Bolivia and Chile; Guatemala and Belize; Colombia and Venezuela). Nevertheless, crime is prevalent not just to dry land but also at sea. In the 21st century, a principal objective for Latin American navies will be to tackle maritime crime like drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, maritime pollution and, of course, illegal fishing.

The relatively low possibility of inter-state tensions and the rise of maritime crimes have an obvious effect in the acquisition of sea platforms. On the one hand, several nations will without a doubt continue to acquire platforms more suited for conventional warfare. For example, Brazil is constructing a nuclear-powered submarine while the Sao Paulo carrier undergoes repairs. Colombia recently purchased two (used) German subs while the Peruvian Navy, via recent agreements with Germany’s ThyssenKrupp AG and Israel’s Elbit Systems, is going to upgrade its four Angamos-class U-209 subs.

The author contends that the priority of regional navies is to constructor purchase small, fast, multipurpose vessels and OPVs in order to more efficiently patrol their seas and stop suspicious vessels. For example, the Uruguayan Navy plans to acquire up to three new vessels, likely OPVS from the German shipyard Lurssen, which would be the country’s largest acquisition of new sea platforms in years. The vessels will be the new cornerstone of the fleet and will be charged with patrolling Uruguay’s EEZ for maritime criminals, such as illegal fishing vessels.

Similarly, the Peruvian Navy has acquired a Pohang-class corvette from South Korea, the BAP Ferré, which will also be utilized for patrol operations. Additionally, the Peruvian state-run shipyard Servicios Industriales de la Marina (SIMA), has finished building two new OPVs for the Andean nation’s Navy, the BAP Río Pativilca and the BAP Rio Cañete. As a final example, the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy is also constructing OPVs to patrol its EEZ. Just last November, the Mexican Navy baptized the ARM Chiapas, constructed by the state-run shipyard Astilleros de la Marina.

Peru/SIMA Launches new patrol vessels BAP Cañete and BAP Pativilca (SIMA Peru)

While any of these platforms can also be deployed for conventional warfare if necessary, the acquisition of OPVs by several Latin American navies highlights changing strategies given evolving regional geopolitics and threats. Conventional conflict is always a possibility, but the clear and present maritime danger comes from criminals, not the possibility of an invading fleet a la Spanish armada. Hence, the ongoing wave of new purchases focuses on OPV-type vessels.

Concluding Thoughts

Between 12-17 June, the Royal Canadian Navy hosted the 27thbiennial Inter-American Naval Conference (IANC), which brought together representatives from 14 hemispheric navies. The topic of the conference was the “Future Maritime Operating Environment,” with a particular focus on maritime crimes, like drug trafficking, in the Caribbean Sea and Eastern Pacific.

In his remarks at the IANC, Admiral Marcelo Hipólito Szur of Argentina explained how demographic pressures and globalization will put greater pressure on the demand for natural resources, including those found in the oceans. He described how this will push governments to protect their (maritime) natural resources which could in turn lead to conflict between nations over yet-undefined maritime borders. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the possibility of future inter-state conflict due to issues like fishing rights, however it is certainly within the realm of possibilities, given unsolved differences between Latin American states and the non-violent “Cod War” between the United Kingdom and Iceland that serves as a recent precedent.

Nevertheless, the issue does stand that climate change and population explosion will increase the demand for maritime resources, which will foment bigger fishing operations, legal or not. It is safe to assume that fishing vessels crossing maritime borders without authorization is a problem that will continue, which will in turn lead to future incidents. The accusation that the sinking Chinese vessel tried to ram an Argentine ship brings up the issue if, in the worst case scenario, illegal fishing vessels become violent and attempt to attack isolated coast guard vessels, rather than attempting to flee. The author has not found incidents of fishing vessels shooting at OPVs or other security ships, as unauthorized ships prefer to flee or talk their way out of a possible arrest, but it is likely that violent incidents will eventually occur.

