All posts by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

Brazilian Navy Participates in Exercise Obangame Express 2022

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

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.

“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” – General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command”  

Exercise Obangame Express 2022, the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western Africa, concluded its 11th iteration in Dakar, Senegal, on March 18. A total of 32 nations participated, including regional countries like Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, extra-regional nations like France and the United States, and multinational agencies including the Economic Community of West African States and the Economic Community of Central African States.

One extra-continental participant was the Brazilian Navy (Marinha do Brasil), via oceanic patrol vessel (OPV) Amazonas (P120). Brazil’s participation is neither an oddity nor a development that should be overlooked in Washington; the Brazilian military, particularly the navy, has a long history of close relations with many African militaries to increase the Portuguese-speaking nation’s presence and image across the South Atlantic, as well as strengthen military-to-military relations.

Amazonas in Obangame Express

A good place to begin this analysis, and to properly explain Brazil’s military relations with African partners, is by listing recent developments. During its voyage to Africa, Amazonas docked in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Two officers from the Namibian navy came aboard and were observers during Obangame Express 2022. As part of its activities throughout the exercises, Amazonas reportedly carried out maneuvers with the navies of Angola, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Namibia. Amazonas’ mission “contributed to maintaining maritime security in the South Atlantic,” the Brazilian navy explained in a Tweet.

OPV Amazonas carried out maneuvers with the navies of Angola, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Namibia as part of Obangame Express 2022. Photo Credit: Marinha do Brasil / Twitter Account, April 2, 2022

Moreover, personnel assigned to the Brazilian navy’s assistance commission (Missão de Assessoria Naval do Brasil) in Sao Tome and Principe assisted local forces as part of the Exercise. The Brazilian officers reportedly helped the local coast guard and also served as translators between the military personnel from Sao Tome and Principe and the United States.

The Brazilian navy is a constant participant of Obangame Express; OPV Araguari participated in the 2021 iteration, while Amazonas was also present in the 2020 version. Amazonas is assigned to the navy’s Southeastern naval group (Comando do Grupamento de Patrulha Naval do Sudeste). The Amazonas-class OPV (in Portuguese, NavioPatrulha Oceânico: NpaOc) was commissioned in 2012 and has two sister ships, Apa (P121) and Araguari (P122).

By participating regularly in Obagame Express the Brazilian Navy can maintain a balanced level of interoperability with African Navies. In an interview with the author, Andrea Resende, Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Brazil’s Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC MINAS), who also monitors maritime security, explained that “the interoperability between the South Atlantic Navies is fundamental to not only send a message of power projection across the South Atlantic but to keep the gears of cooperation and understanding between South Atlantic powers.”

A summary of Brazil-Africa Defense Relations

Apart from strong diplomatic and commercial relations between Brazil and Africa, particularly during the Lula da Silva presidency, defense relations and weapons transfers should not be overlooked.

For example, personnel from the Brazilian Marine Advisory Training Team (BRAZMATT) traveled to Namibia in late February to help train local naval personnel. The Brazilian navy has had a permanent mission in Namibia since 2009 to promote cordial defense relations. Also in February, the Brazilian Defense Attache to Senegal, navy Captain Raphael Gustavo Frischgesell, met with a high-ranking official of the Senegalese military, Div General  Mamadou Gaye. Resende noted that Namibia is a key ally of the Brazilian navy, but the Brazilian armed forces also have, or recently had, “military agreements with Benin, Gabon, South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, [and] Angola.”

Officers from the Namibian navy participated in Obangame Express 2022 aboard OPV Amazonas. Photo Credit: Marinha do Brasil.

For the period of 2022-2023, the Brazilian association of defense and security industries (ABIMDE) identified several potential customers for Brazilian military technology. In the African continent, the two countries mentioned were Egypt and Mauritania. Brazil has already sold equipment to other regional states. Resende added that “one of the most successful initiatives, in my opinion, was the A-Darter [short-range air-to-air] missile, to be integrated with the [Saab] Gripen fighters, that was developed by a cooperation between Brazil and South Africa.”

