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The UNCLCS Ruling and the Future of the Uruguayan Navy

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Uruguay’s continental shelf control has been extended to 350 nautical miles. On 30 August, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) ruled in favor of the South American nation’s request to extend its maritime territory by 83,000 square kilometers. While this is a major diplomatic victory for the Uruguayan government, the new territory will need to be properly patrolled, which means additional pressure on the Uruguayan Navy that currently operates with an aging fleet.

The author of this commentary argues that Uruguay’s new maritime territory should be a starting point for a greater discussion about the future of its Navy, both in terms of its future fleet composition and missions.  

A Brief History

It is important to stress that the Uruguayan military has not been in an inter-state conflict in over a century. Its last major confrontation was the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870). In the 20th century, Uruguay supported the Allies in World War II (the 1939 Admiral Graf Spee incident occurred in Uruguayan waters). The only other major challenge to Uruguayan sovereignty occurred in the late 1960s to early 1970s when Uruguayan security forces battled the Tupamaros, a local insurgent movement.

In the 21st century, Uruguay has only had one small international incident. Between 2005-2010, the Uruguayan and Argentine governments had a diplomatic and legal dispute regarding the construction of a pulp mill in the Uruguay River, which serves as a border between the two states. Even though no conflict ever occurred, former Uruguayan President José Mujica famously declared in 2011 that he had contemplated the possibility of a war with Argentina over the pulp mill and had met with his military’s commanders about possible scenarios.

The Navy’s Current Platforms

Nowadays the Uruguayan military, and the Navy in particular, is in a dire state given limited budgets which prevent the acquisition of new heavy platforms.

In August, Admiral Leonardo Alonso, commander of the Uruguayan Navy, declared that the fleet has 12 operational sea platforms. The fleet composition includes a Joao Belo-class frigate, the ROU Uruguay; two Kondor II-class minesweepers, the ROU Temerario and the ROU Audaz (the ROU Fortuna was retired in 2014); the oceanic patrol vessel ROU Maldonado the support vessels ROU General Artigas and ROU Vanguardia. Additional vessels include the tugboat ROU Banco Ortiz; the oceanographic ship ROU Oyarvide; the ROU Sirius; and the patrol boats ROU Colonia, ROU Rio Negro, and the ROU Paysandu. According to Uruguayan media, the average age of the fleet is 50 years (e.g. the Joao Belo frigate was constructed in the late 1960s).

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ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 7, 2010) A rigid-hull inflatable boat assigned to the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) approaches the Uruguayan navy frigate Uruguay (ROU 1) for a passenger transfer. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Barker/Released)

A strongly worded op-ed in the daily El Observador op-ed published on 20 August, provocatively titled “Who Needs the Armed Forces?” stresses how the Navy is “bankrupt, not only because of its aging fleet, its lackluster training and small budget, but due to corruption scandals in recent years that have affected the morale.”

For the past couple of years, the Uruguayan military has attempted to purchase modern offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), which will be the cornerstone of the future fleet. The Navy has apparently selected Lurssen’s OPV 80 model and reportedly plans to procure three platforms in a deal which will cost an estimated USD $250 million. To date, no contract has been signed yet as the government appears to lack sufficient funds to purchase the vessels. 

The Uruguayan Navy has been lobbying the government for new funds and the approval of the OPV-deals in order to properly monitor the country’s growing sea. Admiral Leonardo Alonso has declared to the Senate that on any given day the Navy detects around 350 ships in Uruguayan waters “but we only see the ones that wish to be detected, which have their equipment on and are identified by our sensors,” which means that the country is vulnerable to “piracy, maritime accidents, pollution, drug trafficking, smuggling, and illegal fishing.” In an e-mail interview with the author, an Uruguayan naval officer explained that “in Uruguayan waters there is an average of 200 vessels (cruising or anchored) carrying out different tasks. This volume means that without proper control of maritime traffic, the probability of accidents and incidents escalates.” The officer also highlighted the necessity of a coastal surveillance network for Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) to aid the activities of the (yet to be acquired) OPVs and their support helicopters.

