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Venezuela and Colombia: The FAN is outmatched

By John Sweeney

13.11.05 | Recently we analyzed the order of battle and operational readiness levels of Venezuela’s FAN and the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). This article reviews the Colombian armed forces, since Venezuela’s new Bolivarian national security doctrine views Colombia as a likely proxy through which the U.S. may someday invade Venezuela.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled recently that President Alvaro Uribe Velez can seek re-election in May 2006. The most recent opinion polls in Colombia confirm that Uribe Velez is popular with up to 70% of voters. If elections were held today he would easily win a second four-year term ending in August 2010. This has geopolitical and security implications for the Bolivarian revolution led by President Hugo Chavez.

Uribe’s three-year-old military offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been effective in reducing violent crimes like kidnapping, extortion and murder. The FARC remains a lethal force, but Uribe’s offensive has inflicted major human and material losses on the Marxist militant organization. If Uribe is re-elected he will seek to intensify the military offensive against the FARC and other irregular groups in Colombia. Although U.S. congressional funding authority for Plan Colombia expired in October 2005, President George W. Bush has assured President Uribe Velez of continued U.S. support at least through U.S. government fiscal year 2009, which starts in October 2008 only a month before the next U.S. presidential elections.

The Uribe government’s main offensive thrust against the FARC during the past two years has been the Patriot Plan, which has deployed more than 15,000 air mobile troops in southern Colombia, striking deep into the historical sanctuary of the rebel group. However, Uribe is expanding the Colombian army with U.S. assistance. Within a year Uribe plans to deploy 20,000 troops in northwest Colombia.

The Colombian army is also expanding its forces along the border with Colombia, fulfilling a very old Venezuelan wish for a stronger Colombian security presence along its side of the border. However, as Colombia deploys more troops along its side of the border with Venezuela, the military balance of power along the border is being skewed even more acutely in favor of Colombia.

As Uribe expands his military offensive against the FARC into northwestern and northeastern Colombia over the coming year, FARC forces in both regions will break up into squad-sized units of a dozen fighters or less. The FARC also will cross the border into Panama and Venezuela to avoid contact with Colombian forces on search-and-destroy missions. Recently, fugitive Army General Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez charged in a television interview broadcast in Miami that the FARC now has 32 permanent base camps in Venezuelan territory. Over the next two or three years the expansion of Uribe’s military offensive against the FARC will push even more rebel forces into Venezuelan territory.

Strategically, the Venezuelan armed forces (FAN) have three major concerns as they eye Colombia’s expanding military power. First, as Uribe’s offensive against the FARC in northeastern Colombia escalates and pushes the rebels into Venezuela, the risk of clashes between Colombian and Venezuelan troops also increases. Second, Colombia’s growing military power implies a growing U.S. military presence in Colombia, and the United States is now officially the greatest external threat to Venezuela’s national security. It is official Bolivarian security doctrine that the U.S. wants to invade Venezuela, kill Chavez and seize control of the country’s crude oil and natural gas reserves. The FAN’s third concern is that the anticipated U.S. invasion could be triggered by a deliberate incident between Colombia and Venezuela, in which Colombia would serve as a U.S. proxy against Venezuela.

Conversely, Venezuela’s new Organic Law of the National Armed Force (LOFAN) explicitly empowers the president of Venezuela as commander in chief of the FAN to order pre-emptive external actions against enemies that threaten Venezuela’s security. In effect, the LOFAN empowers the president and FAN to undertake armed actions on foreign soil before the foreign foe can attack Venezuela. The LOFAN does not define the scope of such actions, but the Chavez government’s national security doctrine embraces a model of asymmetrical warfare without any rules of engagement. This implies that a pre-emptive external strike by Venezuela could be conventional - involving tanks, bombers, armored infantry units, etc. However, an external strike also could be unconventional involving the use of FAN (and Cuban) Special Forces and irregular forces engaged in guerrilla warfare operations inside Colombian territory.