These developments are not new. Brazil’s relations with Africa, not just from a defense perspective, go back decades. As Resende notes, during the Brazilian Military Dictatorship (1964-1985), “there was an interest in strengthening the South Atlantic sea powers and keeping the extra-regional powers (and its conflicts) out of the region. This proximity was expanded in 1986 when the Zone of Peace and Cooperation of the South Atlantic (ZPCSA or ZOPACAS) was created, and solidified in the early 2000s with another main interest: to protect our natural resources through cooperation and maintain the area as a peaceful zone.”

A similar opinion is shared by Scott Morgan, a long-time African analyst and president of the Washington DC-based consulting firm Red Eagle Enterprises. Morgan explained to CIMSEC that Brazil has the most comprehensive foreign policy and “the best relations with the African continent,” when compared to other Latin American nations. Even though Brasilia’s African strategy has changed during the years, depending on who is president, Brazil is “engaging in Africa where traditional powers like France keep receiving black eyes on a strategic level.”

During incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro’s government, the relations with African nations indeed lost the same importance they had during the presidencies of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The COVID-19 pandemic, the global economic crises, and new missions also negatively affected the strength of South Atlantic relations between Brazil and Africa; however, entities like the Brazilian navy continue to regard African states as key partners. For example, as Resende explained, in October 2021 the Brazilian Navy organized the First Maritime Symposium of ZPCSA, which was “incredibly successful,” as it promoted “pertinent discussions about common threats and challenges, as well [as] reinforced civilian-military relations. In my opinion, this was a very important step for ZPCSA to regain its relevance as a regional institution.”

Conclusions

As for the maneuvers themselves, they generally received positive reviews. “Obangame Express is about the motivation of our people to dig into some wicked problems together and unearth ways to make our waters safer,” said Lt. Gen. Kirk Smith, deputy commander, U.S. Africa Command.

Morgan, from Red Eagle Enterprises, explained to the author one important fact about Obangame Express 2022: “this year’s exercise ranged from the Gulf of Guinea down to Angola. That is a large area to cover and shows how the concerns about piracy are spreading.” Morgan also noted a side meeting that occurred during the maneuvers, the Senior Leadership Symposium. The meeting, held at the Senegalese Naval Headquarters in Dakar, “brought African Naval leaders together with counterparts from Europe, North America, and South America to exchange ideas regarding security concerns. Communications on this level will be vital to address any regional threat,” he explained. As for the future of Brazilian-African naval relations, Andrea Resende of PUC MINAS noted that “the South Atlantic, as the main strategic theater of Brazil, is a permanent feature in Brazil’s national defense and the Brazilian Navy still manages to strengthen ties with African Navies at every opportunity.”

Obangame Express 2022 was a general success, as its objective was achieved: to promote interoperability and strengthen relations between the participant navies and other services. Hopefully, the Gulf of Guinea, West African waters, and the African side of the South Atlantic will become more peaceful and secure in the immediate future. Moreover, these maneuvers are also helpful to increase a navy’s image, display its capabilities, and carry out effective power projection. This is the case of the Marinha do Brasil. Brazil-Africa relations are not a new topic, but it is noteworthy that, regardless of health pandemics or new civilian leaders with different foreign policy priorities, the Brazilian navy continues to regard African states as key allies. The Brazilian navy only deployed one ship to Obangame Express, OPV Amazonas, but the significance of the Brazilian flag flying high in West African waters among partners and allies has significant repercussions for South Atlantic naval and defense relations.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Featured Image: OPV Amazonas carried out maneuvers with the navies of Angola, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Namibia as part of Obangame Express 2022. Photo Credit: Marinha do Brasil / Twitter Account, April 2, 2022.

Exercise Tradewinds 2022: Mexico’s and Belize’s Time to Shine

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

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.

“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” – General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command”  

Multinational exercise Tradewinds 2022, the Caribbean’s premier military exercise, will be co-hosted by Belize and Mexico and will take place on May 7-21, 2022. This is a great opportunity to promote greater interoperability among the two host nations, the United States, and Canada, as well as partners from the greater Caribbean.