In order to counter ongoing maritime crimes, Latin American navies are devoting more time and resources to monitor and protect territorial waters. The acquisition of OPVs and patrol-type vessels by regional naval forces exemplifies the growing attention to this new maritime reality. Moreover, illegal fishing is also being addressed at forums for dialogue like the IANC and now there is even the FAO framework to help focus resources on this problem.

Illegal fishing may not make headlines as compared to drug busts in the Caribbean Sea, however this is an ongoing maritime crime that affects Latin American states and will continue to occur, if not worsen.

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: ARC July 20 of the Colombian Navy. (webinfomil)

Latin America’s Training Vessels

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

In late January, the Peruvian Navy commissioned its newest training vessel, the BAP Union, which will train future generations of naval cadets. This brand new ship is an ideal starting point to discuss the vessels utilized by Latin American navies to instruct their cadets. As any sailor knows, there is no replacement for hands-on experience aboard a vessel to train future naval officers and personnel. 

Latin American navies understand this fact, hence, training vessels regularly carry out voyages in which they visit several international ports. These multinational trips fulfill two purposes: to train cadets and serve as floating ambassadors in order to develop friendly relations between navies and nations.

A Comprehensive List

We will begin our discussion by briefly listing the numerous training vessels that Latin American navies possess. Apart from the Union, the region’s newest training ship, other vessels include  Argentina’s ARA Libertad, Brazil’s NVe Cisne Branco and the NE Brasil, Chile’s B.E. Esmeralda, Colombia’s ARC Gloria, Ecuador’s BAE Guayas, Mexico’s ARM Cuauhtemoc, Uruguay’s ROU Capitan Miranda and Venezuela’s ARBV Simon Bolivar. Since an in-depth discussion of every Latin American training vessel would require a comprehensive report, we will focus on providing some general remarks.

First, a quick overview of these vessels finds a strong influence from Spanish shipyards. The Peruvian state-controlled shipyard SIMA (Servicios Industriales de la Marina) constructed the Union in its shipyard in the port of Callao, but the Spanish company CYPSA Ingenieros Navales cooperated in the vessel’s structural design. As for other ships, many were constructed by Spanish companies. For example Colombia’s Gloria, Ecuador’s Guayas, Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc, and Venezuelan’s Simon Bolivar were all manufactured by Astilleros Celaya S.A., while Chile’s Esmeralda was obtained from the Spanish government which constructed it at the Echevarrieta y Larrinaga shipyard in Cadiz. One exception to the rule is Brazil’s Cisne Branco, which was constructed by the Dutch company Damen Shipyard.

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The Peruvian Training Vessel “Union” was commissioned in a ceremony headed by President Ollanta Humala. This is the largest masted vessel in Latin America. Photo: Ministerio de Defensa del Perú (Peru Ministry of Defense).

Second, these vessels are all masted ships unsurprisingly. Without getting into detailed specifications, it is worth noting that the Mexican Cuauhtemoc has three masts (for a grand total of 23 sails) while Argentina’s Libertad has three masts and 27 sails. Finally, Peru’s Union, has four masts, making it the biggest regional training vessel. There is one vessel that is without masts, the Brazilian Brasil, which is a modified Niteroi-class frigate.

Finally, cadets also board warships  as part of their training.  For example, Colombian cadets from the “Almirante Padilla” naval school have taken a trip aboard the frigate ARC Antioquia to further their instruction.

Training At Sea: A Confidence Building Mechanism

Training vessels have a diplomatic and confidence building component to their voyages. Most of their trips include stops in various international forts, turning these vessels into ambassadors at sea of their respective nations.

For the sake of brevity, we will mention a couple of recent itineraries. Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc is carrying out an ambitious 205-day voyage in which it will dock in 17 foreign ports in 13 countries (the cruise is known as “Ibero Atlantic 2016”). The vessel docked in New London, Connecticut, from 2-6 May and during the visit, Mexican cadets “interact[ed] with their counterparts at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London as well as visit[ed] Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton.” Meanwhile, in mid-May the Colombian Gloria returned to the Barranquilla port after a 41 day cruise through the Caribbean, where it visited Castries, capital of Saint Lucia, and Roseau, capital of Dominica.

