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Colombian Air Force: Innovation in Counter-Insurgency

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 25, 2016

    Colombia’s bloody war with the Marxist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is the longest running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. Claiming over 220,000 lives and displacing millions, hopes for an end to the 52-year old insurgency were dealt a severe blow when the Colombian electorate narrowly rejected the terms of the peace agreement in a national referendum held on October 02, threatening the tenuous ceasefire that ends on October 31. As per the final outcome of the referendum, 49.79 per cent of the Colombians had voted in favour of the peace agreement and 50.21 per cent against it.

    Whatever the eventual outcome, the conflict is noteworthy for the level of military innovation shown by the Colombian armed forces as they fought and gained an upper hand over FARC. The Colombian Air Force (FAC) has displayed a high degree of inventiveness in its use of air power. While never equipped with the most advanced of weaponry, the Colombian military has successfully mated older platforms with new ordnance and devised tactics to make effective use of its limited resources. While the United States provided valuable intelligence support, it has not been a major supplier of arms to Colombia for the better part of the last one decade. Rather, by keeping old equipment in service through upgrades and modifications and by developing tactics to maximise the capabilities of its platforms, the FAC has been at the forefront of a series of devastatingly effective operations launched against FARC, and has played no small part in bringing them to the negotiating table.

    The combat strength of the FAC lies in its six Combat Air Commands or Comando Aéreo de Combate (CACOM). Each CACOM has between one and two Combat Groups – Grupo de Combate – attached to them, and these in turn are divided into squadrons operating either fixed-wing aircrafts or helicopters.The Order of Battle (ORBAT) of the CACOMs and their airbases are as follows:

    Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 1 (CACOM 1) "CT. Captain Germán Olano Moreno Air Base" in Palanquero/Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca

    Grupo de Combate Nº 11

    Escuadrón de Combate 111 Dardos (Kfir C10, Kfir C12)

    Escuadrón de Combate 112 Mirage (Kfir C10, Kfir C12)

    Escuadrón de Combate Táctico 113 Fantasma (AB212 Rapáz, AC-47T Fantasma, AH-60L Arpía III)

    Escuadrón de Combate 116 Tango (T-37B, T-37C)

    Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 2 (CACOM 2) "CT. Luis Fernando Gómez Niño"

    In Apiay/Villavicencio, Meta

    Grupo de Combate Nº 21

    Escuadrón de Combate 211 Grifos (A-29B Supertucano)

    Escuadrón de Combate 212 Tucanos (AT-27 Tucano)

    Escuadrón de Combate Táctico 213 (AH-60L Arpía III, C212-300, C208-675, SA2-37B Vampiro, SR-560)

    Grupo de Combate Nº 22 located in Yopal, Casanare.

    Escuadrón de Combate 221 Bronco (North American OV-10 Bronco) – retired in November 2015

    Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 3 (CACOM 3) "MG. Alberto Pauwels Rodríguez"

    In Malambo/Barranquilla, Atlántico

    Grupo de Combate 31

    Escuadrón de Combate 311 Dragones (A-37 Dragonfly).

    Escuadrón de Combate 312 Drakos (A-29B Supertucano).

    Escuadrón de Combate Táctico 313 (AC-47T Fantasma, Bell 212 Rapáz, C-95A, SA2-37B Vampiro, SR-26B Tracker, UH-1 Huey II).

    Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 4 (CACOM 4) "TC. Luis Francisco Pinto Parra"

    In Melgar, Tolima

    Grupo de Combate 41

    Escuadrón de Combate 411 Rapaz (Bell 212).

    Escuadrón de AsaltoAéreo 412 (Bell UH-1H/P).

    Eccuadron de Ataque 413 Escorpion (MD 500/530).

    Grupo CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue).

    Escuela de Helicópteros de las Fuerzas Armadas.

    Escuadrón de Vuelo (Bell UH-1H, Bell 206, Bell OH-58 Kiowa).

    Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 5 (CACOM 5) "GR. Arturo LemaPosada" in Rionegro, Antioquia

    Grupo de Combate 51

    Escuadrón de Combate 511 (AH-60L Arpía III)

    Escuadrón de Operaciones Especiales 512 (Ce208-675, UH-60A/L Halcon)

    Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 6 (CACOM 6) "CT. Ernesto Esguerra Cubides"

    In TresEsquinas, Caquetá

    Grupo de Combate 61

    Escuadrón de Combate 611 (AT-27 Tucano, A-29B Supertucano)

    Escuadrón de Combate Táctico 613 (AC-47T Fantasma, Bell 212 Rapaz, C212-300, SA2-37B Vampiro, UH-1H-II, Scan Eagle UAV)

    Source: Individual CACOM websites, Colombian Air Force

    These formations between them operate a relatively small inventory of aircrafts, with its combat assets comprising of only 20 C.10/C.12 Kfir fighters, seven surviving Cessna A-37 ground-attack aircraft, 25 Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucanos (in its AT-29 variant), 14 EMB-312 Tucanos (in its AT-27 variant) and six Bassler BT-67/ AC-47T gunships based on the DC-3 airframe. Added to these are a large fleet of helicopters, numbering over a hundred, to which must be added a further 150 operated by the Colombian National Army and an additional 65 operated by the Colombian National Police.