Tradewinds 2021 and 2022

Tradewinds is a U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)-sponsored combined joint exercise aimed at enhancing the collective ability of regional constabularies and defense forces to combat transnational criminal organizations as well as conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HA/DR).

Tradewinds 2021 took place in Guyana, which had also helped boost U.S.-Guyana relations at a time when Venezuela’s territorial ambitions have grown. About 1,500 U.S. military, partner nation security, and civilian personnel participated in Tradewinds 2021, in addition to platforms like U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Winslow W. Griesser (WPC-1116).

As for Tradewinds 2022, the upcoming exercises are still in the planning stage. The Mexican Naval Secretariat (Secretaria de Marina: SEMAR) has already held a meeting in Quintana Roo with representatives from Tradewinds participants in order to plan the maneuvers – Mexico will organize the naval portion of the maneuvers while Belize will be in charge of the land-based operations. Parallel to Tradewinds, the multinational exercise North American Maritime Security Initiative (NAMSI)  2022, between the navies of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, will also take place.

At the time of this writing, there are no reports about which land, naval, and aerial assets will be deployed by the participating navies in Tradewinds 2022. It can be expected that the co-hosts, Belize and Mexico, will deploy a significant number of units, including patrol vessels, interceptor vessels, and maritime patrol aircraft, not to mention personnel like marines. Approximately 1,500 personnel, civilian and military, will participate, representing 20 nations, in addition to the co-hosts and the United States.

A Great Opportunity for Mexico

This author has covered Tradewinds previously for CIMSEC in “Tradewinds 2018 and the Caribbean’s Maritime Security Challenges”, an article that highlighted the importance of these maneuvers for the region. A retired senior officer from the Dominican Republic’s navy explained to CIMSEC that Tradewinds is “an excellent way to increase interoperability between defense forces and security agencies throughout the Caribbean.” The retired officer added that Tradewinds has a history of being “successful at promoting communication, training against organized crime, [and] carrying out HA/DR operations” between the participating agencies and forces.

For the Mexican navy, Tradewinds 2022 presents a unique opportunity not only to promote interoperability between the other participants, but also to demonstrate the service’s capabilities to organize large multinational exercises. Anecdotally, Tradewinds 2022 will be the first time that Mexico co-hosts these exercises since they commenced in 1984. In an interview with CIMSEC, Christian J. Ehrlich, director of Mexico’s Institute for Strategy and Development Research and the founding director of the Riskop consultancy company, explained that Tradewinds is an ideal opportunity for Mexico, particularly the navy, to “continue the evolution of its doctrine. By this I mean expanding the service’s operations from mostly coastal activities to achieving greater capabilities.” For example, Tradewinds will help Mexico “evolve and evaluate its current command and control doctrines regarding this type of operation,” Ehrlich noted.

NAMSI has similarly become a key initiative that is helpful to the three participating navies. In his written testimony for a 2012 hearing at the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, then-U.S. Coast Guard Deputy for Operations Policy and Capabilities Rear Admiral William Lee described NAMSI in the following way:

“[The exercise] provides an operational relationship between SEMAR, NORTHCOM, the Government of Canada, and the Coast Guard and coordinates standard procedures for communications, training, procedures, and operations. Since the inception of NAMSI in December 2008, there have been 24 joint cases yielding 62,816 pounds of narcotics seizures.”

While it remains unconfirmed whether this is the first time that NAMSI and Tradewinds are occuring simultaneously, in any case, this presents a great opportunity for Caribbean defense forces. As Ehrlich explained, while these two exercises are different, the themes are generally similar, as their aim is to prepare personnel to face similar threats. “The other participants of Tradewinds can observe the NAMSI maneuvers and learn about the agreements [between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.]. This could lead to greater interoperability between Caribbean states following the NAMSI model,” he added.

