All posts by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

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.

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

The author would like to thank the 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)

How Peaceful Is The South Atlantic?

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Admiral Eduardo Bacellar Leal Ferreira, commander of the Brazilian Navy, gave an interview to the Uruguayan daily El País this past December 2015. The Admiral optimistically declared that “today there is no ocean more peaceful than the South Atlantic, there are no tensions that cannot be solved. We have problems in the Malvinas [Falklands] or in the Gulf of Guinea, but there are no wars. This is the only ocean where the major powers do not have warships.” This statement is an ideal starting point for an in-depth discussion of South Atlantic geopolitics.

A Conflict-Less Ocean?

Due to space issues, we cannot discuss in detail every South Atlantic maritime conflict. Nevertheless, the Brazilian Admiral is incorrect to declare that the only regional disputes are the Falklands/Malvinas and the Gulf of Guinea. A total list includes:

  • The Falklands/Malvinas: Argentina claims these islands, currently controlled by the United Kingdom (the two countries had a brief war in 1982). In 2013, the inhabitants of the Falklands held a referendum in which they voted to remain part of the UK – Argentina does not recognize the ballot.
  • Ghana and Ivory Coast: The two countries have a dispute over offshore oil drilling along their border. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) gave an interim ruling in 2015 but a final decision is not expected until 2017.
  • Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo: In 2014, the Angolan government attempted to redraw the maritime border with the DRC in order to gain control of some 200 additional miles. The two countries have contested their border since the 1970s.
  • Equatorial Guinea and Gabon: The two countries claim the Mbanie, Cocotiers and Congas islands since the early 1970s. It is believed that there are underwater oil reserves around those islands.

Preventing War

In spite of the aforementioned maritime disputes, Admiral Ferreira is generally correct when he praises the peacefulness of the South Atlantic. After all, the last confrontation in the region was the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War.

Even more, war has been successfully prevented in other disputes: in 1978 Papal mediation helped avoid a war between Argentina and Chile in the Beagle Channel, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. Moreover, the dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula was solved via international ruling – in 2006 the two governments signed the “UN-backed Greentree Agreement [which set] the terms and timeframe for the implementation of the 2002 ruling of the [International Court of Justice], which transferred the Bakassi Peninsula from Nigeria to Cameroon.” The list of successfully mediated disputes could grow if ITLOS manages to resolve the Ghana-Ivory Coast issue or if the UN’s current mediation efforts between Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are fruitful. In other words there are plenty of examples that highlight the peacefulness of the South Atlantic.

Certainly, there is always the possibility of an unforeseen “X factor” that could jump-start a war. The battle over precious resources like oil is a likely reason as most of these conflicts have to do with control of maritime areas where large deposits of oil are believed to be located. In the case of Argentina, there is a high degree of patriotism over the Falklands/Malvinas themselves, but the recent discovery of new oil deposits by Rockhopper is another reason for Buenos Aires to desire control over them. This scenario is also plausible on the African side of the Atlantic. An October 2015 report by the Institute for Security Studies entitled “Why Africa must resolve its Maritime Boundary Disputes,” argues that “the location of oil fields and natural resources deposits can result in considerable complications when states unilaterally determine and apportion exploration blocks that infringe upon areas of disputed ownership by a neighboring state.”

Should other sources of state-revenue dry up, governments may become more willing to engage in a war, or at least aggressively push for negotiations, over any of the aforementioned maritime disputes.

New Navies But For What?

In a 2011 essay for Small Wars & Insurgencies, I argued that South America was involved in an arms race. The situation has changed in 2016, particularly among the South Atlantic states. For example, the Brazilian Navy continues with its ambitious programs, in spite of its economic woes, which include the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine, four Scorpene subs, and repairing its Sao Paulo carrier. Furthermore, in late 2015 Brazil purchased the multipurpose vessBahiacomoG40bememcloseABREABREel TCD Siroco from France – it has been renamed the G-40 Bahia. Nevertheless, these purchases have not made Brazil’s neighbors perceive it as a security threat, as Uruguay’s Navy has not carried out major purchases in years while Argentina has only repaired the submarine ARA San Juan and purchased four Russian vessels that will be utilized for search and rescue operations and Antarctic research. Neither Montevideo nor Buenos Aires appear to expect an invasion from the Portuguese-speaking giant.

