Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How to Defend Chile in the Air

For the same reason that naval power is important to Chile -- i.e., the country's narrow geography doesn't allow for much flexibility in land mobility -- air power is just as valuable. The Air Force, or FACh, has the mission of maintaining air superiority so that land and naval forces can maneuver effectively. That role falls on the 10 F-16 Block 50 and 36 F-16 MLU fighter planes that provide Chile with the backbone of its air force. Compared with neighboring countries, the F-16 squadrons form a capable if not formidable weapon, especially when targeting pods, beyond-visual-range missiles and radar systems are factored into the equation. In a conflict, the F-16 fleet would provide adequate cover to operate air combat patrols wherever Chile conducts military operations. Pilot training is thought to be at least on par if not superior to Peruvian and Argentine pilots. (Bolivia has no credible air force.) Air bases could be vulnerable to enemy strike, especially if the Andes mountains obscure radar coverage. To protect its bases, FACh counts on the NASAMS medium-range air defense missile system. It also uses truck-mounted Mistral missiles, some 40mm anti-aircraft guns and Vulcan anti-air cannon for a layer of shorter-range air defense. The F-16s also would be tasked with ground attack missions, and for that role Chile also could count on A-29 Super Tucano, F-5 Tiger III and even the antiquated A-36 Halcon jets. The F-16s, though, have the better targeting systems and JDAM bombs. Transportation is a third leg of FACh's mission, and that's an area in which it has added some assets the past few years. It acquired at least two C-130 Hercules planes and three KC-135 tanker-transport planes from U.S. stockpiles. It also has a few converted Boeing jets and light Twin Otter planes. Those aircraft, however, would be stretched thin if Chile has to supply forces at either end of its long geography, and it would also have to hope that most runways stay operational.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Navy Starts Shopping For New Subs; Deal Could Be Largest Ever

The Navy took the first steps to acquire two submarines to replace its Type 209 subs, which are nearing the end of their service life. Plans are to select a winning bid by 2020 and have the new subs operational in 2025, Jane's reports. By then, the older of the two Type 209s in Chile's Navy will be retired. Both Type 209s are already more than 30 years old. The SS Thomson was launched in 1984 and the SS Simpson in 1982. A new electric-diesel submarine typically runs about $500 million, which means the contract for two new subs could top $1 billion. It would easily be the most expensive military acquisition in Chile's history. Submarines, though, are valuable naval assets because of their stealth. Chile's two other submarines, a pair of Scorpene boats, were acquired for less than $500 million, a bargain that Chile obtained because it was the launch customer for the Scorpene. There won't be such luck with the next pair of submarines, and a future president will be faced with Chile's first billion-dollar military decision. Also by 2025, the two L-class air defense frigates will be nearly 40 years old and due for replacement. Those won't be cheap, either.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Navy to Spend $200 Million on New Icebreaker

The Navy is building an icebreaker at its own shipyard, a project that bolsters Chile's footprint in the Antartic region. The $200 million vessel won't have any weapons but an array of sensors for scientific research, such as an ocean-floor scanner, acoustic equipment and on-board laboratories. It will also have rescue capabilities, a helipad and a surgical room. The icebreaker, set to begin operations in 2022, will be able to carry up to 30 scientists and a total crew of 120. Of course, it will be able to navigate in ice up to a meter in thickness. Asmar, the shipyard operated by the Navy, is building the icebreaker. The ship will replace the aged Almirante Viel, an icebreaker launched in 1969 that was acquired from Canada in 1994. Although it's primarily a scientific vessel, the new icebreaker has strategic significance as well. The Antartic region has valuable resources, and nations with territorial claims are making sure they don't go unnoticed. Chile has a few bases in Antartica for scientific work, but also to enforce its sovereignty.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Adios, Haiti