Finally, Tradewinds 2022 will ideally lead to greater interoperability and connections between the Mexican navy with fellow navies and coast guards from the English-speaking Caribbean. While the Mexican navy has sent platforms to previous iterations of Tradewinds, and diplomatic relations are overall cordial, there is a lack of close navy-to-navy relations. Hopefully, Tradewinds 2022 can be the stepping stone for change and stronger naval relations between these services. “The objective of Tradewinds is to increase ties between the English-speaking Caribbean with Canada, Mexico and the United States. [The latter three countries] already have various defense protocols and agreements to promote interoperability,” Ehrlich noted, adding that Tradewinds 2022 could lead to a common doctrine among the participants.

Tradewinds and SOUTHCOM

SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Coast Guard have numerous defense initiatives with Caribbean forces, like Shiprider agreements, transfers of naval technology, and regular bilateral exercises. For example, Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) and Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Coast Guard offshore patrol vessel HMJS Alexander Bustamante conducted maritime maneuvers on February 9.

What makes Tradewinds 2022 particularly important for SOUTHCOM is that these will be the first major exercises that the Command will help organize under the leadership of Army General Laura Richardson, its new commander. General Richardson has already met with Central American and Caribbean defense commanders; during the 2022 Central American Security Conference, held in early February in Belize, the general noted that she looked forward to “discuss[ing] disaster relief and regional security challenges, and strategiz[ing] about how we can leverage annual exercises like Tradewinds and CENTAM Guardian to show just how Integrated and Intertwined we are.” Therefore, Tradewinds will be a great opportunity for the new SOUTHCOM commander to examine how her Command and U.S. partners in the Caribbean work together in the field.

The waters of the Caribbean are far from peaceful—well-known security threats include combating drug trafficking, as well as piracy and human trafficking. There are also environmental crimes like illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing as well as efforts to improve joint responses to natural disasters, which are becoming deadlier and more destructive due to climate change. Hopefully, Tradewinds 2022 will continue to increase interoperability and strong ties among the Caribbean nations, both island states as well as the mainland, to prepare the region to better face common threats together.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Featured Image: Multinational vessels participating in exercise Tradewinds 2021 conduct a photo exercise (PHOTEX) off the coast of Guyana June 18. Tradewinds 2021 is a U.S. Southern Command sponsored Caribbean security-focused exercise in the ground, air, sea, and cyber domains, working with partner nations to conduct joint, combined, and interagency training focused on increasing regional cooperation and stability. (Credit: U.S. Southern Command)

Argentina Deploys New Patrol Vessels to Combat IUU Fishing

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

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.

“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” – General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

The Argentine Navy has deployed its two newest offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), ARA Bouchard (P-51) and ARA Piedrabuena (P-52), to monitor an international fishing fleet traveling close to the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) en route to the South Atlantic. While there have been no confirmed reports of these vessels engaging in illegal, unregulated, or unreported (IUU) fishing, recent history suggests that this is occurring or will occur soon.

Putting the new units to good use

Bouchard and Piedrabuena are assigned to the Argentine Navy’s maritime patrol division (División de Patrullado Marítimo: DVPM). Along with a Beechcraft B-200 Super King Air aircraft assigned to the naval air squadron for maritime surveillance (Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Vigilancia Marítima), the two units monitored vessels traveling through the Magellan Strait en route to open seas in the South Atlantic, according to a 23 December press release. After departing from Admiral Zar base in Trelew, Chubut Province, the B-200 flew over “the fishing fleet, in coordination with the patrol boats, maintaining surveillance… of the activities carried out by these ships of different nationalities.”

ARA Bouchard (P-51) and ARA Piedrabuena (P-52) conduct patrol and surveillance operations in the Argentine Sea (Photo credit: Argentine Navy)

The support vessel ARA Estrecho de San Carlos (A-22) has reportedly replaced Bouchard as the main vessel assigned to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego province, which is near the Beagle Channel and Argentina’s border with Chile.

