In this Q&A with a Chilean defense analyst, we look into strategic scenarios the country faces and how well prepared it is for those situation. Here are views on those topics written by Jose Miguel Pizarro.
What have Chile's armed forces learned from the Feb. 27 earthquake? Did they have enough aircraft, ships and other equipment to handle the massive aid and rescue efforts?
I believe the Chilean Armed Forces are now learning how to think strategically. Historically the Chilean military was used to operate and deal with small- and medium-scale emergencies at the county or provincial level. They were not trained nor equipped to engage an incident response that rapidly escalated into an historical strategic event. Administratively speaking and prior to Feb. 27, each of the services operated somewhat independently and not in a coordinated fashion for emergency response in support of civil authorities. Also -- and because there was no defined chain of command or a true active and standing Joint Command relationship between the other services -- it was truly problematic to get the entire Ministry of Defense moving in the same direction. (Especially in the middle of a weekend night in a country that is more than 4,300 kilometers long) What I now understand is that the military is creating a Joint Forces Headquarters that will design the appropriate protocol -- and the command relationships -- with regional and government authorities that will allow the Chilean Armed Forces to effectively support civil authority in the event of a massive catastrophe.
Now, and in terms of aviation resources, I am afraid you are absolutely right. The Chilean armed forces lack the tactical lift capability required for contingency operations at the national or strategic level. If this Joint Forces Headquarters is ever activated, it will certainly need to be equipped with material resources and maneuver elements that we currently don’t have. For a country with recurrent catastrophic earthquakes every 20 or 30 years, what we really need the most are -- at the very least -- several hospital ships to support thousands of citizens living in the southern islands, 80 medium-lift helicopters, 40 expeditionary hospitals, 20 additional C-130 transport aircraft and eight mechanized engineer battalions with heavy equipment to replace and rebuild and average of 100 bridges that are usually destroyed in a massive earthquake. To plan on facing the next massive earthquake in Chile with anything less than that is simply unrealistic.
The possibility of war between Chile and any of its neighbors seems remote. What is a more likely conflict in which Chilean forces might see themselves engaged in?
For all practical purposes -- and in terms of economic power, energy supplies and survival -- Chile is in fact an island. Chile is probably one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t produce a single barrel of oil or gas and a nation that completely depends on foreign imports to satisfy more than 90% of its daily energy requirements. In fact, and without any oil reserves and lacking the weekly arrival of tanker ships from distant places like Angola, Turkey and Nigeria, the country could – in just a matter of months – stop functioning as a fully coherent society. If a crisis like that is to last an entire year without the immediate re-establishment of significant oil supplies, the country could slowly disappear from the Latin American map as a nation state.
Despite popular fantasy, there is not a lot of oil left to be found. Much of what remains is of a lesser quality, tremendously more expensive to refine and dispersed around the world in smaller reservoirs located in extremely adverse terrain or in unstable countries. My views are not designed to reflect any political philosophy but to simply present facts and basic high-school mathematics. Numbers are impersonal and apolitical. Oil demand has growth to unprecedented levels and world production is no longer able to satisfy the demand. With roughly 800 million internal combustion-powered vehicles on the planet (i.e; cars, buses, trucks, cargo ships and passenger planes) and with no alternative energy systems that can replace current levels of consumption, confrontation, war and regional collapse are simply inevitable.
Today the planet is being strangled by two gigantic hands. On one hand is an exponentially surging rise in human population with a desperate need for food, energy, goods and basic services. The other hand is an alarming and rapidly declining supply of cheap, affordable energy to power our cities, houses, buses, industries, etc. and, in general, a frightening lack of everything that is required to sustain a work force able to produce food. To further sustain this theory, on April 11, 2010 the U.S. military has warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years, and there could be serious worldwide shortages of oil and gas by 2015 with a significant economic and political impact. This energy crisis will be triggered in the year 2012 with record level prices that are now predicted to soon top $100 a barrel. Once it reaches the $100 mark -- for more than 12 months -- that number will never scale back. Ever.