While this analysis is focusing on the Uruguayan Navy’s platforms and equipment, it is necessary to briefly mention personnel woes. The Uruguayan officer explained to the author that it is also vitally important “to retain our personnel and prevent a migration to the private sector as they seek salary improvements.” The problem of preventing qualified military personnel from migrating to better paid (and less dangerous) positions in the private sector is an issue that affects many militaries across the world.

The UNCLCS Ruling

It is in this problematic situation that the UNCLCS’s ruling enters the equation. Montevideo first requested the UNCLCS to expand its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in 2009. “Uruguay has a special interest in expanding its continental shelf rights since it is currently involved in the search for oil and gas in the so called Punta del Este basin,” explained a September 2009 report by MercoPress.

According to Uruguayan media, a Uruguayan delegation met with a UNCLCS commission 21 times to argue its case between 2011 and 2015. The aforementioned naval officer also highlighted the role of the oceanographic vessel Oyarvide and the Navy’s Oceanographic, Hydrographic, and Meteorological Service in contributing to the case made to the UNCLCS.

In 2016, Uruguay presented its case to the plenary of the UNCLCS and the Commission decided in favor of Montevideo’s request to expand its continental shelf to a total of 350 nautical miles on 30 August. According to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, “the new territory grants mineral and resource rights over the continental shelf (sea floor) but it does not grant fishing rights over the new area.” Meanwhile, the Uruguayan daily El Observador explains that the country now has more maritime territory than dry land.

The UNCLCS’s decision has been a massive victory for the administration of President Tabaré Vázquez. In fact, the Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rodolfo Nin Novoa, has declared “nobody can do anything [in these waters] without Uruguay’s authorization.” The minister’s statement was perhaps too bold as the aforementioned Admiral Alonso has highlighted the problematic situation of the Navy while Defense Minister Jorge Menendez has stressed the need for USD $250 million to upgrade the fleet (namely to acquire the OPVs).

One Possible Way Forward

The expansion of Uruguay’s continental shelf should serve as a starting point for a discussion about the future of its Navy. Given the lack of an external security threat (the author has discussed South Atlantic geopolitics in a 17 February commentary for CIMSEC, “How Peaceful is the South Atlantic?”), particularly as the pulp mill diferendum with Argentina appears to have been solved, the Uruguayan armed forces have had to reinvent themselves in recent decades to justify their existence. Case in point, the country is a major supplier of peacekeepers to the United Nations – as of 31 August, Uruguay has a contingent of 1,457 troops participating in UN peacekeeping missions.

Regarding the Navy, its current and future challenges are transnational and irregular in nature. Rather than worrying about the Brazilian nuclear or Scorpene submarines appearing on its coast, the major maritime security threats include drug trafficking, illegal fishing, maritime pollution, as well as search and rescue operations.

Illegal fishing is a major problem for governments around the world, and the South Atlantic already has the precedent of the March incident between the Argentine Coast Guard and an illegal Chinese fishing fleet that highlights the need for a well-equipped and modern fleet that can chase and detain (or sink, if violence is necessary) illegal fishing vessels. To this point, the Uruguayan daily El Pais has noted that the country’s waters have fish species like merluza (a cod-like fish), the pescadilla (whiting) and the corvina, which must be protected from illegal fishing.

Another task for the Navy’s future will be to protect future oil platforms that may be constructed in Uruguay’s maritime waters. As a matter of fact, France’s Total company (with U.S. ExxonMobil and Norway’s Statoil as partners) has been looking for oil in Uruguayan and South Atlantic waters, though unsuccessfully so far. The South Atlantic does not have a piracy problem in the sense of oil platforms being at risk of criminal attack. However, if a Deepwater Horizon-type accident were to occur in one of these new wells, the Navy must have capable vessels able to rescue workers in peril and contain potential oil spills and other destruction. It is worth noting that just in late September the aforementioned Audaz and Artigas had to assist the Fortune Harmony, a tanker that had a fire aboard while 20 miles off Piriapolis, Uruguay.