As for the African South Atlantic states, Equatorial Guinea commissioned a frigate, the Wle Nzas, in June 2014. “This warship is the flagship of the Equatorial Guinea Navy and it will [help] to ensure security in the Gulf of Guinea,” said President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Meanwhile Gabon has ordered two offshore patrol vessels from KERSHIP, a joint-initiatives of PIRIOU and DCNS (though a January report by DefenceWeb argues that the contract may have been deferred). As for Nigeria, it constructed the NNS Andoni in 2012; “with a speed of up to 25 knots (46km/h), this can quickly go to intercept the pirates,” said Commanding Officer Adepegba. The country also acquired a patrol vessel from China in 2014. Finally, the Angolan government announced in late 2015 that it will purchase “two fast-attack naval craft and several coastal radar and repeater station systems worth €122 million from two subsidiaries of Italy’s Finmeccanica.”

As has been discussed in various analyses, due to the general inter-state tranquility of the South Atlantic, regional navies are looking for a new raison d’etre. Protecting natural resources and non-traditional security threats are the standard reasons. Without a doubt, Africa’s West coast continues to have a major problem with piracy, including the hijacking of transport ships, so it is in the interest of regional governments to have strong navies to monitor their waters. As for protecting natural resources within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, this includes both oil exploration as well as combating crimes like illegal fishing. Nevertheless, while African states have valid reasons to upgrade their naval forces, Brazil has a more difficult case regarding its projects. Without addressing the nuclear submarine or carrier by name, in his interview with El País, Admiral Ferreira argues that Brazil must maintain a deterrent force to protect its natural resources, “we have [offshore] oil fields, and if there is an energy crisis it is necessary to deter anyone from coming to Brazil to take our resources.” While there is an obvious logic to the Brazilian Admiral’s statement, it is unclear exactly who is this enemy that requires a nuclear-powered submarine to defeat.

Global Powers

Finally, Admiral Ferreira argued that no world power has vessels in the South Atlantic. That is generally true, particularly since 1986, when the United Nations created the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone, which declares that the South Atlantic is a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Nevertheless, warships from the global powers routinely cross the South Atlantic; just this past April 2015, the USS Spearhead arrived in Gabon and carried out exercises with the local navy as part of the Africa Partnership Station. “During our visit, we’ll conduct marine-to-marine training along with medical subject matter expert exchanges, thus helping build a stronger Global Network of Navies,” said Commander Matthew Flemming. In May of the same year, the French offshore patrol vessel L’Adroit docked in Cape Town. As for the French-Navy’s-OPV-Visits-Cape-Town-South-Africa-320x213other side of the Atlantic, the USS America visited Brazil in 2014 while the aforementioned French OPV L’Adroit docked in Uruguay in mid-February 2016. Furthermore, apart from the Falklands, London also controls South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. Moreover, the British-controlled Ascension Island was a strategically important stopover for British warships and transport vessels during the Falklands War.

Hence, Admiral Ferreira’s declaration is a slight overstatement. While there are no British battle groups patrolling the Falklands nor does the U.S. Navy have a fleet stationed in Ascension Island (though the U.S. Air Force does utilize an auxiliary field there), global powers do have a constant presence in the South Atlantic’s waters.

A South Atlantic NATO?

Even though Admiral Ferreira did not discuss South Atlantic integration, it is important to mention that that the two sides of the Atlantic have increased defense ties in recent years. For example the ATLASUR naval exercises bring South American and African navies together, while Brazil and South Africa (along with India) have carried out the IBSAMAR exercises.

Nevertheless, calls for greater South-South cooperation have not ended in some grand new maritime defense initiative. The aforementioned exercises are important, but neither Brazil nor South Africa, the two powerhouses of the South Atlantic, have taken major steps to bring together all these navies towards some common objective (i.e. forming a trans-oceanic task-force to combat maritime crimes). The region already came together in 1986 with the SAPCZ and there is already a modern precedent for various countries attempting to deal with maritime affairs – namely, the African Union’s “2050 Africa’s Integration Maritime Strategy,” which will address (and ideally solve) the continent’s maritime issues, such as border disputes. We have yet to see the South Atlantic capitalize on its general peacefulness to address non-traditional defense problems.

Final Thoughts

Brazilian Admiral Ferreira is generally correct by praising the peacefulness of the South Atlantic. Of course, an unforeseen incident could occur or a series of decisions within a government that prompts it to decide to start a war with a neighboring state. The possibility of petro-money is an enticing reason to engage in violence, particularly as this non-renewable commodity becomes scarcer in the near future or, as the aforementioned ISS report explains, “maritime boundary disputes, many long dormant, are increasingly exacerbated by a growing interest in exploring and exploiting natural resources.” Nevertheless, the region can praise itself for having avoided inter-state war in spite of several border disputes.

Currently, the South Atlantic’s maritime security issues revolve around cracking down on piracy, drug trafficking and protecting natural resources (like oil deposits and the maritime ecosystem). Robust navies, including coast guards, are an obvious requirement, but there is a thin line that separates obtaining equipment that is needed (like Argentina purchasing search-and-rescue vessels or Angola buying crafts) to other whose usage is questionable (i.e.,  Brazil’s acquisition of a nuclear submarine).