    Even by Latin American standards, this is a very modest force, with the exception of course of the substantial helicopter fleet. The FAC’s Kfirs, though upgraded, are outnumbered and to a great extent outmatched by the Su-30MKV force of Venezuela and are barely adequate to protect Colombia’s airspace. While the Kfirs have seen service in combat against FARC, the air strikes against the insurgents were largely carried out by helicopter units and a dedicated counter-insurgency aerial strike force comprising A-37 Dragonfly and the Super Tucanos and Tucanos. Even within this force, the A-37s have depleted over the decades due to natural and combat attrition. Therefore, the core of the FAC’s combat element against FARC lies in its Super Tucanos and Tucanos.

    As stated earlier, helicopters were extensively used for fire-support and troop insertion and Special Forces of both the Colombian armed forces and the national police have shown adeptness at conducting heliborne operations in hostile conditions. Yet, these operations are fundamentally conventional. The same cannot be said for the FAC’s use of its counter-insurgency aerial strike force where intelligence led precision strikes were conducted making innovative use of relatively cheap platforms mated with advanced precision guided munitions.

    Colombia’s intelligence gathering efforts are spearheaded by good human and electronic intelligence and an intercept network honed by years of operations against the drug cartels and extensive use of Scan Eagle UAVs and Schwiezer SA2-37B Vampiro covert surveillance aircraft. The latter is a low-cost piston-engine aircraft based on a popular low-wing motor glider. In its surveillance role, it is equipped with a 231kg sensor payload including FLIR and can remain on station for up to 12 hours.

    These intelligence gathering assets are supported by A-37s and Super Tucano/ Tucano fleets. In the 1990s, Tucano force used a mix of unguided bombs, rockets and external gunpods and bore the brunt of the initial effort against FARC. The A-37s and Super Tucanos, however, were later modified to carry much more effective weapons. The FAC modified A-37s to carry Mk.82 500lb bombs upgraded with Paveway II laser-targeting systems, while the Super Tucanos were fitted with Israeli made Griffin Laser-Guided Bombs (LGBs) aimed at using the aircraft’s Constantly Computed Impact Point (CCIP) capability. This converted the ageing A-37s and the Super Tucanos into high-tech, but not high-cost strike aircraft.

    Working in concert, the A-37s and Super Tucanos played a pivotal role in Operation Fenix conducted on February 29 – March 01, 2008. Penetrating Ecuadorean airspace, three A-37s carrying Paveway II upgraded Mk.82 bombs and five Super Tucanos carrying either Griffin LGBs or standard Mk.82 bombs attacked and destroyed a FARC encampment, killing Raul Reyes, then the second-in-command of FARC, and no fewer than 20 other FARC insurgents. It is a testimony to Colombian planning and the skill of the FAC crews that the formidable Ecuadorean Air Force – battle tested against Peru – failed to either intercept or detect the Colombian raiders.

    The Super Tucanos have since been effectively used in carrying out targeted strikes aimed at decapitating the FARC leadership. They were incredibly successful when targeted strikes were carried out in 2010 – in which the Super Tucanos dropped 14,000lbs of bombs - killing Mono Jojoy, FARC’s leading military strategist, and in 2011 – this time in combination with A-37s – in flushing out Alfonso Cano (then FARC’s top commander) and eventually enabling Colombian troops to kill him with gunfire. Again, in four separate air raids in 2012, commanders of FARC’s 7th, 27th, 33rd and 37th Fronts were eliminated. By 2013, no fewer than 42 FARC commanders had been killed in airstrikes conducted by A-37s and Super Tucanos, ably assisted by the Tucanos. These campaigns against FARC may mark the swansong of the A-37s as a major strike asset, though the type is ageing.

    The fear of being killed in airstrikes forced the insurgents to abandon their well-established bases and move to more temporary camps, lacking the facilities of the better established ones. As temporary camps too came under attack, the insurgents were left with no option but to remain on the move. In due course of time, FARC lost close to two-thirds of its personnel – largely through desertions – and much of its combat potential and territorial influence as their bases were systematically destroyed.

    While the fate of the peace process between the Colombian Government and FARC remains uncertain, innovative use of technology and tactics on the part of FAC has played no small part in convincing the rebel group that its military struggle was doomed to fail. Colombia’s experience in cost-effective use of airpower in counter-insurgency certainly has some valuable lessons to offer and could be considered worth emulating in other parts of the world.

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