Colombia's primary defense concerns are focused on its civil war, which the Colombian state refuses to acknowledge as such. Officially, groups like the FARC are terrorists instead of irregular fighters engaged in a war against the state that aims to install a radical Marxist regime. Although Colombia's armed forces are tasked with combating the FARC and other rebel groups, decades of widespread corruption within the enlisted and officer ranks have hindered the process considerably. Investigations into armed forces corruption have linked certain military units and personnel to the drug cartels and paramilitary groups.

Colombia's Ministry of Defense, charged with the country's internal and external defense and security, has an army, navy (which includes a coast guard), air force and national police under the leadership of a civilian minister of defense. Many Colombian military personnel have received training in the United States or in U.S. military schools in the former Panama Canal Zone. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. However, the Minister of Defense has a great deal of leeway over the administrative and operational control of the armed forces. Operational control is exercised through a Combined General Staff, which includes the three armed services and the National Police. Each of the armed services has it own general staff which enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

Service in Colombia's armed forces is based on conscription, with all male citizens over the age of 18 eligible for mobilization. The term of service is 24 months. The total active manpower is approximately 207,000, including 74,700 conscripts. Colombia's reserves number about 60,700 and include 54,700 army, 4,800 navy and 1,200 air force personnel. As the Uribe government intensifies its offensive against the FARC and other groups, total military manpower will rise to about 300,000 troops.

The Colombia National Police (CNP) has 121,000 active-duty personnel. A small fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft fleet is available to support border patrol and internal security operations. A highly trained counter-terrorist unit, known as the Special Operations Group (GOES), carries out high-risk anti-terrorist and counter-insurgency missions. GOES units are typically organized into 10-man groups armed with individual infantry weapons. Members of this elite force have received training by elements of the British Special Air Service (SAS). Police units are supplemented in Colombia's rural regions by 37,500 lightly armed Carabineros personnel.

President Chavez delights in beating the war drums rhetorically. However, Colombia has been fighting a low-intensity civil conflict for over 40 years against the FARC, which is resilient, wealthy and very lethal. The FARC is the largest rebel group in Colombia with an estimated force of 17,000 fighters. The National Liberation Army (ELN) is a pro-Cuban militant organization active mainly in northeastern Colombia. The Popular Liberation Army (EPL), also active mainly in northeastern Colombia, has about 500 fighters.

Two additional factors of conflict in Colombia are the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and drug trafficking organizations. The AUC is an umbrella organization created in 1996 by Carlos Castano, who vanished two years ago after an alleged assassination attempt in which his older brother Vicente was involved. The Colombian government believes, officially, that Castano is dead. VenEconomy Monthly believes he is alive and cooperating with the Colombian and U.S. governments. Estimates of the AUC’s size vary widely, from about 10,000 fighters to as many as 30,000 fighters. In the past two years more than 12,000 AUC members have officially disarmed.

Colombia is the world's leading supplier of cocaine and a growing source of heroin. Colombian drug cartels are among the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the world. Corruption and intimidation by traffickers complicate the drug-control efforts of many Colombian institutions. The FARC and AUC are heavily involved in drug trafficking.

The Colombian defense budget for 2003 was $2.8 billion. Colombia's spending on defense and security increased from 3.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000 to 4.5 percent in 2004. Since 2000 Colombia also ahs received over $3.5 billion in mainly military assistance from the United States. Mayors and police are back in all of Colombia’s 1,098 municipalities, and violent crime rates have declined significantly. Not surprisingly, approval ratings for the army and police stand at 82 percent and 74 percent, respectively, while President Uribe's approval rating hovers at 70 percent.

