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Colombian Naval Development: Emphasis on Indigenous Capabilities

October 28, 2016

Colombia’s naval forces attract little attention outside of the Latin America-Caribbean region. The Colombian Navy (ARC) has a personnel strength of 35,000, a large percentage of  of whom are naval infantry, reflecting the service’s dominant task of conducting counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations.  The ARC has limited numbers of  vessels designed for traditional naval warfare,  comprising of four  German built missile frigates of the Almirante Padilla class commissioned between 1983 and 1984 and 4 submarines (2 each of the Type 206A and Type 209 classes). In addition, a motley collection of second-hand vessels from the Republic of Korea and the United States provide the bulk of the patrol assets. Increasingly however, Colombia is relying on locally built vessels and has developed an extensive range of innovative designs to meet the needs of low-intensity maritime conflict. These include Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), Coastal Patrol Vessels (CPVs) as well as riverine surface combatants that are unique to Colombia.

At the heart of Colombia’s indigenous ship-building capabilities is COTECMAR - Corporación de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo de la Industria Naval Marítima y Fluvial (Science and Technology Corporation for the Development of the Naval and Fluvial Maritime Industry). This is a state run entity working closely with three Colombian universities and the ARC to develop an indigenous ship design and construction capability for the Colombian military. COTECMAR is headed by a serving naval officer of the rank of Rear Admiral and its design and administrative sections are also led by naval personnel. This has ensured a very close relationship between the end-user and the designers. Feedback from the navy is quickly taken into consideration by the designers for either successor vessels or modifications to existing assets. In many ways, this strong partnership between the shipyard and the user has contributed to COTECMARs growing reputation within the region especially when combined with satisfactory build times and quality.

COTECMAR’s design bureau is small and is comprised largely of young naval architects and engineers trained at national and international institutes working under the direction of project leaders who are serving naval officers. Appreciating its limitations, the company has sought expertise from more established shipbuilders, with an emphasis on mastering design concepts rather than on reverse engineering of systems. Colombia though still imports all weapons, sensors, and propulsion systems and  remains heavily dependent on imports to make local designs come to fruition as well as to undertake upgrades of ageing platforms – of increasing priority for all Latin American navies.
As the four German-made frigates began showing signs of age and systems obsolescence, Colombia embarked upon a relatively ambitious upgrade plan.  Thales in association with COTECMAR undertook the work to upgrade the Almirante Padilla class with new sensors and weapons. Though Thales handled much of the integration work, the experience would have stood COTECMAR in good stead. Overhauls and limited upgrades were also conducted by COTECMAR in respect of the ARC’s submarines and logistics vessels.  While its ability to manufacture and even upgrade major surface combatants is yet nascent, COTECMAR has been able to demonstrate its prowess in the production of OPVs, CPVs and a host of specialized riverine vessels.

After a long search for partners who would share design know-how and transfer intellectual property rights, COTECMAR selected Fassmer of Germany as its partner for an ambitious project to create a class of Patrulleros de Zona Marítima (PZM: Maritime Zone Patrol Boats) to be used by Chile, Colombia and Argentina. While Argentina seems to have discontinued work on the project, Chile and Colombia have pressed ahead. Chile was content with producing four of the basic Fassmer 80m OPV (Fasmer 80) design – two of which are in service and two more having been launched. Columbia though became much more ambitious. Obtaining design knowledge and guidance from Fassmer, COTECMAR redesigned the basic Fassmer 80 design to give it greater troop carrying capability, much longer range (with a lower top speed) and greater fuel economy. The resulting vessel - the 20 de Julio – was commissioned in 2012 and saw extensive service in counter-narcotics operations and Exclusive Economic Zone patrols.

The 20 de Julio was deemed to be a success in service but responding to user feedback from the navy, the follow-on ship, the 7 de Agosto (commissioned in 2014) incorporated several modifications including Colombia’s first remotely controlled weapons system (rather than the earlier Browning M2HB 0.50 machine guns), a helicopter hangar and platform capable of carrying a larger helicopter (Bell 412/UH-1N types as opposed to Eurocopter AS.355s in the case of 20 de Julio). Of particular interest is the adoption of a stern launch ramp – widely used for Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) – to deploy a full-sized Midnight Express interceptor with an attendant increase in interdiction capability.

A similar partnership with STX of the Republic of Korea for CPVs of the CPV-46 design resulted in COTECMAR developing the Fassmer 40 CPV into a much improved 46 metre design. Two of the vessels were built by STX in the ROK – PC 147 Punta Soldado and PC 148 Punta Ardita – while another PC 146 Punta Espada was built by COTECMAR. If the planned class of 16 such vessels materializes, it will provide much needed replacements for the ARC’s rapidly ageing force of CPVs, most of which are over two decades old. Colombia has also started to produce its own landing craft to replace former American vessels of that type currently in service.

COTECMAR needed no foreign collaboration to produce a unique series of riverine craft which have seen extensive service against insurgents as well as narcotics traffickers. A family of eight vessels known as PAFs - Patrulleros de ApoyoFluvia – or Patrol Vessels for Fluvial Support – are encased in ballistic amour plate (which has proven to be resistant to RPG fire in combat) and heavily armed with a combination of machine guns and automatic grenade launchers. Capable of providing support to smaller riverine combatants, the PAFs have a helicopter platform and the capacity to provide rest, relief, resupply and medical treatment for Colombian forces operating far from land bases. In its latest incarnation – the PAF IV or PAF-P (for Pesada or heavy) can support operations for 20 days and can accommodate 39 marines in addition to its crew of 33.

Operating in concert with the PAFs, which act as motherships, are fast patrol launches or LPRs (LanchasPatrullerasRapidas), also built by COTECMAR to an indigenous design. These shallow-draft vessels are armed with machine guns and grenade launchers and have significant ballistic protection. With the support of the PAFs, the LPRs and heliborne troops can conduct aggressive counter-insurgency operations for prolonged periods from shore and have multiplied the efficacy of Colombia’s naval infantry manifold.

It is interesting to note that despite still being at a relatively early stage as a ship design and building entity, COTECMAR has conducted a vigorous campaign in the Latin America–Caribbean region. While the company has been able to secure the sale of LPRs to Brazil, its efforts to market the PAF, the OPVs and CPVs have been unsuccessful to date. COTECMAR’s relatively limited size necessarily means that its production capacity is also limited and meeting the demands of both the ARC and export markets seems a difficult task. In addition, in its bid to supply PAFs, CPVs and OPVs to Trinidad and Tobago, COTECMAR’s prices were noted to be quite high compared to its global competitors.

Furthermore, the ARC is not expanding its fleet to any significant degree and it is therefore questionable whether economies of scale will facilitate either a reduction in price or provide the necessary funds to expand the shipyard’s facilities. The company is also competing in a region where countries like Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina  have well-developed shipyards that have either built, assembled or overhauled guided missile frigates in addition to less sophisticated vessels. Nonetheless, COTECMAR’s emergence as a viable and innovative supplier of naval vessels is a development worth taking cognizance of and as its capabilities develop, companies looking to break into the Latin American naval market could do well to consider the partnership prospects with COTECMAR that might emerge in the years to come.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.