KD Darussalam, the first of the four OPVs built by Lurssen for the Royal Brunei. (luerssen-defence.com/)
KD Darussalam, the first of the four OPVs built by Lurssen for the Royal Brunei. (luerssen-defence.com)

For these operations, the Navy requires new sea platforms, namely OPVs, to support and eventually replace the antiquated vessels it currently operates,  as well as a coastal monitoring network. While this author is not qualified to properly discuss the training of Uruguayan naval officers as well as the budgetary issues, the problem of preventing well-trained personnel from migrating to the private sector affects the Uruguayan Navy like in other defense forces across the world.

Final Thoughts

Proper surveillance of the extended continental shelf is a critical task for the Uruguayan Navy and will be the cornerstone of its maritime strategy going forward. Incidents like the March clash between Argentina and illegal Chinese fishing vessels (illegal fishing), or the recent Fortune Harmony incident (disasters at sea and possible pollution) are reminders of why it is a priority for a nation with a large continental shelf to have a modern fleet capable of adapting to different scenarios.

With that said, Uruguay’s history and current South Atlantic geopolitics argue that the possibility of inter-state warfare is minimal. Hence, Uruguay must upgrade its Navy, not just in terms of new platforms, radars and helicopters, but also its mission in the 21st century.

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

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Uruguay navy ship. (aeromarine.com.uy)

The Rise Of The Latin American Shipyard

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Introduction

In recent months various Latin American navies have either received or deployed new platforms. For example, Chile and Mexico have launched new Oceanic Patrol Vessels (OPVs) while Colombia has launched two amphibious landing vessels and two speedboats. In late July, Peru’s brand-new training vessel, the Union, left port for its first voyage.

While these acquisitions and deployments appear standard, there is one important detail that links them together: all these platforms were produced by Latin American shipyards.

The global shipbuilding industry is about to get more crowded as Latin America shipyards are making their presence felt. Their platforms are not solely produced for local navies, as exporting them is now an objective.

Current Projects

The most ambitious domestic naval project is found in Brazil. With assistance from the French company DCNS, the Brazilian Navy is constructing four Scorpene-class diesel-electric submarines, as well as a nuclear-powered submarine, a dream of the Brazilian Navy for decades. Just this past July, the fourth section of the Humaitá was delivered to Itaguaí Construções Navais (ICN).  According to the Brazilian news agency Defesa Aerea & Naval the first submarine, the Riachuelo, will be launched in 2018 and delivered in 2020 while the Humaitá will be launched in 2020 and delivered in 2021.

Apart from the submarines themselves, Brazil is also constructing a submarine-building facility in Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. These projects constitute the massive program known as Programa de Desenvolvimiento de Submarinos or Program Development for Submarines (PROSUB).

A photo of the team that worked on the production of the submarine's stern of the Humaitá. Planobrazil.com
A photo of the team that worked on the production of the stern of the Brazilian submarine Humaitá. (Planobrazil.com)

Other countries are manufacturing naval platforms, though not submarines. Specifically, regional shipyards are constructing OPVs, multipurpose vessels, and even training vessels. Case in point, in late July, the Colombian shipyard Corporación de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo de la Industria Naval Marítima y Fluvial (COTECMAR) delivered two new amphibious landing vessels, the Golfo de Morrosquillo and Bahía Málaga to the Colombian Navy, as well as two river patrol boats. COTECMAR has already delivered two similar ships (the Golfo de Tribuga and the Golfo de Uraba) to the Colombian Navy and plans to build an additional two more for a total of six vessels. The company has also constructed OPVs like the 7 de Agosto, which participated in operations Atalanta and Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa.

When it comes to other countries, in early August the Chilean shipyard Astilleros y Maestranzas de la Armada (ASMAR) launched the OPV Cabo Odger from its facilities in Talcahuano. The company has already delivered three similar vessels: Piloto Pardo, Comandante Toro and Marinero Fuentealba that were commissioned June 2008, August 2009, and November 2014, respectively.”