While it is not easy to predict what specific economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce in an oil-dependent country like Chile, it is surely easy to predict that a catastrophic event like this will immediately reduce the prospects for growth, infuriate the Chilean population and force the government to face the wrath of millions of citizens who will then understand that they have been misled. While I can’t elaborate on how the rest of the world would react, at least in Latin America such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved border tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic and military impact on both; Chile and its three neighbors. Mark my words.
If Chile faces the possibility of fighting an asymmetrical conflict, how prepared are its armed forces for such a fight?
The only kind of war Chile will face in the 21st century is one where asymmetrical conflict and irregular warfare will take center stage. Traditionally, and when a significant disparity in power exists between two opposing forces (in terms of firepower, advanced technology and numbers) the smaller actor usually has two choices: surrender or die. However, with the significant advantages in C4I technology and the low cost of certain tactical weapons and communications systems, a motivated “die hard” enemy may choose a third option: To resist (for many years) by waging guerrilla warfare. While asymmetric warfare is as old tactic of war, it has only recently garnered great political and military attention as a result of the events in the mountains of Afghanistan and the urban areas of Iraq. Broadly defined, irregular warfare is the ability of a small military power to use its tactical strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses to gain a temporary advantage. Unfortunately, asymmetric warfare is often viewed by South American generals -- and by senior politicians -- as something quite “irrelevant” that only needs to be faced with a “platoon of ninjas” dressed with black pajamas. It is precisely for that reason that I am now being forced to stress the dangers we are facing here. Today, irregular warfare it is still poorly understood by the army and not yet perceived as a mortal threat that should be immediately addressed at both the strategic and institutional level.
Successful asymmetric warfare commanders (such as the Sendero Luminoso platoon leaders in Peru) will generally seek a major psychological impact, such as shock or confusion (usually a large-scale massacre) that can effectively disrupt the army‘s initiative, freedom of action, or will to fight. In the mountains and urban terrains of South America, irregular warfare advocates will often employ innovative, nontraditional tactics, weapons, or technologies. But remember, those “hit and run” tactics can and will be applied with tremendous aggressiveness and surprise at all levels of warfare -- strategic, operational, and tactical -- and across the entire spectrum of military operations. Asymmetric Warfare has only one rule: “There are no rules.”
Following the same “tragic logic” of those armies that stubbornly prepare for the last war, the Chilean armed forces are slowly (and only recently) taking their first steps toward truly understanding this new threat. Accordingly, and while its mechanized infantry units are now reluctantly walking away from some of their traditional desert warfare training mentality (and learning how to fight and kill an enemy entrenched in the treacherous terrain of the Andes Mountains), the high command is making slow progress on teaching them how to fight the next war. By that I mean to train them on how to fight with an entire mechanized brigade inside urban areas or how to destroy an elusive and agile enemy that dominates a high-altitude jungle region. Both scenarios truly represent -- in my humble opinion -- the most likely battlefields where we will find the Chilean armed forces fighting within the next decade. The name of the game here is "how" to operate with a traditional army in jungle and mountain areas at more than 10,000 feet; how to fight in small villages and on big cities and comfortably embrace full-scale urban combat operations, etc., and for that, believe me, Chile is simply not prepared.
Chile's army now has advanced tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and mechanized artillery. Do you see any major gaps in its ground forces?
Today, the two major gaps of the Chilean army are the absence of a modern fully integrated doctrine of operations and the complete absence of a logistical culture to sustain modern warfare. Purchasing the tanks was the easy part. Developing an operational force design and a modular force structure capable of operating in a wide variety of battlefield scenarios (desert, mountains and urban areas) with the appropriate logistic support (i.e., fuel and ammo trucks, heavy lift helicopters, medical evacuation support, etc.) are the true and very real Achilles heels of Chile's land forces. So yes, we may have the armor brigades we always dreamed about but – unfortunately – we lack the entire logistical support structure required to sustain high-tempo combat operations for more than two weeks.
While the Chilean army is by far the most advanced military force in Latin America their doctrine of operations and field equipment still reflect a European design of the early 1980s. Despite the fact that in its next war the Chilean army will not be facing a mechanized enemy, not even the reality of the disastrous order of battle of all neighboring countries failed to shake the army’s fundamental faith in mechanized desert warfare and massive firepower. In Santiago, the General Staff of the Army turned its back on the past 30 years of modern warfare and returned to the post-World War II doctrines of sustained heavy combat as the primary focus of the army. Traditional mechanized warfare on open desert was – in their view – the “logical future.”