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones in Latin America. 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. Follow him on Twitter @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Neither Side Appears Ready for War: Falklands/Malvinas Islands Analysis

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Argentina has requested that the United Kingdom engage in diplomatic talks regarding control of the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, depending on which side you support. As the islands will not change hands anytime soon, with London citing a 2013 referendum as proof of the Falklanders’ desire to remain in the UK, the dispute will continue. Nevertheless, in spite of occasional aggressive statements or alarmist media reports from either London or Buenos Aires, it is important to highlight that neither side has significantly increased their defense spending vis-à-vis the islands.

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The War

In 1982, Argentina launched an invasion of the islands, as the military government in Buenos Aires wanted to distract the Argentine population from the country’s crumbling economy and unite the citizenry behind the junta. The Falklands War has been extensively analyzed (see such essays as “Delayed Reaction: UK Maritime Expeditionary Capabilities and the Lessons of the Falklands Conflict,” and “Facts Influencing the Defeat of the Argentine Air Power in the Falklands War”) but a word must still be said about the conflict. The war is significant because, as Dr. Ian Speller explains, it “was the first time since 1945 that a major western navy had come under sustained air attack at sea [and] it was the first time that a nuclear-powered hunter killer submarine conducted a successful attack on enemy surface units.”

The navies and air forces from both sides were actively engaged in the battle to control the Falklands. As for successful attacks, aircraft from the Argentine Air Force and Navy managed to sink British vessels like the warships HMS Sheffield and HMS Ardent, and the supply ship MV Atlantic Conveyor, among others. Meanwhile, a British nuclear submarine, the HMS Conqueror, sank the Argentine Navy’s flagship, the ARA General Belgrano.

The HMS Conqueror flies the Jolly Roger after sinking the Belgrano.
The HMS Conqueror flies the Jolly Roger after sinking the Belgrano.

Official Statements

To this day, Argentina continues to claim ownership of the islands. Case in point, now former-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, declared this past April that she foresaw that one day the islands would be under Argentine control. A month earlier, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that “we are going to beef up the defence of Falkland Islands,” the obvious assumption being that the islands need protection from a possible Argentine attack. These statements come to no surprise, as over the past years Buenos Aires and London claim that the “other side” is taking aggressive steps regarding the islands.

The islands, particularly after the war, are a key part of Argentine nationalism, hence it should not be surprising that Argentina’s new head of state, President Mauricio Macri, will give the occasional nationalistic statement over the islands or call for negotiations. Nevertheless he also wants U.S. and European investment to jump start the country’s economy, so he may not be overly aggressive (after his electoral victory in November, Macri and Prime Minister David Cameron held a telephone discussion in which they agreed on forging closer commercial ties). I would argue that nationalistic statements or calls for dialogue with London from Buenos Aires are mostly for internal consumption, as a way for President Macri to show his people that he has not forgotten about the islands. After all, it would be political suicide for any Argentine president to not make the occasional patriotic declaration regarding the Falklands.

Defense Realities

Provocative calls for negotiations aside, the Argentine Navy is in no particular shape to engage in a new conflict over the islands. The Navy’s biggest acquisition in recent years was that of four Russian multipurpose ships (Aviso/Neftegaz-class), which will be utilized for search and rescue operations and scientific projects around the Antarctic. The vessels arrived to the South American nation this past December. Theoretically, the Navy could install weapons systems aboard the vessels, but it is unlikely that this will happen due to budgetary

The ARA San Juan
The ARA San Juan

limitations. Regarding submarines the only new development is that in 2014 the ARA San Juan (a diesel TR-1700-class) was finally returned to the Navy after it underwent repairs that had taken several years to complete.

As for the Air Force, which was a critical factor in Argentina’s victories at sea during the Falklands War, just this past November it decommissioned its aging Mirage warplane fleet. The problem is that the Air Force does not have a new warplane to replace the Mirage. Over the past years there were rumors that Buenos Aires would acquire Russian Sukhoi warplanes (hence the need for London to “beef up” the defense of the islands) but this deal never materialized. Similarly, a recent deal for Israeli Kfir warplanes has been put on hold. For the time being, Argentina will have to rely on trainers, such as the Pampa III, and various, also aging, aircraft to protect its airspace.

The Air Force’s situation is so dismal that during the December 2015 inauguration ceremony of President Macri, Argentina requested that Uruguay have three of its own Cessna Dragonfly planes on alert, ready to support Buenos Aires if some crisis occurred. While this request speaks well of Argentina-Uruguay defense relations, it highlights that the Argentine military is hardly in any shape to attempt a renewed operation to take over the Falklands.