As for neighboring Peru, the state-run shipyard Servicios Industriales de la Marina (SIMA) has, as previously mentioned, constructed the country’s new training vessel (the author has discussed Latin America’s training vessels in a 6 June commentary for CIMSEC). On 27 July, the BAP Union departed the port in Callao for its first multinational voyage, carrying aboard 93 Peruvian naval cadets. Moreover, two patrol vessels were launched earlier this year: the Rio Pativilca and the Rio Cañete; they were constructed in SIMA’s shipyard in Chimbote (northern Peru).

As a final example,the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy has announced that the shipyard Astillero de la Marina (ASTIMAR) has launched two new vessels in the past couple of months. The shipyard No.6 at Guaymas (state of Sonora) launched the logistics support vessel ARM Isla María Madre in late May while shipyard No.1 shipyard launched coastal patrol vessel ARM Monte Albán in mid July. IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly explains that “Secretary of Navy Admiral Vidal Soberón Sanz noted during the launch ceremony that the ship was entirely built by Mexican workers with local materials.”

In an interview with the author, Mr. Mario Pedreros Leighton, president of the Georgetown Consulting Group, LLC., based in Washington DC, highlighted the multipurpose functions that these domestically-manufactured platforms accomplish. As inter-state war is highly unlikely in Latin America, platform acquisition is not solely judged on traditional defense from a foreign military, but what other missions platforms can carry out, particularly to support civil society. Mr. Pedreros Leighton explains how “there is no doubt that vessels today must fulfill a social role, like protecting natural resources and carrying out search and rescue operations. These uses make the vessels more attractive as their value is not based on traditional defense. In turn, governments find it easier to approve budgets and investments regarding these projects.” Hence, it is no surprise that the region has focused on constructing OPVs and multipurpose ships, as they are relatively inexpensive to operate and maintain, and can be utilized for patrol, support operations, as well as providing relief to coastal regions. 

Future Projects?

It is safe to say that Latin American shipyards will continue to produce vessels and submarines for local navies. As previously mentioned, Brazil is close to completing the construction of two Scorpene submarines, while it is expected that the two others will be delivered in 2022 and 2023. Even more, the highly anticipated nuclear submarine should be ready around 2023-2025.

Moreover, it appears that the Argentine shipbuilding industry is bouncing back after experiencing a difficult decade and a half of economic crisis and turbulent governance. The Rio Santiago shipyard in Buenos Aires province will now manufacture vessels that will be utilized to train naval cadets. Two are currently under construction, with a total of six expected to be ordered. According to the Argentine news agency Telam, the first will be delivered in 2018. Moreover, earlier this year Rio Santiago signed a deal with Daewoo to manufacture a Makassar-type landing dock platform vessel.

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Rio Santiago shipyard in Argentina. (Aandigital.com.ar)

It is important to highlight the assistance that other companies are providing to Latin American shipyards. Apart from DCNS in Brazil or Daewoo in Argentina, other examples include, Damen, which signed an agreement with Mexico so the country can construct in its own shipyards the aforementioned OPVs which are based on Damen’s Stan Patrol 4207. Similarly, while the Union was constructed in Peru, the Spanish company CYPSA Ingenieros Navales aided SIMA in the design of the vessel. As for future cooperation projects, representatives from Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems and Copower Ltda visited the facilities of Ecuador’s state-run shipyard Astilleros Navales Ecuatorianos (ASTINAVE) this past May.

The argument proposed here is that Latin American shipyards will continue to aim at domestically manufacturing platforms, which means that future deals with foreign shipyards will have to include some level of know-how and technical exchange.

The Ultimate Objective: Export

What is the ultimate goal for these shipyards? Manufacturing platforms for export, and not just to sell to local navies appears to be the answer. On this issue, Colombia’s COTECMAR reached a major milestone in April when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos carried out a diplomatic tour throughout Central America. During his stop in Honduras, President Santos signed a deal with the Honduran government where the latter will purchase a COTECMAR support vessel (the exact model and timeline for delivery are still unknown).

The significance of this deal cannot be underestimated as it is a Latin American shipyard exporting a platform to another regional state. (COTECMAR had previously supplied river boats to the Brazilian Army and Navy, however we are focusing on ocean-going platforms).