Ruta
Training Tall Ship America 2014 Itinerary. Image: Secretaria de Marina Mexico (Secretariat of the Navy Mexico)

Training vessels have also carried out ambitious projects, namely sailing around the world. For example, in August 1987, the Uruguayan Capitan Miranda, set sail in a trip around the world, a feat that was accomplished in 355 days. More recently, Ecuador’s Guayas arrived home in early March after a similar voyage that required 295 days to complete.

Another element of confidence building is how foreign naval officers are often invited to take part in some of these cruises. For example, a 2015 multinational trip by Colombia’s Gloria had officers from Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay aboard. Similarly, Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar left port in mid-May for its “Europa 2016” expedition. Accompanying the over 100 Venezuelan cadets aboard are naval personnel from Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic and Uruguay.

Venezuela’s training vessel has a very appropriate nickname: “The Ambassador Without Borders” (“El Embajador Sin Frontera”), which can also be applied to the training vessels of other nations. These are floating embassies that bring together the multinational crew as well as showcasing the best a country has to offer at every port call.

Incidents

It is worth mentioning that when vessels are outside of their nation’s territorial waters, some bizarre and tense situations can occur. A clear example is what happened to Argentina’s Libertad, which has to do with the country’s economy. For the past decade and a half, the South American nation has dealt with  crippling debt due to owing various shadowy corporations known as vulture funds. After many negotiations and court rulings, Argentina paid USD$9 billion to these entities in April.

This financial situation has ramifications with the training vessel because in October 2012, the Libertad made a port call in Ghana. Unfortunately for the crew, the ship was not allowed to depart because the Ghanaian government received a request from a hedge fund called NML Capital Limited to detain the vessel, as a sort of partial repayment for the Argentine government’s debt. The Libertad would then stay in the Ghanaian port of Tema until mid-December, when the Argentine government secured its release (the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled on the side of Buenos Aires). The ship docked in Buenos Aires in January 2013.

This past April, the Libertad left for a new expedition. Prior to its departure, President Mauricio Macri gave a speech from the vessel’s deck, where he stated that “today we have normalized our relations with the world, today you can depart in peace, because this will not occur again.”

Other vessels have gone through more potentially violent situations, namely when they crossed the Gulf of Aden en route to the Indian Ocean, an area known for pirates that operate out of the Horn of Africa. In 2008 Chile’s Esmeralda crossed the region, and it took measures to prevent an attack, including deploying  30 men on deck armed with rifles and grenade launchers. Ecuador’s Guayas passed the same area this past October 2015, and armed troops were also assigned on deck in case pirates appeared. So far, there have been no reported incidents of training vessels being attacked.

Upgrades Needed?

Unsurprisingly, one problem is the generally advanced age of these ships. For example, the Colombian Gloria was commissioned in 1968, a decade later Ecuador received the Guayas (in 1977) while Venezuela commissioned the Simon Bolivar in 1980. But it is Uruguay that can be proud of having the oldest training vessel still in service in Latin America as the Capitan Miranda was launched in 1930. The vessel was originally constructed as a hydrographic ship at a Spanish shipyard, and was transformed into a training vessel in 1977. The ship carried out its first training voyage the following year.  Prior to Peru’s Union, the region’s newest ship would be Brazil’s Cisne Branco, which was launched and assigned in 2000.

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ARC Gloria Colombia. Photo: Colombian Navy

In other words, most Latin American navies could profit from a new training vessel. One obvious example is the almost-century old Capitan Miranda, which could be turned into a floating museum while the Uruguayan Navy obtains a new ship. The vessel was already upgraded in 1977 and 1993 and it has been in a dock since 2013 as the Navy carries out a new overhaul to increase its lifespan.