Argentina has acquired four Gowind-class OPVs from France, manufactured by Naval Group. The third unit, ARA Storni (P-53), was delivered in October 2021, while the fourth and final ship, ARA Bartolomé Cordero, was launched in September 2021 and will likely be delivered sometime in early 2022. The four units will help the Argentine Navy improve its patrol and surveillance operations.

There have also been developments from a bureaucratic standpoint. In late February 2021, the Ministry of Defence created the Joint Maritime Command (Comando Conjunto Marítimo: CCM) to “patrol and control of [Argentina’s] maritime and fluvial areas.” The MoD announced that starting this past 1 January, the CCM assumed command of surveillance maritime operations, which includes monitoring the international fishing fleet that is sailing near the country’s EEZ.

Boarding teams from ARA Bouchard (P-51) and ARA Piedrabuena (P-52) inspect fishing vessels in the Argentine Sea (Photo credit: Argentine Navy)

Good and Bad News

The Argentine Navy will have additional air and surface units in the near future. In late December, the Argentine government announced that the local shipyard Tandanor will construct a new icebreaker for Antarctic operations to replace the aging icebreaker Almirante Irízar (Q-5). In the same month, the Ministry of Defence announced that two refurbished Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King medium helicopters will be acquired to improve capabilities and operations, including search and rescue, in the country’s southern areas and during Antarctic operations. The price of the two helicopters, including personnel training and spare parts, is USD 12.8 million.

Alas, the service still has no operational submarines. Moreover, apart from the four new OPVs, the rest of the fleet has yet to be modernized, which limits the service’s capabilities for constant, long-range patrol operations to monitor illegal activities by the international fishing fleet.

IUU Fishing

Argentina has a history of combating IUU fishing. For example, in 2016, the Mantilla-class patrol boat Prefecto Derbes (GC-28) shot and sank the Chinese fishing vessel Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010. The ship had reportedly ignored warning shots and attempted to flee, only to ram the Argentine patrol vessel. Lu Yan Yuan Yu was reportedly fishing without authorization in Argentina’s EEZ close to Chubut Province.

The author of this article has written several essays for CIMSEC about IUU fishing in Latin American waters (See 2016’s “Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing,” and 2020’s “The Ecuadorian Navy’s Constant Struggle Against IUU Fishing.” Regional cooperation is vital to solving this security challenge, which can be achieved by modernizing the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Tratado Interamericano de Asistencia Recíproca: TIAR) into a 21st-century agreement that is also tasked with combating IUU fishing. Turning TIAR into TIAR 21, as the author suggested in a July 2021 Regional Insight paper for the William J. Perry Center for hemispheric Defense Studies at the US National Defense University, would be an essential step forward to more effectively monitor South America’s vast waters and prevent the ongoing maritime pillaging of precious marine resources by extra-regional fishing fleets.

An international fishing fleet, comprising vessels from countries such as China, Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan, continuously operates throughout South America, moving with the season. For example, the same fleet operated around Ecuador, close to the Galapagos Islands, in July-August 2021, then traveled south through Peru and Ecuador. It is currently crossing the Magellan Strait to operate in the South Atlantic for the Summer months below the Equator. In Argentina, fishing vessels are focused on fishing squid, spider crab (centolla), and crab.

According to a December report by the Argentine daily La Nación, the “fishing season” commenced in early December, as some 180 vessels, “mostly from China,” crossed the Magellan Strait after operating in waters close to Chile and Peru. “By April, there will be approximately 500 ships operating in the area,” explained Major Néstor Alberto Kiferling, head of Argentina’s maritime traffic service. As modern as the Gowind class ships are, the international fishing fleet vastly outnumbers the Argentine Navy’s current capabilities, even with support from aerial units and other vessels.

