Colombia’s Caribbean Naval Force at the Head of Panamax’s Maritime Component
By Dialogo August 28, 2013
Interview with Rear Admiral Leonardo Santamaría, Commander of the Caribbean Naval Force of Colombia
Taking advantage of the visit of nearly 160 participants from 19 countries to the Unites States Southern Command for the annual exercise Panamax from August 11 to 16, Diálogo interviewed Rear Admiral Leonardo Santamaría, Commander of Colombia’s Caribbean Naval Force, which led the maritime component of this year’s exercise.
Panamax 2013 was designed to provide military training to the U.S. and partner nations to conduct stabilization missions in accordance with the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions; to offer interoperability training for multinational teams and to build planning and execution capabilities for complex multinational operations between partner nations.
This year’s exercise allowed participating security forces to maintain and further develop their relations in order to better focus on their common goals while developing mutual cooperation and understanding.
As head of the Colombian component and commander of the main operational unit of the Colombian Navy, Rear Admiral Santamaría spoke with Diálogo about the Caribbean Naval Force’s responsibilities, their ongoing renewal plan, and Colombia’s contribution and benefits during Panamax 2013, among other topics.
Diálogo: What is the role of the Caribbean Naval Force and how is it structured?
Rear Admiral Leonardo Santamaría: In the Caribbean Naval Force, our role is constitutional, and our focus is to conduct naval operations that will allow us to guarantee territorial security and sovereignty; something we develop with the components we have at the Caribbean Naval Force. The maritime jurisdiction of the force encompasses about 600,000 square kilometers; we have 1,600 km of Caribbean coastline. We are also responsible for more than 14,000 km of land jurisdiction, as well as 2,300 km in rivers, including Colombia’s main tributary, the Magdalena River, which flows into the Caribbean waters, and the Atrato River, which flows into the Gulf of Urabá, on the border with Panamá.
This generates the need to have surface components, ships to conduct operations on open waters, a submarine component, a coast guard component, a river component, an air component, and a marine component for land jurisdiction.
Diálogo: The Naval Force is strengthening its capabilities with the 2030 Plan. Could you tell us about the sort of vessels that are being included in this process, their missions and the nautical coverage that they provide on the borders?
Rear Adm. Santamaría: The mission is basically, the same under the concepto f the Force’s responsibility. The mission is maintained. This 2030 Plan is more focused towards the renewal of equipment; an improvement of capabilities for more efficient results because of the typical limitations that we have, as any other country.
The project we have for 2030 is aimed at renewing our main units in our own shipyard, COTECMAR, based in Cartagena.
In regards to the rest of the components, the coast guard component is being reinforced, which is an interesting effort to guarantee surveillance coverage all along the coastline, with specific resources assigned to each coast guard control station along the coastline.
We’re in the process of acquiring new surveillance tools and resources to address any activity. This is aimed towards the construction of quick units, glass and aluminum fiber boats that may be used between mile 12 and mile 24 (the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone).
In naval construction, also with the COTECMAR shipyard, we are foreseeing the construction of coastline patrol units to operate up to mile 24, and the renowned Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), the second of which is already under construction, with the goal of building six of these units. The first OPV, “ARC 20 de julio,” is already in operation since 2012. We are now aiming at launching the second OPV, the “ARC 6 de agosto” by the end of this year.
In the air component there is also an interesting effort focused on renewing the capabilities we currently have. Basically, it is an effort to guarantee and maintain surveillance or air-maritime exploration capacity.
In regards to the river component, the intention is to renew the material we have, based on the lessons learned of how to achieve this with our own naval construction in our shipyard. They include units for riverine combat, riverine support patrol boats, and riverine combat elements, among others.
Likewise, landing units used both for civil actions and for naval operations are also under construction as part of this equipment renewal process.
To sum up, we are building coastline patrol boats; we are building the second OPV, we are starting the construction of amphibious landing ships, with the civil version to support the community in case of floods, etc., and we are working on the design of the main ship to satisfy our needs.