Budgetary issues and other security priorities are the obvious main hindrances to regional navies acquiring new training vessels. For example, the Uruguayan Navy is currently undergoing a transformation as it plans to purchase as many as  three OPVs (probably from the German shipyard Lurssen) to patrol its EEZ, which would be the country’s biggest platform acquisition in decades. The deal is rumored to cost USD$250 million, a major investment for a small country. As for other navies, they are also focused on acquiring new platforms. Case in point, Colombia acquired two (used) German submarines, which arrived in 2015, while Mexico’s state-run shipyard ASTIMAR (Astilleros de la Secretaria de Marina) is currently constructing Damen OPVs in its shipyardsFor the time being, it seems that no new training vessels will be constructed.

Final Thoughts

While new naval platforms are necessary to patrol any maritime territory, there is an obvious problem in continuing to use dated equipment to train a Navy’s future officers. Peru and Brazil’s new training vessels are positive developments, but this pattern will probably not be followed by other Latin American states in the near future.

Certainly, it could be argued that as these aging vessels are still operational, it is not imperative to replace them – case in point, the almost-century old Capitan Miranda. However, repairing these ships to extend their lifespan will only get costlier and more time-consuming as time progresses, hence alternative plans should be drafted.

After all, these vessels are important diplomatic tools as they travel different regions of the world, essentially becoming naval ambassadors given their friendly international port calls, which foster positive relations. Moreover, while it is important for any country to possess modern platforms, i.e. OPVs or even a nuclear-powered submarine, ultimately these are machines that need well-trained officers to control and guide. Voyages in training vessels are only one aspect of a naval officer’s education and career, but they are a critical component. It is only logical that naval cadets should have the best training equipment possible in order to become the best officers possible.

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: B.E. Esmeralda of the Chilean Navy. Photo: Armada de Chile.

Opinion: The Uses of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

On March 10 Admiral Kurt Tidd, the new commander of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and presented his posture statement. In his analysis of Western Hemisphere geopolitics and security issues, he acknowledged that he does not possess sufficient vessels to carry out SOUTHCOM’s multiple maritime operations. This statement serves as an ideal point of departure for one of SOUTHCOM’s arguably least well-known agencies, the U.S. Fourth Fleet (FOURTHFLT).

A (Very) Brief History

The history of the Fourth Fleet is actually fairly brief. It was created in 1943 and tasked with protecting the South Atlantic Ocean from Axis warships and submarines. Nazi German vessels had a fairly constant presence in that area, best exemplified by the Admiral Graf Spee incident in 1939. The FOURTHFLT existed for a short period after the war ended as it was dissolved in 1950 and its area of operations was inherited by the Second Fleet.

In 2008, then-President George W. Bush reactivated the Fourth Fleet. It was officially reestablished on July 12 and its headquarters is shared with U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (USNAVSO). The commander of USNAVSO (COMUSNAVSO) is also the commander of the Fourth Fleet; currently that officer is Rear Admiral George Ballance.

It is important to note that the current SOUTHCOM commander is no stranger to the Fourth Fleet since then-Rear Admiral Tidd was the COMUSNAVSO/FOURTHFLT commander from 2011 to 2012. He first relieved Rear Admiral Vic Guillory and was subsequently relieved by Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris a year later. “The mission executed day in and day out by the men and women of the NAVSO/4th Fleet team is important; we are operating on the seas and in the littorals throughout the region every day, building and strengthening partnerships with nations who share a common heritage and a common sense of purpose with us,” Admiral Tidd said during the 2012 change of command ceremony. Admiral Tidd would return to SOUTHCOM this past January 14, when he became its newest commander.

Commander Bio Photo: Adm. Kurt W. Tidd. Source: SOUTHCOM.
Commander Bio Photo: Adm. Kurt W. Tidd. Source: SOUTHCOM.