As for the UK Navy, the big news is that it is constructing two new carriers, one of which, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, should be operational by 2020. The new vessels are part of a push for greater defense spending by London. Just this past December, Secretary Fallon declared that “we have said we will maintain a minimum fleet of 19 destroyers and frigates, but as the older frigates are retired we also hope to add a lighter frigate between the offshore patrol vessel and Type 26 and to build more of those as well.” Additionally, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy will benefit from having the new F-35 warplanes in their inventory, as “the Lightning II will be the backbone of Britain’s future carrier operations.” (Of course, how long it will take for the F-35 to be delivered is another question).

Regarding the Falklands themselves, the Royal Navy maintains the HMS Clyde stationed there as part of its South Atlantic Patrol program (in November 2015, the HMS Clyde assisted in rescuing tourists trapped in a sinking cruise ship close to the Falklands). Additionally, the British daily Express reported that this past April British troops carried out exercises in the Falklands which simulated an invasion of the islands. As for new equipment, the only major ongoing acquisition program seems to be additional Giraffe AMB radars, manufactured by Saab.

One could argue that the British military is suffering from exhaustion due to the multiple operations it carries out around the world, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to security operations in the Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa. Just this past December, the destroyer HMS Defender was deployed to the Mediterranean to support the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Given its multiple ongoing operations, it’s difficult to say how long it would take London to organize a new expeditionary force that would be sent to the Falklands, should another conflict occur. (Daniel Gibran’s The Falklands War, 1998, provides a great summary of the logistical success of deploying over 50 warships, over 50 support vessels, aircraft, troops, ammo and other supplies to the South Atlantic – p. 80-83).

Conspiracy Theories/Exaggerations

Finally, a word must be said about accusations originating in both London and Buenos Aires concerning the other’s intentions regarding the Falklands. As previously mentioned, while there has not been another war over the islands since the early 1980s, just about every year there are accusations that either the Argentine or British government are behaving in an aggressive manner. For example, in 2012 Argentina accused the UK of “militarizing” the South Atlantic. Moreover, the Argentine media widely reproduced the March 2015 comments by Secretary Fallon about “beefing up” of the defenses in the Falklands. In particular the Argentine media quoted and discussed a March 23, 2015, report by the British tabloid The Sun that London feared an imminent attack by Argentina, with Russian support. At the time, the ongoing theory in the British media was that, due to the close relations between Moscow and Buenos Aires (largely due to the friendship between President Vladimir Putin with then-President Kirchner), Russia would somehow support Argentina’s military in the islands.

Final Thoughts

As a reminder, Argentina did not purchase the Russian or Israeli planes while, apart from one military exercise and new radars, the British have yet to significantly beef up their security of the islands. Thus, I would argue that currently the possibility of a renewed war remains extremely low, particularly now that the new Argentine President Macri is actually trying to approach the West (meaning the U.S. and Europe) for investment in order to improve the country’s economy. The British government seems to have a similar assessment of the situation as the Strategic Defense and Security Review 2015 explains that “we judge the risk of a military attack [against the Falklands] to be low, but we will retain a deterrence posture, with sufficient military forces in the region, including Royal Navy warships, Army units and RAF Typhoon aircraft.”

The information presented in this analysis argues that in spite of the occasional alarmist report, neither side has actually carried out major military-related initiatives that could be labeled as aggressive. Argentina has not acquired significant military equipment aside from four Russian research vessels and its repaired old submarine, while the UK, apart from one military exercise, does not seem to have sent additional troops or vessels to the islands. While diplomatic tensions will remain for the immediate future, as Buenos Aires will not give up its claim to the islands and London will not negotiate their fate, hopefully we will not witness another war over the Falklands. Then again, as Gibran states “predicting state behavior is not an exact science, especially in conflict situations. The assumption of a rational behavior on the part of a country, however desirable this idea may appear, is not a given state of affairs” (The Falklands War, p. 89).

As a corollary to this analysis, in early January the oil and gas company Rockhopper announced that it had discovered oil in its Isobel Deep well in the Falklands. The potential of big oil reserves is another reason for Argentina’s claim on the islands, and the recent discovery will give new impetus for calling for negotiations. If nothing else, we can be thankful that both militaries, particularly their navies, are hardly in a position to participate in another war just yet.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones in Latin America. 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. Follow him on Twitter @W_Alex_Sanchez

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The Colombian Navy: South America’s Powerhouse?

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

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

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

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

Lack of Warfare: A Brief History

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

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

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

A Force to be Reckoned With

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issues and Challenges

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Caracas Question

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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