The last of the Chilean troops serving with the United Nations left Haiti last week, ending Chile's longest and largest peacekeeping mission. The exit became official April 19, 13 years after Chile first took part in the multinational force that helped stabilize Haiti after the political upheaval of 2004. More than 12,000 Chilean troops and police served over the 13-year period. Detachments from Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico worked with the Chilean battalion starting in 2013. Chile was one of the last countries to leave Haiti, and the UN itself has decided to withdraw most troops: It will end its mission this October and leave a small contingent. The Caribbean nation, the UN says, is stable enough to function on its own. Chilean casualties were minimal during the deployment, which cost Santiago's treasury a total of $177 million. What did Chile gain from its deployment? It obtained expertise in pacification of civilian areas and training in conditions that could not be replicated in Chile. Rescue, relief, medical and other types of missions gave soldiers, marines and pilots valuable experience. The initial deployment marked the first time a light infantry battalion had been airlifted in 72 hours. It also helped integrate Chile's military with friendly nations, and gave the country a better standing on the world scene as an agent of peace. In a way, it was another step the armed forces have stepped away from the legacy of the 1973-1990 military government.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How to Defend Chile on the Ground

Most of Chile's mechanized units are equipped with Leopard I, Leopard II, M-113, Marder, YPR-765 and various support vehicles that are tracked. With only about 150 wheeled armored vehicles, this is an army that intends to fight in the open fields, where tracked vehicles can move better over cross country terrain. Most Chilean training exercises are conducted in the desert and mountains. All this suggests Chile's Army plans to confront any attacking force before it reaches major population centers. To be sure, the armored cavalry and mechanized infantry units would be quite capable of fighting in the cities if they needed to, especially on home soil. Keep in mind, the most likely area to ever see combat is the north of Chile, and with few highways in the region, land forces must be able to move on dirt rather than asphalt. The Army has modernized itself to the point where it now has a few armored brigades, each self-contained with its own engineer, logistic, communications and other support units. Those form the backbone of the ground defense, and they are strategically located in  Arica, Antofagasta and Iquique and Punta Arenas in the south. Chile's long coastline makes it inviting to amphibious attack, something that Chilean Marines are tasked with defending. With only a few detachments along the country, there aren't enough Marine units and their artillery to cover much of the coast. But reconnaissance aircraft should be able to spot an invading force in the Pacific in plenty of time to marshal defenses. A small commando unit, however, would be much harder to spot on a secluded beach. The armored brigades don't have much by way of air defense. Stinger missiles (for the Avenger system) and shoulder-fired Mistral missiles give the Army a defense against aircraft up to 6 or 8 km. Beyond that, ground forces have to rely on the Air Force to provide coverage, which will be covered in the next part of this series.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Chile's Virtual War with Bolivia

The frosty relations between Chile and Bolivia reached a new low after an incident near the border. Nine Bolivian soldiers and customs officers were arrested and accused of robbing a trucker on Chilean soil. Chile's authorities are holding the Bolivians without bail, sparking a diplomatic row. Bolivia says their men were inside Bolivian territory, and Chile's police went across the border in what it calls a kidnapping. It's certainly not the first time that Bolivian forces have been taken prisoner, and the new incident is merely a reminder of how testy the two nations have turned toward each other since Evo Morales became president. In a largely fruitless (and likely futile) mission, Morales is demanding that Chile give Bolivia access back to the Pacific Ocean, essentially reversing some of the losses Bolivia suffered in the 19th Century War of the Pacific. Just as Bolivia is greatly impoverished compared with Chile, its military forces are no match for Chile's modernized armed forces. That imbalance is keeping a military confrontation from breaking out. But war can be fought on different realms, and this is one is being waged on legal, economic and other fronts. Bolivia sued Chile in the International Court of Justice to win back it access to the sea, arguing that Chile has violated the terms of a treaty. A decision is pending. Chile says it's honored its obligations but it controls the ports that Bolivia needs to access — a powerful economic weapon. Much of the water for the arid Chilean desert flows from Bolivia. Most of all, the leaders of both nations keep blasting each other via Twitter and public declarations. The two countries could go on decades fighting each other with everything except guns. But someday, all the bickering will come to an end, whether for good or bad. After all, the War of the Pacific was sparked by a Bolivian tax on Chilean businesses.