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Uruguay’s Armed Forces – Maintaining Effectiveness on a Budget

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.
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  • June 20, 2017

    Uruguay, a small nation of some 176,215 square kilometre with a population of a mere 3,493,000, is a relatively prosperous country with a high per capita income of some USD 16,000 per annum in nominal terms.1 The country is a stable, liberal democracy with strong democratic institutions and one of the least politicised military establishments in the region. However, even that military felt itself compelled to usurp political power in 1973 after the outbreak of urban terrorism, perpetrated by the Tupamaro guerrillas which had its roots among the disillusioned middle-class youth adversely affected by a declining economic situation.2De facto military rule through civilian puppet governments lasted until 1984 when a peaceful transition of power took place. Since then, the military has remained apolitical, the guerrillas being successfully contained.

    Nowadays, the country’s armed forces are perhaps best known for being among the highest – if not the highest – per capita contributors to United Nations Peacekeeping Forces.3 However, the country’s military, which is almost unique among the larger South American militaries in being composed entirely of volunteers, has been a pioneer of inclusive policies. Not only has discrimination against the enlistment of homosexuals been eliminated, but the recruitment of women has also been encouraged, to the extent that 25 per cent of the country’s armed forces are female with no restriction on their serving in combat roles.4 Yet, despite these progressive social policies, the Uruguayan armed forces, like so many in the region, have had to struggle to maintain combat capabilities in the face of limited budgets which hover around 1.9 to 2.5 per cent of GDP.5

    Fortunately, Uruguay faces neither an external threat nor any internal unrest that is beyond the ability of the 27,000 strong National Police to handle. To date, despite some incidents of corruption, the country’s law-enforcement and legal institutions have shown themselves equal to the task.6 However, the country does face the challenge posed by narco-traffickers who make use of Montevideo’s port as well as the country’s porous borders with Argentina and Brazil. While not a grower of cocaine, Uruguay is a trans-shipment hub and its rate of cocaine consumption is the third highest in the region after Chile and Argentina.7 Though the country’s National Police have thus far performed well, the armed forces have added their expertise to the counter-narcotics effort, with the Air Force in particular playing an important role in airspace monitoring.

    The Uruguayan Army

    Uruguay’s army has some 14,000 personnel and, compared to that of neighbouring Paraguay, is heavily mechanised. Organised into four “divisions” (in reality, brigade sized formations), the army is relatively well-equipped compared to the other two services and has been able to sustain its combat capabilities with infusions of overhauled second-hand systems from a variety of sources reflecting a deliberate effort to diversify the sources of weapons supply.

    The country is divided into four Military Regions, each garrisoned by a nominal division – 1st Division HQ Montevideo, 2nd Division HQ San Jose, 3rd Division HQ Tacuarembo and 4th Division HQ Minas – and each of which consists of a single infantry brigade of three battalions, one or more cavalry regiments, an artillery group and supporting engineering, medical and logistical elements.8 This basic organisational structure has remained unchanged since the 1980s.

    In cavalry regiments, pride of place is occupied by a force of 15 Israeli T-55 rebuilds, known as the Ti-67 Tiran, acquired in 1997. The Tiran is a modification of captured T-55 tanks and is equipped with 105 mm L7 main guns and updated fire control systems. These vehicles are augmented by a force of 47 locally and Brazilian modernized M-41 Walker Bulldog light tanks, re-equipped with 90 mm guns.9 A batch of 25 Brazilian M-41s was acquired in 2013 to replace an ageing force of M-24 Chaffee light tanks which had been delivered in 1957.10

    While neither the Ti-67s nor the M-41s are new vehicles, they present Uruguay with a potent armoured force, augmented by a force of EE-9 Cascavel armoured cars and a substantial fleet of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) which include 15 BMP-1s obtained from the Czech Republic, 140 MOWAG Piranhas from Canada and 130 Czech OT-93s operating alongside older M113s and Condor 1 APCs.

    Artillery support is modest, with four dozen M101 105 mm howitzers acquired from the Republic of Korea in 1981 together with eight M114 155 mm howitzers. These assets are augmented by eight M102 105 mm howitzers acquired in 1972 and six 2S1 Gvodzika 122 mm self-propelled howitzers purchased from the Czech Republic in 1998. Anti-aircraft capability is even more modest with only fourteen 20 mm guns in service, although eight twin TCM-20 anti-aircraft guns are radar directed with Elta M-2016 radars.11

    The Uruguayan Navy

    Uruguay’s Navy has approximately 5,700 personnel and operates a fleet of second-hand vessels that will soon be in dire need of either major overhauls or replacement. The most “modern” assets, delivered in 2008, are two  class frigates obtained from Portugal. These ships – ROU 01 Uruguay (ex-Comandante João Belo) and ROU 02 Comandante Pedro Campbell (ex-Comandante Sacadura Cabral) – had entered Portuguese service in 1967 and 1969, respectively, making the vessels nearly 50 years old at present.12 These vessels replaced three Commandant Rivière class vessels obtained from France between 1988 and 1991. But they had relatively short lives in Uruguayan service owing to chronic serviceability problems. It is of interest to note that the MM.38 Exocet missiles, normally fitted to the João Belo class while in Portuguese service, do not appear to have been transferred to Uruguay.