The Fourth Fleet’s reestablishment must be placed in the proper geopolitical context. In 2008, the hemisphere was sprinkled with several Latin American governments that held anti-U.S. sentiments. Then-President Hugo Chavez spent billions of Venezuelan petro-dollars to modernize his country’s military by purchasing equipment from Russia and China, while critiquing “el imperio.” The governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua had a similar ideology, while the Lula government in Brazil and the Kirchners in Argentina were neutral at best, if not occasional critics of Washington’s historical hegemony in the region. Moreover, in 2008 Russian warships visited the Caribbean, carrying out exercises with the Venezuelan Navy.

In other words, in 2008 there was a geopolitical logic for reestablishing the Fourth Fleet. This was a highly-visible method for Washington to remind the world that it remained the sole military power in the Western Hemisphere.

Current Activities

The Fourth Fleet/COMUSNAVSO’s website summarizes its activities:

No vessels or aircrafts will be permanently assigned to U.S. Fourth Fleet as part of the re-establishment. U.S. Fourth Fleet is an organizational fleet staffed to fulfill a planning and coordination mission. U.S. Fourth Fleet is focused on strengthening friendships and partnerships and will have five missions: support for peacekeeping, Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Relief, traditional maritime exercises, and counterdrug support operations.

Even though it has no permanently assigned vessels, the ships it oversees have helped the FOURTHFLT have an ongoing presence in Latin American and Caribbean waters. A major initiative occurred in late 2015 when the carrier USS George Washington and its support vessels (i.e. the USS Bighorn, USS Guadalupe, among others), took part in the Southern Seas 2015 deployment. This included their participation in the multinational UNITAS 2015 exercises as well as making port calls in Brazil, Chile, and Peru. The previous year, the USS America took a tour of the Western Hemisphere during which it docked in Colombia, Brazil, Chile, and Peru.

As impressive as the carrier George Washington is, it is the USNS Comfort which arguably has the most continuous presence in the region. The U.S. Navy’s hospital vessel regularly travels throughout the Caribbean and Central America to provide humanitarian support. From April to September of last year, the vessel took in part in Continuing Promise 2015, in which the Comfort visited a total of 11 countries, from Guatemala to Dominica, carrying out procedures like general surgery, ophthalmologic surgery, veterinary services and public health training. This was the Comfort’s fourth trip as part of the Continuing Promise initiative. According to SOUTHCOM, the vessel previously participated in the mission’s 2007, 2009 and 2011 incarnations.

Finally, various U.S. Navy warships regularly patrol the Caribbean Sea in order to help partner nations combat illicit trafficking. In the interest of brevity we will provide only a couple of examples. In 2014, the USS Vandegrift, in a joint operation with the U.S. Coast Guard, successfully stopped a suspicious vessel off the coast of Central America. Upon boarding the vessel, security personnel found almost two thousand pounds of cocaine. More recently, in January 2015, the USS Gary and the U.S. Coast Guard successfully seized more than 1644 kilograms of cocaine from a “go fast” vessel. These two operations were part of Operation Martillo.

Coast Guard and other federal law enforcement officials work together to offload more than eight and a half tons of cocaine from the USS Vandergrift at Naval Base San Diego, Dec. 19, 2014. (USCG photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell).
Coast Guard and other federal law enforcement officials work together to offload more than eight and a half tons of cocaine from the USS Vandergrift at Naval Base San Diego, Dec. 19, 2014. (USCG photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell).

As for the Fourth Fleet’s upcoming operations, in an interview with the author, a USNAVSO/FOURTHFLT spokesperson explained that it “will conduct Southern Partnership Station 2016 with USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) and multinational exercises UNITAS and PANAMAX 2016. We are also supporting a bilateral exercise with Peru, Silent Forces Exercise, and Integrated Advance with SOUTHCOM, this year being a mass migration exercise.” Additionally, ships like the USS Lassen and USS Shamal will participate in Operation Martillo.