The Colombian army numbers around 178,000 active-duty personnel, including 63,800 conscripts. Army reserves total 54,700. All branches of the Colombian armed forces are engaged in daily offensive operations against the FARC. The army, in particular, has deployed nine mobile counter-guerrilla brigades, a Special Forces brigade, a counter-narcotics brigade and four mountain infantry battalions supported by an aviation brigade against the FARC. These units are engaged heavily in daily combat operations against the FARC, and number about 30,000 troops. The army plans to add three mobile counter-insurgency brigades each year, for a total of 18 such units. Colombia is also in the process of creating four mountain battalions to deploy to Cali, Chiscas, Boyoca and Cauca. Besides creating new units, the army plans to supply its forces with new weaponry, including small arms, machine guns, mortars and grenade launchers.

On paper, the military balance favors Venezuela in terms of advanced weapons systems. Venezuela’s arsenal includes AMX-30 battle tanks, two dozen F-16 fighters, Mirage 2000 fighters, and Italian missile frigates. The FAN also has more artillery systems than the Colombian armed forces. In contrast, Colombia has only a dozen M3A1 Stuart light tanks in storage. Spain pledged to sell 40 AMX-30 tanks to Colombia in 2004, but the deal was cancelled by the new socialist government in Madrid at the request of President Chavez. Bogota reportedly also had 20 M114 155-mm howitzers on order since 2004, but the expected delivery date is unknown.

The Colombian air force has approximately 7,000 personnel on active duty, including 3,900 conscripts. It is organized by function into tactical strike, transport and training components, each with a relatively autonomous structure. Poor maintenance and a lack of funds have jeopardized the operational readiness of many front-line units. The air force arsenal includes 12 Israeli Kfir c7 fighters, 10 Mirage V fighters, 30 fixed-wing turboprop counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft (Dragonfly, Bronco and Pucara), and 5 AC-47 “Spooky” COIN gunships.

Plans to purchase two dozen EMB-314 light attack aircraft from Brazil were reportedly canceled under pressure from the U.S in 2002. In 2004, Bogota decided again to purchase 22 light attack aircraft, and circulated a request for proposals in December of that year. Embraer was the only company to submit a bid. In August 2005 Bogota decided to negotiate directly with Embraer for Super Tucanos. The Defense Ministry reportedly wants to sign a contract by the end of the year and take delivery of the first four aircraft by September 2006.

Approximately 22,000 personnel serve in the Colombian navy, including 14,000 marines. The marines maintain no heavy artillery, armor or amphibious assault equipment. Riverine operations are conducted using Boston Whaler Piranha and Swiftships and numerous other river patrol craft in a narcotics interdiction and counter-insurgency role. Colombia does not have a blue-water navy. Its largest offensive naval platforms are four German Type FS 1500 frigates and two German Type 209/1200 diesel/electric submarines.

Venezuela’s FAN outguns the Colombian armed forces on land, air and sea in terms of conventional weapons systems. However, the Colombian armed forces is larger in terms of personnel – at least for now, since the Chavez government has created a civilian military reserve that FAN officials say will total 10% of the population or 2.6 million people. Women make up about half of the Venezuelans who have enlisted to date in this new military reserve, and about 40% of the enlistees are unemployed.

More importantly from a strategic and tactical perspective, the Colombian armed forces today are significantly more professional, better equipped at the level of individual infantry, and better funded than the FAN. In terms of real combat experience, the Colombian armed forces also are light years ahead of the FAN.

Geography, infrastructure and priorities limit the likelihood of a major clash between conventional Colombian and military forces. Tanks and F-16s are useless along most of the border region dividing both countries. Typically, infrequent clashes between Colombian and Venezuelan troops along the border have been accidental. Most of the border violence in both countries has involved rebel groups and criminals clashing with Colombian or Venezuelan troops. However, if a larger conflict between Venezuela and Colombia were to erupt, actual combat likely would be low-level clashes between counter-insurgency infantry units supported by fixed-wing COIN fighter/bombers and transport helicopters. At this level of operational readiness and combat experience, the balance of power significantly favors the Colombian armed forces.

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