In their expert opinion, “messy engagements” like the 10-year war in Afghanistan or the 7-year war in Iraq (with over 1 million soldiers engaged in combat operations against an asymmetric enemy) were simply an exception to the rule and nothing more than an aberration. And believe me, in Chile there was little patience for those who said otherwise. Since 1990 -- and over the following years -- several military conflicts other than conventional war (MOTW) rose again and again in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Russia and in the Middle East. However, the Chilean Army -- and for that matter the entire Chilean defense community -- resolutely avoided making these events an important part of its doctrine of operations.
Civilian commentators that lack a robust military background are usually poor military advisors. To truly understand the traditional Chilean army way of thinking you need to be both: an army officer (active or former) and a consistent professional student of modern warfare. If the so-called students also have some field experience, even better. Historically, the difference between the Chilean army and the other armed forces of Latin America was not merely technological but also due to important and dramatic changes in personnel recruitment policies, doctrine of operations and training methods. While in the rest of the region serving in the army was considered a punishment -- or a last resort to escape from starvation -- military service in Chile was perceived as a social and an intellectual privilege. Well educated middle class kids wanted to serve as NCOs in the infantry, or as technical sergeants in the Air Force, all while upper class youngsters wanted to serve as armor, artillery or cavalry officers. And that was a sharp contrast with neighboring countries. Between 1910 and 1950 names like Schneider, Von Chrismar, Nielsen, Von Haggen and Zimmerman were common last names in the Chilean officer corps. After World War II, the German influence reached its highest point and in so doing, they solidified the idea of an “active defense” mentality. This new line of thought quickly developed into a new doctrine of operations that advocated the employment of heavy armored forces (against three simultaneous adversaries) as the new army’s central methodology. Nonetheless, decades will pass before these ideas could be fully implemented.
Then, a shocking new reality between 1960 to 1973 forced the Chilean Army to cancel almost every single modernization plan. During that time soldiers were instructed to spend much of their time on routine cleaning duties at their barracks, peeling potatoes or painting rocks. Their military skill training was only episodic and often lacking any specific combat orientation. Then, in the late 1980s they started to spent most of their time soldiering. By mid-1990 the Chilean Army began a revolution in training and leader development called Plan Alcazar that touched almost every aspect of the way the army prepared for war. By 2001, and after replacing all conscript soldiers with professional soldiers, army commanders were determined to create training conditions that approximated actual battlefield scenarios as closely as possible. The idea was “if you lost there – at the national training center -- you then learned better how to win in combat”.
Unfortunately, the Chilean army high command is currently led by a generation of officers that graduated from the Military Academy and joined the army in the early 1970s. They not only witnessed the Vietnam war drama on TV but also served as lieutenants and captains during the 17 years of the military government, thus bringing with them an enduring lesson that would influence an entire generation of soldiers and politicians: casualty and scandal aversion. Long guerrilla wars would generate unacceptable numbers of casualties and create widespread public opposition against the Army. Successful wars, on the other hand, had to be short, extremely violent against enemy formations, activated with massive firepower and with minimal casualties on our side. Accordingly, mechanized warfare against a predictable and traditional enemy (that will conveniently “line up” their forces in an open desert to be methodically destroyed) was the preferred doctrine of operations and the only truly decisive form of warfare the Chilean high command wanted to see in the 21st century.
The problem we have now is that when we go to battle next time, the deserts and the great plains of the north will be empty. Not a soul will be there. Our enemies will be waiting for us inside of their cities, behind every corner and window, on the sides of every dirt road inside their country and behind every single rock of the Andes mountains. And for that, Chile is not yet prepared.
Mr. Pizarro, 42, is a former Chilean army artillery officer with an extensive operational background with both the Latin American region and with U.S. armed forces. For the past 20 years he has developed a network of working relationships with key members of the Latin American defense community as well as with a wide variety of defense agencies. Mr. Pizarro served in the U.S. Marines and later as a Senior Security advisor / contractor for four years in the Middle East. He also worked for CNN en Espanol as a military analyst. He lives in Washington, DC, with his family.