The aforementioned examples demonstrate how the FOURFLT has an active presence in Latin American and Caribbean waters, and has successfully partnered with friendly nations to jointly crack down on transnational maritime crimes.  

Does the Navy Need The FOURTHFLT?

The intention of this commentary is not to criticize U.S. naval operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Rather, the goal here is to understand how the FOURTHFLT has helped SOUTHCOM.

On February 12, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) organized an on-the-record event entitled “A Navy in Balance? A Conversation with Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations.”During the Question & Answer section, this author asked Admiral Richardson whether the Fourth Fleet is necessary, given that it only seems to have the USNS Comfort on a quasi-regular basis while it rotates its other vessels instead of having any permanently deployed to it. The Admiral responded that the Fourth Fleet is “very important” and mentioned the aforementioned USS George Washington deployment and the success of security operations in the Caribbean. “The productivity of that fleet continues to show its value,” the Admiral declared.

The uses of the Fourth Fleet can be divided in three arguments:

1. This author asked the aforementioned FOURTHFLT spokesperson how its reestablishment has helped SOUTHCOM, particularly from an administrative and logistical point of view. The response was that by being “dual-hatted” and reporting to both the CNO and SOUTHCOM, “we are able to represent multiple operations and opportunities for our partner nations in the Navy specific chain of command as well as the Combatant Command chain of command. The establishment of Fourth Fleet elevated us from an echelon 3 command to echelon 2.” Moreover, the reestablishment of the FOURTHFLT has allowed the training of a Maritime Operations Center Staff “to include the USNAVSO Fleet Command Center that planned and executed Lines of Operations in support of USSOUTHCOMs Theater Campaign Plan.”

Indeed, having a Fourth Fleet has also provided a command chain that allows SOUTHCOM to deal with major operations. As the FOURTHFLT spokesperson explains, “a key event was our response to the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 where 4th Fleet served as the Navy Component Commander during Operation Unified Response, the Navy’s largest ever Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) contingency response. The response consisted of 17 ships, 89 aircraft, and over 15,000 Sailors and Marines assigned to Commander, Task Force Forty, and the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander in support of Joint Task Force Haiti.”

010120-N-4995K-038 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Jan. 20, 2010) ÐThe 1,000 bed hospital ship USNS Comfort is anchored just off of the coast of Haiti in support of Operation Unified Relief: Haiti. The Navy currently has 11 ships supporting the operation with approximately 11,000 Sailors, Marines, and civilians who are providing humanitarian and medical aid to the battered nation after it was struck by a powerful earthquake Jan 12. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (AW) Chelsea Kennedy/RELEASED)
010120-N-4995K-038 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Jan. 20, 2010) The 1,000 bed hospital ship USNS Comfort anchored just off of the coast of Haiti in support of Operation Unified Relief: Haiti. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (AW) Chelsea Kennedy/RELEASED).

2. Another issue is whether the Fourth Fleet has brought any clear budget or equipment-related advantages to SOUTHCOM. In 2014, six years after the Fourth Fleet was reinstated, then-SOUTHCOM commander General John Kelly declared in his posture statement to the House Armed Services Committee that, “as the lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, U.S. Southern Command will likely receive little, if any, ‘trickle down’ of restored funding. Ultimately, the cumulative impact of our reduced engagement will be measured in terms of U.S. influence, leadership, and relationships in the Western Hemisphere.”The former commander indirectly talked about the Fourth Fleet, stating that “insufficient maritime surface vessels and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms impair our primary mission to detect threats and defend the southern approaches to the U.S. homeland.” (The 2014, 2015, and 2016 posture statements list activities carried out by USNAVSO/FOURTHFLT).