Diálogo: What is the role of the Colombian Naval Force in the fight against drug trafficking and transnational organized crime?
Rear Adm. Santamaría: The mission is essential; the fight against drug trafficking on sea is a priority. The concept of interdiction is a primary and continuous operational effort by the Caribbean Naval Force’s units, focused mainly on neutralizing the enemy’s entire logistical component, preventing drugs from leaving and neutralizing resources that result in the financing of terrorism and illegal organizations. It is our main effort.
The seizures conducted by the Navy are very important … Generally, maritime seizures are an important contribution by the National Navy for several years; it represents half of all national seizures.
Currently, the Caribbean Naval Force is at about 25 … 24.8 seized tons this year. This is a very important number, very interesting, and in relation to the national average seized in the jurisdiction.
Diálogo: What is the importance of Colombia’s participation and, specifically, the Caribbean Naval Force’s role in Panamax 2013? What is the difference between this year’s role and that of 2012, when Colombia was leading the land component?
Rear Adm. Santamaría: The concepto f the exercise per se has always been very interesting for Colombia; we have been attending a variety of exercises, including academic, simulated and real ones. The difference between our previous participation, where Colombia led the land effort, is that our Navy is now responsible for managing the maritime component programmed in the exercise.
During this year’s Panamax, Colombia is commanding the maritime environment, which entails an additional effort in the planning and working in unison with the participants from the other countries. Among all participants, Colombia is assuming the responsibility of coordinating the work done by the entire group to determine the Best course of action. That is the benefit: improving our knowledge, continue to improve our relationships with other participating nations in the event, and finally, to continue participating, being important players in this sort of operations and maneuvers that are beneficial to all of us.
Diálogo: How is the Caribbean Naval Force contributing to Panamax 2013? Likewise, what are you expecting to gain from this exercise?
Rear Adm. Santamaría: As such, the area of operations is a region where we generally operate; somehow, it is part of our contribution, the knowledge of the area in the maritime field of performance where we generally operate, the knowledge of what maritime interdiction is, the fight against drug trafficking… We have very interesting knowledge to provide, regarding how to execute this sort of operation, how the different events must be coordinated in order to neutralize this threat, which is also contemplated in this operation. That knowledge is one of the things we can contribute to this sort of operation. Knowledge, learning, working in multinational operations, the effort generated by that, the different coordination that must be made to guarantee success and how this can be applied to other sorts of operations that carry the need to work in a multinational environment jointly and among different agencies to defeat or neutralize common enemies, such as transnational piracy, drug trafficking or terrorism.
Diálogo: The extent, the size of this year’s exercises hás been limited by U.S. government budgetary cuts. As participants, have you noted any difference or changes in this respect? Has this affected the development of the exercise?
Rear Adm. Santamaría: In general, I don’t think so. I consider that this exercise, which entails careful planning, is a highly academic tabletop exercise aimed at obtaining a product that can be implemented. This impact is minor compared to the deployment of forces where further physical resources are needed for direct participation of elements; that would be different.
Diálogo: President Santos just announced a radical change in the military leadership. Although it was reported as an unexpected and surprising change, is it so? How do you think the change in the military leadership will affect the development of your operations?
Rear Adm. Santamaría: As in many other countries, changes in the military leadership are are part of terms that are finished and fulfilled. In many cases these last two years, three years; it depends on the president. We assume these as normal changes that must take effect, as the regular transition of forces.
We do not see any repercussions in the Navy; it’s actually a continuity of the work that is being done. There is a group of admirals that are in cohesion and clearly know where we are going; this is how we understand it with the support of the new officer that is taking command of the Navy, Admiral [Hernando] Wills, who used to perform as Chief of Operations. We see this as the continuity of planning, of knowing where the Navy is going, and being aware that we have all the guarantees to continue all the operations we are developing.
It is very interesting from the maritime control point of view, regarding illegal (acts).