World

If Colombia and Venezuela went to war, who'd win?

A Colombian soldier guards a helicopter landing zone near a coca field.
A Colombian soldier guards a helicopter landing zone near a coca field. Fernando Vergara / AP

WASHINGTON — Colombia's military recently had one of its finest moments: the killing of a senior leader of FARC, a resilient guerrilla group that had never lost a member of its top leadership in combat.

At the same time, U.S. officials and military analysts say, Venezuela fumbled an effort to rush troops and tanks to the border with Colombia in response to the deadly March 1 attack, on a FARC camp in Ecuador.

The Colombian raid triggered a short-lived crisis. But military experts say it also showed the contrasting security philosophies of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez and Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe.

Colombia, with U.S. help, has assembled a nimble infantry-based and intelligence-reliant counterinsurgency force capable of striking at guerrilla units and leaders deep in the jungle.

The Venezuelans have done just the opposite: They've spurned all contacts with the U.S. military and instead opted mostly for big-ticket purchases of Russian jet fighters, attack helicopters and submarines while forming, training and arming reserve and militia units loyal to Chavez.

The result is that Venezuela's military is impressive on paper but also in many ways a paper tiger, according to defense experts, shaped more to preserve Chavez's grip on power than to fight an effective war.

Colombia, said John Cope, with the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University, has become "an extremely good professional force," while the Venezuelan army is "trying to figure out the ins and outs of an approach to a military organization that puts a high emphasis on civic action and humanitarian issues — which means they're probably not spending an awful lot of time training."

The contrast of the two militaries is more than an academic exercise. Few analysts believe that Chavez, a fiery critic of U.S. policies, will provoke a war against Uribe, a stalwart Washington ally.

Rather, the concern is that someone could light a match in the still-combustible environment.

"I think the real concern is not that Chavez intends to provoke a war, although that can't be ruled out, but that there's more of a possibility that, with all the rhetoric he's using, that some bright young lieutenant colonel will decide to take action on his own and cause a skirmish that could escalate," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity.

Observers on both sides of the border are busy updating the facts and figures on the two forces.

In sheer manpower, Colombia has an edge. Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment places the Colombian armed forces, not including Colombia's sizable police force, at 263,000, more than double Venezuela's 115,000.

Colombia's forces are modeled on the U.S. military, with seven army divisions, three naval units and eight air commands being coordinated by five geographically based U.S.-style joint commands. According to Jane's, the idea is to ensure closer cooperation between the different branches of the military.

In a process that began before Uribe took office in 2002, the Colombian military has shifted its focus on counterinsurgency and counter-drug-trafficking, putting together helicopter-based and other highly mobile battalions and special-forces units.

Many of the units have been trained by the 500 or so U.S. advisers in the country with part of the estimated $600 million in military aid that Washington provides annually to Colombia.

Colombian and U.S. officers also maintain a Joint Intelligence Center in the southern base of Tres Esquina, which gathers information from communications intercepts and images from U.S. spy planes, listening stations and satellites, according to Jane's.

True to its counterinsurgency strategy and its partly mountainous, partly jungle terrain, Colombia has no combat tanks.

In contrast, Chavez has severed all military ties with the United States, which in turn has stopped selling him weapons and replacement parts.

Chavez has promoted the concept of asymmetric warfare, essentially preparing reserves and militias for a guerrilla war against an invader, presumably U.S. troops. Observers say he could end up creating a militia force of some 300,000.

But his regular armed forces are regarded as logistically challenged, and U.S. officials believe the army struggled to move its tank units toward the Colombian border after Chavez gave the order on March 2. Venezuela has nearly 200 French AMX-30, AMX-13 and British Scorpion 90 tanks.

Half of the army's six divisions are based in the western half of the country, closest to the border with Colombia.

There are also doubts about the military's equipment maintenance. A foreign military officer who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of his job said the gun-sights on some of the tanks had been rendered inoperable by attempts to service them without help from foreign technicians.

"It's all image," said Cope, who added that Chavez seems more interested in reorganizing the military so that it's less of a threat to him. The military briefly forced Chavez from office in 2002.

The growing militia units can quickly mobilize to defend his government should the regular military turn against him, Cope said, and Chavez has pulled together the better-trained units from all branches under one "operational strategic command."

Venezuela has a big edge over Colombia in the air. It has purchased 10 Russian-made Mi-35 "flying tank" attack helicopters that can carry eight soldiers and have both anti-tank and air-to-air capacity.

Right after ordering the 10 battalions to the Colombian border, Chavez also threatened Uribe with "sending over the Sukhois" — advanced Russian jet fighter-bombers that make the Colombians' aged French Mirages and Israeli Kfirs look puny.

Colombia recently acquired 15 155mm cannon from Spain to offset a perceived Venezuelan artillery advantage. And in February, it spent $200 million to purchase 24 newer Kfir C10 fighters.

Colombia's Cessna A-37B Dragonflies and Brazilian Super Tucano turboprops, which bombed the camp in Ecuador with lethal accuracy, could be blasted out of the sky by the two dozen Sukhois-30s purchased by Chavez, but Venezuela's pilots are still reported to be training to fly them.

COLOMBIA

Strengths:

  • Large armed force of 263,000.
  • U.S.-supplied helicopters such as Black Hawks provide counterinsurgency mobility.
  • Brazilian Super Tucano turboprop planes provide lethal and accurate firepower.
  • Quickly responds to intelligence tips.
  • U.S.-style "joint commands" integrate army, air force, navy and national police.
  • Weaknesses:

    • Aging air force of Mirages and Kfirs.
    • No tanks.
    • Some units seen as only adequately trained; human-rights questions remain.
    • VENEZUELA

      Strengths:

      • Firepower provided by Russian-supplied weaponry, including 24 Sukhoi-30 jet fighter-bombers, 10 Mi-35 helicopter gunships and 100,000 AK-103s assault rifles.
      • 189 AMX-30, AMX-13 and Scorpion 90 tanks.
      • Artillery firepower with 155mm and 105mm howitzers.
      • Addition of modern Russian submarines in 2009.
      • Weaknesses:

        • No combat experience.
        • Logistical problems.
        • Mission to support "Bolivarian revolution" distracts from training, demoralizes ranks.
        • Chavez favors loyalty over professionalism.
        • Source: Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment.

          (Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Miami. Gunson is a Miami Herald special correspondent who reported from Caracas, Venezuela.)

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