Regarding the acquisition of additional equipment, in an interview with the author, SOUTHCOM spokesperson Jose Ruiz explained that SOUTHCOM “submits requests for naval resources, including personnel, ships and aircraft, through the Joint Staff. We work the requests with our naval component, [USNAVSO]. The military services weigh all geographic combatant command requests for people and platforms against prioritized national security requirements around the globe, and allocate resources to our command based on what is available after higher priority national security needs are met.” Spokesperson Ruiz added SOUTHCOM does not exclusively rely on the U.S. Navy “for maritime resources to accomplish important missions […] Other important interagency partners, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection also provide key sea and air platforms and forces to support those missions.” (This author has discussed U.S. Coast Guard activities in the Greater Caribbean in “The US Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy”).

In his posture statement Admiral Tidd explained the success of the various U.S. security and defense agencies (including the Coast Guard and law enforcement agencies) that come together under the umbrella of Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) to combat transnational organized crime (TOC) in SOUTHCOM’s area of operations. Nevertheless, during his testimony to the Senate, when asked about his lack of resources he simply stated that “I do not have the ships, I do not have the aircraft” to deal with the amount of TOC in the region. He explained that at any given time, he may have on average five to six surface ships, namely Coast Guard platforms, and one to two Navy platforms, while he ideally needs 21 vessels. Thus, it would appear that the FOURTFLT has not brought additional resources to SOUTHCOM.

3. The one clear advantage brought by the reestablishment of the Fleet is that it helped the U.S. military appear to have a bigger presence in the Western Hemisphere in the eyes of Latin American and Caribbean states, not to mention nations like Russia and China. The word “fleet” conjures images of a plethora of frigates, submarines, and a carrier or two docked in Florida, under SOUTHCOM’s command. Hence, it comes as no surprise when the FOURTHFLT was reinstated, media outlets around the region published numerous commentaries about Washington’s plans – case in point, a 2008 commentary in the Colombian daily El Espectador has the headline “The Return of the Fourth Fleet: What is the objective of this new initiative by the U.S. government?” Unsurprisingly, the Venezuelan government critiqued this decision.

Nevertheless, Admiral Tidd’s posture statement explains that “Russia’s actions [in Latin America and the Caribbean] are directly connected to its broader global efforts to demonstrate that Russia is a global power capable of challenging U.S. leadership and the established rules-based international system.” (P. 8-9). Thus, the FOURTHFLT’s shortage of Naval platforms (Coast Guard vessels notwithstanding) is arguably affecting SOUTHCOM’s, and by extension Washington’s, influence in Latin America and the Caribbean to Moscow’s benefit.

Final Thoughts

At the aforementioned AEI event CNO Admiral Richardson declared that the Navy “will continue to support [the Fourth Fleet] with every resource that we can spare.” Nevertheless, the CNO also stated that allocating resources is “fundamentally a matter of prioritization.” It is clear that SOUTHCOM is low in Washington’s list of defense priorities. Admiral Tidd understands this as he stated in his 2016 posture statement that “because no nation in the region poses a direct, conventional military threat to the United States, Latin America tends to rank fairly low on force allocation priorities.” (P. 2)

To recapitulate, the objective of this analysis is not to critique U.S. naval operations, but rather question the necessity of the Fourth Fleet itself. U.S. Navy vessels have participated in training exercises with regional partners as well as security initiatives like Operation Martillo. Moreover, the 2010 Haiti earthquake highlights how having the Fourth Fleet has provided a more robust command chain which SOUTHCOM can utilize for future major operations.

Nevertheless, it is the opinion of this author that the Fourth Fleet’s reestablishment has not brought any major budgetary or equipment-related advantages. Moreover, given Washington’s focus on Syria, Russia and China, it is unlikely that SOUTHCOM will receive additional naval resources soon.

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.

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 Public Affairs offices of SOUTHCOM and USNAVSO/FOURTHFLT for their help in drafting this report.

Featured Image: 160310-N-MD297-161 PACIFIC OCEAN (March 10, 2016) Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82) patrols the Eastern Pacific. Lassen is currently underway in support of Operation Martillo, a joint operation with the U.S. Coast Guard and partner nations within the 4th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Huey D. Younger Jr./Released)