    That these vessels are the most modern in the Uruguayan fleet is indicative of the vintage of the rest of the navy. Three Kondor-II-class minesweepers, formerly of the former East German Navy, and two Cape-class patrol boats, formerly of the US Coast Guard, round out the navy’s modest combat assets, serving alongside a small force of survey ships, river patrol craft and search and rescue vessels.13

    Uruguay’s maritime patrol assets have declined in quality and quantity since the decommissioning of its fleet of Grumman S-2G Tracker anti-submarine aircraft in 2001. Now, two Beechcraft B-200T Super King Air fill the maritime patrol role, augmented by a BAE Systems Jetstream T2 and five helicopters.14 The Uruguayan air force supplements these assets with four CASA C-212-200M for maritime patrol and search and rescue.

    The Uruguayan Air Force

    The 3000 strong Uruguayan Air Force (FAU) is organised into three Air Brigades:

    Air Brigade I

    No. 3 Squadron (Transport)

    No. 5 Squadron (Helicopters)

    Air Brigade II

    No. 1 Squadron (Attack)

    No. 2 Squadron (Fighters)

    The Advanced Training Squadron

    Air Brigade III

    No. 7 Squadron (Observation & Liaison)

    As can be seen, Nos. 3, 5 and 7 Squadrons operate the transport (6 aircraft), helicopters (12), and observation and liaison (11) assets of the force. Twelve Aermacchi SF-260 training aircraft fulfil the basic training role. Combat assets, such as they are, are concentrated in the three squadrons of Air Brigade II. These were once reasonably potent when the FAU operated Lockheed F-80, T-33 and Cessna A-37 jet aircraft.15

    However, over the past 36 years, the Argentine FMA IA.58 Pucara spearheaded the FAU, with six aircraft on strength with No. 1 Squadron (Attack). The type served with distinction as a potent counter to narcotics trafficking flights. Unfortunately, the Pucara became increasingly difficult to maintain and on March 17, 2017, the type was retired from service, effectively halving the dedicated combat assets of the force.16 The aircraft was highly regarded in FAU service and no replacement is in sight.17

    A force of up to 12 Cessna A-37s in No. 2 Squadron (Fighters) forms the core of the FAU combat force, augmented by five weapons-capable Pilatus PC-7 combat capable training aircraft with the Advanced Training Squadron.18 The former type has been reinforced by replacement aircraft and spares from Ecuador to keep the squadron at a sustainable level.19

    Despite the infusion of aircraft and components from Ecuador, spares problems and maintenance issues also affect the A-37s, with the loss of an aircraft in August 2016.20 Protestations from the FAU as to the airworthiness of the aircraft did little to ease concerns.21 This is especially true of the ejection seats used on the aircraft, and the FAU sought the assistance of Martin-Baker’s Argentine subsidiary to replace the ejection seats.22 In addition, the FAU has contracted with ENAER of Chile to repair the engines of the type in the hopes of prolonging the service life of the aircraft.23

    Yet, the FAU is only prolonging the inevitable. Repairing ageing assets may be practical in the short-term, but it is inevitable that replacements for the A-37 and the now-decommissioned Pucara need to be found. China has offered its Hongdu L-15 advanced trainer for the role and the FAU has expressed interest in the type.24 However, no contracts have been signed and it is questionable as to whether the Uruguayan government will make the necessary funds available to facilitate such a purchase. Uruguay had previously shown interest in procuring 10 former Swiss-Air Force Northrop F-5E/Fs, but no deal for the same has materialised and the A-37s soldier on with numbers set to decrease as the years progress.

    Conclusion

    Uruguay has enjoyed a period of both political and relative economic stability for a number of decades since the transition to civilian rule in 1984. However, this has never translated into lavish budgets for the armed forces. Uruguay maintains what is effectively an arsenal of second-hand weapons systems. While undoubtedly more modern than the antiquated assets of neighbouring Paraguay, Uruguay’s ageing inventory will inevitably pose problems as the military seeks to maintain a core level of capability within the budgetary constraints laid down by the government. Uruguay’s army is in considerably better shape than either the Air Force or the Navy, with both the latter services facing the spectre of increasing maintenance burdens as their assets age. To date, Uruguay has been able to preserve the combat capability of its armed forces despite budgetary restrictions. It remains to be seen whether this can continue without substantial infusions of money for capital acquisitions.

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

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