Colombia–Launch of the ARC Golfo de Uraba. (COTECMAR)

This deal also brings up the question of which countries are potential customers for Latin American shipyards. It makes sense that their primary targets would be countries with less developed naval industries, like for example Central America, Uruguay, and perhaps Caribbean states. If these hypothetical deals succeed, maybe some regional shipyard could attempt to export outside of the Western Hemisphere.

One plausible scenario is that, even if Latin American shipyards cannot sell brand-new platforms to the aforementioned nations, they could hypothetically still sell efficient, second-hand vessels from local navies at a much reduced cost. Mr. Pedreros Leighton explains how “Chile, for example, could attempt to sell the OPV Piloto Prado [constructed by ASMAR and utilized by the Chilean Navy] which is almost a decade old and was constructed utilizing a Fassmer 80 design.” Second-hand platforms are always an attractive option when there are insufficient funds for brand-new equipment.

Potential Problems

Due to space considerations, we will provide a broad overview of the likely woes thatregional shipyards could face regarding future projects. Financial and technical problemsare obvious concerns, which are best exemplified by the construction of the Brazilian submarines. In 2009, the Navy’s objective was to have the first submarine, the Riachuelo, launched in 2015, but construction has been delayed by three years. Meanwhile, the delivery date for the nuclear submarine varies by a margin of two years. These changing delivery dates certainly do not help the image of the ICN shipyard and its supporting companies.

Another issue is finding customers, locally and abroad. The global shipbuilding industry is cluttered as shipyards compete with one another as well as government-to-government deals (e.g. Peru has recently obtained a new corvette, the Ferre, which was donated by South Korea).  Moreover, while Latin American shipyards can construct vessels, potential customers may continue to prefer more expensive platforms from well-known companies.

ASTIMAR – OPV Chiapas. (imparcialoaxaca.mx)
OPV Chiapas in ASTIMAR shipyard in Mexico. (imparcialoaxaca.mx)

Another problem has to do with the volume of construction. Mr. Pedreros Leighton explains that “building one vessel is very expensive, but manufacturing two or more makes the project less costly.” Unsurprisingly, shipyards prefer to have large orders, however they may have to settle for single units (e.g. COTECMAR and Honduras) in order to establish their brands with foreign customers. While this situation may diminish sales revenue, the offset would be achieving a stronger name brand.

A final point has to do with marketing and name brands. Colombia’s COTECMAR has had an aggressive marketing program in order to gain customers abroad such as Brazil and Honduras. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss marketing strategies among shipyards, however it is necessary to stress that Latin American shipyards will only export platforms if they manage to make their names become well-known regionally.

Concluding Thoughts

Latin American shipyards are currently enjoying a boom, as many of them are constructing vessels from Brazilian submarines to OPVs in Chile and Mexico, to multipurpose vessels in Colombia, and a training vessel in Peru. This is a positive development for regional navies as they can rely on domestic shipyards to construct new platforms and have the expertise to repair vessels already in service. Moreover, the sale by Colombia’s COTECMAR to Honduras of a support ship is a significant development as this means regional shipyards are now exporting platforms.

It is true that Latin American navies cannot manufacture heavy surface combatants or carriers; meanwhile Brazil is having trouble keeping its ambitious PROSUB submarine project on schedule. Nevertheless, the tides are changing and Latin America is no longer solely an importer of sea platforms, it is also once again a producer and, albeit in a very restricted breadth, an exporter. 

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

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Construction of the Brazilian submarine Riachuelo in Itaguaí (RJ) (Planobrazil.com)

Latin America’s Training Vessels

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

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

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

A Comprehensive List

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

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

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

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

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

Training At Sea: A Confidence Building Mechanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incidents

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

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

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

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

Upgrades Needed?

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

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ARC Gloria Colombia. Photo: Colombian Navy

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

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

The Colombian Navy: South America’s Powerhouse?

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

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

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

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

Lack of Warfare: A Brief History

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

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

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

A Force to be Reckoned With

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issues and Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

The Caracas Question

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

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

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

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

PHOTOEX from UNITAS 2015
PHOTOEX from UNITAS 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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