Conclusion

It has been argued that Argentina is in a better situation vis-à-vis IUU fishing today compared to five years ago. Indeed, the Argentine Navy is putting its two new OPVs to good use by deploying them to the Magellan Strait to monitor the international fishing fleet crossing through the country’s EEZs en route to the South Atlantic. As with many other South American countries, one of Argentina’s major environmental challenges is IUU fishing, But while IUU Fishing is problematic when perpetrated at low-scale by fishing vessels from Argentina or a neighboring country, it can become truly catastrophic when done so by hundreds of international fishing vessels with no interest in preserving the maritime environment.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: ARA Piedrabuena (P-52) at Piriou’s Concarneau shipyard (Photo Credit: Naval Group)

Made in Latin America: Domestically Manufactured Ecuadorian and Peruvian Ships Meet in the Pacific

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.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

The Ecuadorian coast guard vessel Isla Santa Cruz escorted the Peruvian training vessel BAP Unión while the latter sailed through Ecuadorian waters as part of a training mission in mid-May. While cordial encounters at sea between ships belonging to friendly navies are quite common, a curious fact about this meeting is that both vessels were manufactured domestically by local state-run shipyards.

Isla Santa Cruz escorts the Peruvian training vessel BAP Unión (Ecuadorian Navy photo)

The significance of this encounter cannot be overstated. The navies of Ecuador and Peru, in addition to other Latin American fleets, will certainly continue to acquire vessels and submarines from extra-regional suppliers for the foreseeable future. But the era of “Made in Latin America” ships is here.

Made in Ecuador, Made in Peru

Isla Santa Cruz (LG 43) is one of four coastal patrol boats, class LP-AST-2606, produced by the Ecuadorian state-run shipyard ASTINAVE. The vessel and its sister ships, Isla Marchena (LG 42), Isla Pinta (LG 44), and Isla Balta (LG 45), are based on a Damen’s Stan Patrol 2606 model. The vessels are operated by the coast guard, a part of the navy, and operate in Ecuadorian waters, which include protecting the maritime biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Isla Santa Cruz was commissioned in 2012.

As for training vessel Unión, the ship was commissioned in 2016. Built by the Peruvian state-run shipyard SIMA’s main facilities in Callao, the ship measures 115 meters in length, displaces 3,200 tons, has a maximum speed of 12 knots and can transport up to 250 officers, crew and trainees. Unión, named after a Peruvian warship that fought in the 19th century War of the Pacific, is the largest training vessel in Latin America. As part of training missions with future naval officers, Unión has also participated in international sailing competitions. For example, in 2017 Unión participated in Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta, where the vessel won the race from Boston, Massachusetts to Charlottetown, Canada.

How Often Do Such Meetings Happen?

It is unclear how often locally built vessels meet in Latin American waters. Such meetings can occur via passing exercises (PASSEX), one vessel escorting the other as it voyages through territorial waters, working together in counter-narcotic operations, or via multinational exercises like PANAMAX or UNITAS.

For example, for UNITAS LIX (2018), held in Colombia, the host’s patrol vessel ARC 20 de Julio (PZE-46), manufactured by the Colombian shipbuilding corporation COTECMAR, and the Chilean OPV Piloto Pardo (OPV-81), built by the Chilean shipyard ASMAR, were deployed together. Similarly, UNITAS LVII (2017), held in Peru, included the participation of patrol boats BAP Río Pativilca (PM 204) and BAP Río Cañete (PM 205), built by SIMA, and the Chilean OPV Comandante Toro (OPV 82), built by ASMAR. This author has not been able to find confirmation that these locally-built vessels directly interacted in these exercises, but it is plausible.

Chilean OPV Piloto Pardo (OPV-81). (Chilean Navy photo)

Interestingly, even though there are a plethora of analyses in Spanish and Portuguese about what regional shipyards are producing and the status of regional navies, this author has not found previous research that discusses other instances of locally built vessels meeting at sea in Latin America. Figuring out how often these meetings occur would require exhaustive research through various news sources, including press releases and statements by regional navies, to keep track of when this type of meeting at sea occurs, and researching where each ship was built.

A Look at Ongoing Projects

In various analyses for CIMSEC (see the 2016 commentary “The Rise of the Latin American Shipyard”) this author has discussed the rise of Latin American shipyards, several of which are currently engaged in major construction projects.

