Since 1965 the focus of Colombia’s defense policy has been on countering insurgent groups, principally the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia otherwise and more commonly known as FARC, and the supporting narcotics trade. Now that Colombia is on a path to peace with FARC (see info box below), it is apparent that there will be a shift in Colombia’s defense priorities that will have direct implications for policy.
It is clear in the messaging from Colombia’s military leaders that issues related to FARC and the peace process are expected to remain a priority. Two of the three prioritized “lines of action” outlined by Colombian military leadership are “Sword of Honor”, a continuing military response to criminal threats, and “Transition to Peace” which oversees the disarmament and reintegration of guerilla fighters. This pairing likely represents a “carrot and stick” approach to mitigating the risk posed by former FARC guerillas experienced in drug-trafficking and kidnapping. The exploration of issues beyond the FARC peace process is covered in the third prioritized “line of action” which establishes a command to transform Colombia’s military and develop strategy through 2030 (see graphic below).
A successful peace process with FARC will mean Colombia’s defense policymakers will be able to commit more resources to external challenges, specifically those posed by Nicaragua and Venezuela. Nicaragua and Colombia have a recurring dispute over islands in the South Caribbean Sea which motivated Nicaragua to begin expanding its small collection of patrol boats (according to the Military Balance 2017, the Nicaraguan Navy has eight patrol boats: three Dabur-class, four Rodman 101 and one Zhuk-class). Neither these patrol boats nor Nicaragua’s nonexistent offensive air capabilities pose a realistic challenge to Colombia’s blue water force of four Almirante Padilla-class frigates, two Pijao-class (GER T-209/1200) and two Intrepido-class (GER T-206A) tactical submarines.
Nicaragua does, however, have a close relationship with Venezuela, who has their own island dispute and border tensions with Colombia. Venezuela’s fleet of blue-water combatants is on paper a fairly even match with Colombia’s (six Mariscal Sucre-class frigates and two Sabalo-class (GER T-209/1300) tactical submarines). When examining air assets, however, the comparison is more one-sided. The highlight of Colombia’s air inventory is a single squadron of Kfir C-10/C-12/TC-12 ground attack fighters, which does not match up well with Venezuela’s two squadrons of F-16s sold by the US in 1982 to counter Cuban MiG-23 acquisition and four squadrons (with a possible fifth in the works) of Su-30s (For the sake of this comparison squadrons of older generation aircraft and light attack aircraft such as Tucanos have been intentionally overlooked). In addition to this superiority in aircraft, Venezuela’s Air Defense Command has the region’s most advanced air defense which features the Russian-sourced S-300VM surface to air missile system.
This inequality in hardware distracts from potential readiness challenges facing the Venezuelan defense forces. A 2004 report by Stratfor stated that “Venezuela’s armed forces (FAN) are among the poorest, least prepared military institutions in Latin America, despite the country’s substantial oil revenues.” Given Venezuela’s continuing difficulty in preventing Colombian rebel groups from crossing the border (a frequent source of tension), the increase in political instability since the death of Hugo Chavez, and defense spending decreasing from roughly a third to roughly a sixth of Colombia’s from 2014 to 2016 (according to the Military Balance 2016 and 2017). It is not likely that there has been any meaningful improvement and possible that the situation has deteriorated.
It is perhaps due to Venezuela’s readiness challenges that Colombian acquisitions do not seem to be in response to an imbalance in air power. A modernization of the Colombian Army’s rotary wing inventory, artillery, and APCs suggest that Colombia’s solution to near rivals is in converting an army that currently consists of one armored division and eight light infantry divisions to a more conventional and mechanized force (in 2016, Colombia ordered 60 Textron Commando armoured infantry fighting vehicles for US$ 65 millions).
Any conversion of the Colombian Army will have to balance continuing counterinsurgency demands. While FARC has been the primary insurgent organization in Colombia, the National Liberation Army, Popular Liberation Army, and Indigenous Revolutionary Armed Forces of the Pacific (ELN, EPL, and FARIP respectively) are still active in Colombia. The Colombian government is currently pursuing a peace deal with the ELN, by far the largest of these groups, using the negotiations with FARC as a model. Despite the promise for a drastically reduced need for counterinsurgency operations, however, the fact that Colombia’s defense structure is responsible for both domestic and international issues as well as the geography of Colombia and its neighbors mean that light infantry will continue to be important. Continued acquisitions of coastal patrol vessels also indicate that the Colombian Navy anticipates a continued need for interdiction operations, which in the past have been counter-narcotics in nature.
The peace process with FARC, if successful, will present an opportunity for Colombian defense policymakers to shift focus to regional challenges. While Nicaragua has challenged Colombian claims in the South Caribbean Sea, the Colombian Navy has no reason to feel challenged by Nicaragua’s small collection of patrol boats. Of more concern is Venezuela’s superiority in aircraft, though serious doubts regarding the readiness of Venezuela’s entire military diminish the credibility of that threat. Rather than addressing challenges in the air, Colombian acquisitions would seem to indicate a desire to conventionalize and modernize the Army, though geography and lingering counterinsurgency challenges may continue to demand a land force dominated by light infantry.
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