Brazil is building four conventional submarines and one nuclear-powered submarine via the PROSUB program, in cooperation with the French shipyard Naval Group; the Chilean shipyard ASMAR is building an icebreaker and plans to construct at least two transport vessels, a project called Escotillón IV; and the Colombian shipbuilding corporation COTECMAR has manufactured a fleet of amphibious vessels (Buques de Apoyo Logistico y de Cabotage) for the local navy, while two units were sold to Honduras (FNH 1611 Gracias a Dios) and Guatemala (BL 1601 Quetzal). COTECMAR has also manufactured several patrol vessels based on a design by the German shipyard Fassmer. COTECMAR’s most recent project was the launch this past September of ARC Isla Albuquerque for the country’s Dirección General Marítima, commonly known as DIMAR, a part of the navy. 

Both Colombia’s COTECMAR and Chile’s ASMAR have ambitious projects for the near future as well, namely the construction of frigates. The Colombian Navy wants to domestically manufacture frigates (a project called Plataformas Estratégicas de Superficie or PES for short) via COTECMAR to replace its aging Almirante Padilla-class frigates, but the project has been delayed. Similarly, the Chilean Navy’s high command aims to also domestically manufacture frigates by 2030.

Even the internationally sanctioned and economically crippled Venezuela is building domestic vessels. Case in point, a 24 April tweet by a Venezuelan military Twitter account shows a video of Centinela, a locally-manufactured speedboat which will be utilized by the national guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana) for coastal operations. At the time of writing, the Iranian forward-basing ship IRINS Makra, formerly an oil tanker, is transporting seven fast attack craft, apparently to be transferred to Venezuela. If this happens, it would be the first time in years that the Venezuelan Navy obtains foreign-made vessels, and highlights the service’s current status in which international suppliers of new ships are very limited in number (this author ahs discussed the status of the Venezuelan navy in a May 10 commentary for Strife, The Venezuelan Navy: The Kraken of the Caribbean?”).

Both Ecuador and Peru have ongoing shipbuilding projects as well. ASTINAVE has teamed up with a German shipyard to build a multipurpose combat vessel. Even though the construction of the MPV70 MKII vessel has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ecuadorian shipyard is upgrading and expanding its infrastructure. Specifically, the shipyard’s main facilities in Planta Centro will be expanded to cope with the new project as the combat ship will be manufactured and assembled in sections.

Similarly, Peru’s SIMA is building BAP Paita, a second landing platform dock (the first one, BAP Pisco, is already operational); while two coastal patrol vessels, BAP Río Tumbes and BAP Río Locumba, were commissioned this past March. SIMA’s facilities in Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, also build vessels for the army’s and navy’s riverine operations.

BAP Río Tumbes and BAP Río Locumba (Peruvian Navy photo)

The Bad News: Argentina and Mexico

Unfortunately, there are shipyards in two countries that have been unable to move forward with new projects. After much fanfare, Mexico’s long range oceanic patrol project (Patrulla Oceánica de Largo Alcance or POLA) is not moving forward, as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is not interested in having the local state-run shipyard ASTIMAR construct new units in partnership with Damen. Only one of this class has been built, the POLA ARM-101 “Benito Juárez.* On June 1, as part of the celebrations for the Mexican navy’s anniversary, the patrol vessel ARM Tabasco (PO-168) was commissioned. But this ship was originally launched in 2019 and it is unclear when ASTIMAR will receive orders for new ships (See Christian J. Ehlirch’s “The Evolution of the Mexican Navy Since 1980” analysis in Strife for more information about the status of the fleet.)

POLA ARM-101 “Benito Juárez. (Photo via Damen Shipyards Group)

Similarly, Argentine shipyards like Rio Santiago and Tandanor are in limbo due to a lack of funds. Two outstanding projects include the construction of two training boats to train cadets (Lanchas de Instrucción de Cadetes or LICA), and one Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull (SWATH) hydrographic ship for the Argentine Navy. The Alberto Fernández administration is reportedly providing funds to finish both projects, however it is unclear when they will be launched.

Why Build at Home?

Navies and shipyards routinely advocate for the domestic construction of vessels, highlighting the advantages of such projects as compared to purchasing from international suppliers. The primary advantage is that domestically manufacturing ships, or submarines in the case of Brazil, means direct and indirect jobs for the citizens of the country where the shipyard is located. SIMA, for example has three facilities across Peru: Callao and Chimbote in the coast, and Iquitos in the Amazon. Similarly, ASTINAVE is preparing to expand its main assembly facility. More shipbuilding orders and new facilities mean more jobs.

For navies, building at home is also preferable as the naval officers and sailors can observe first-hand how a new vessel is built, from the keel laying to the launching of the ship. Shipyard employees are also more intimately aware of the technical aspects of new ships, which can considerately quicken maintenance and repair operations.

Moreover, building at home decreases a dependency on extra-regional suppliers. For example, a navy without a local functioning shipyard that plans to acquire new vessels in order to replace old units may have to settle for what is available on the international market (e.g. used or decommissioned vessels) depending on budgetary issues.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that building new vessels involves a learning curve. By building at home, technicians and the leadership of navies and shipyards will become more ambitious and will aim to build more complex platforms. A quick summary of ASTINAVE’s and SIMA’s projects in the past decade exemplify this learning curve, and also what one could call an “ambition curve.”

ASTINAVE built Isla Santa Cruz and three other small coastal patrol craft in the first half of the 2010s, then two 50 meter offshore patrol vessels (Isla San Cristóbal and Isla Santa Isabel, delivered in 2017), and now is preparing to build a multipurpose combat vessel. Similarly, in recent years, SIMA’s facilities in Callao and Chimbote have built six coastal patrol vessels, a training vessel, and now two complex landing platform docks (this list does not include riverine vessels built by SIMA-Iquitos).

Without a doubt, there is a level of technological capability and expertise that many shipyards do not possess. Hence it is highly implausible to assume that Latin American navies will stop relying on extra-regional suppliers for warships, submarines, coastal patrol vessels or transport ships in the near future. Even a second-hand warship from an “A-class” navy is more technologically advanced than what some regional navies currently operate or can hope to build domestically. Nevertheless, as has been demonstrated in this commentary, many shipyards have the ambition which, if financially supported by their respective governments, will translate into more complex vessels being built in regional shipyards in the near future.

The Ambition for More “Made in Latin America” Ships

Nowadays, occasional tensions and some border disputes notwithstanding, the possibility of inter-state warfare in Latin America and the Caribbean is quite low. Nevertheless, navies must possess minimum deterrent capabilities. Moreover, they have other non-defense tasks, such as combating maritime crimes like illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; drug smuggling; participating in search and rescue; and HA/DR operations.

To carry out these numerous missions, navies must operate modern vessels with different capabilities. While many navies are acquiring brand new vessels – Argentina is acquiring four offshore patrol vessels manufactured by French shipyard Naval Group– due to budgetary issues or what is available in the international market, some services are sometimes forced to acquire decommissioned vessels or ships that do not exactly match the service’s requirements. The result are Frankenstein’s monster-type fleets, with ships of various origins. Over the past decade, Latin American shipyards like Ecuador’s ASTINAVE and Peru’s SIMA have provided an important alternative regarding the procurement of new ships.

The meeting of Ecuador’s patrol vessel Isla Santa Cruz and Peru’s training vessel Unión in Ecuadorian waters was not solely a standard encounter of two friendly navies. It highlights the current status and trajectory of many Latin American shipyards, which are building more technologically complex ships for their respective navies. By the time the young Peruvian cadets aboard Unión become senior officers, this type of meeting on the high seas may become the norm across Latin American waters.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

*The ARM Reformador (POLA-101) was renamed to POLA ARM-101 Benito Juárez.

Featured Image: March 2017 – COTECMAR delivers OPV ARC Victoria to the Colombian Navy (COTECMAR photo)