AvFID: Achieving the Peace in Colombia Through Aviation Foreign Internal Defense
Barnett S. Koven, Ph.D.
SWJ Editor’s Note: This article is informed by the author’s experience adapting his previous fieldwork studying counterinsurgency in Colombia into lecture content for the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School’s Contemporary Irregular Warfare Course. Nevertheless, the views and opinions expressed in this briefing are those of the author and do not represent those of the U.S. Government.
Colombia is often heralded as a one of the most successful cases of U.S. Department of Defense efforts to build partner capacity. While this case has been well studied, extant analyses focus primarily on the efforts by the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) to train both Colombian special operations and general purpose ground forces. This article explores the critical role of aviation foreign internal defense (AvFID) to achieving the peace in Colombia. It also explores limitations to U.S. efforts to build partner capacity in Colombia, which are liable to also impact future AvFID efforts in other countries and contexts.
Colombia has suffered over half a century of sustained conflict at the hands of no less than six distinct leftist insurgencies and myriad rightest paramilitary forces stood up by wealthy landowners and narcotraffickers to defend their interests against the insurgents. Founded in 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; FARC) presented the largest challenge to the Colombian state up until the ratification of a peace agreement with the government in 2016. Despite numerous previous rounds of peace negotiations between the FARC and the government ending in spectacular failures, this final round succeeded due to the fact that, for the first time, the Colombian government was negotiating from a position of strength relative to the FARC.
During the 1990’s, the Colombian military suffered a string of stunning defeats, culminating in March 1998 with the Battle of El Billar where the FARC successfully executed a double envelopment and decimated three companies from Colombia’s elite 52nd Counterguerrilla Battalion. Despite benefiting from close air support, fully 41 percent of the government forces engaged in the battle were killed, with a further 28 percent captured. This defeat provided the impetus for Plan Colombia. The initial plan called for sweeping reforms to the Colombian military and police and committed the Colombian government to spend approximately US$4 billion modernizing their forces, with an additional roughly US$3.5 billion in assistance form the U.S. government. The bulk of the funding was originally directed towards equipping Colombian special operations forces to conduct counternarcotics operations. However, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. support expanded to include training for general purpose forces, and a broader focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.[i]
AvFID would play a crucial role in this strategy. In particular, four capabilities proved especially critical: mobility; information operations; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); and precision strike.
At their height, the FARC controlled approximately 40 percent of Colombia’s territory – an area slightly larger than Switzerland. Much of this territory was in dense jungle. Prior to Plan Colombia, it took days or weeks for Colombian forces to travel by foot and/or small boat to confront the FARC. As such, the Colombian military largely remained in garrisons, and avoided offensive operations against the FARC. The provision of UH-60 Black Hawks, Huey IIs and Russian-made MI-series helicopters provided Colombian forces with the means to efficiently and effectively target the FARC in offensive operations. Importantly, Colombian forces were well trained to fly and maintained the diverse rotary-winged airframes they were provided.
Fixed- and rotary-winged aviation have supported successful information operations in Colombia. In one particularly successful example, which has become known as the Christmas Campaign, the government collected baby photos from the families of FARC fighters and asked relatives to write messages on the photos. The messages, which encouraged the FARC fighters to demobilize and stressed that there was a plate waiting for them at the family Christmas dinner table, were airdropped into FARC controlled territory. This, and other similar campaigns lead to the demobilization of thousands of fighters.
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)
Prosecuting high-value targets (HVTs) was especially consequential. For the first time in decades, FARC leaders, and not just rank-and-file guerrillas were vulnerable. This served to substantially increase FARC leaders’ interests in a negotiated peace process. Prosecuting HVTs required both new precision strike (discussed below) and ISR capabilities. As regards ISR, the Colombian Ministry of National Defense acquired and were trained to operate and maintain fixed-wing ISR platforms such as special-missions Schweizer SA2-37A Condor surveillance aircraft and Cessna OT-47B Trackers, an ISR platform based on the Cessna 560 Citation business jet.
In September 2007, the Colombian military, in collaboration with the CIA, began flying Cessna A-37 Dragonfly’s armed with 500 pound bombs fitted with enhanced Paveway II bomb kits to prosecute top FARC leaders. In 2010, operational control over precision-guided munitions was turned over to the Colombian government, and their use increased considerably.
While there is no doubt that AvFID enabled the Colombian government to effectively employ airpower in a highly consequential manner against the FARC, the Colombian model may not be applicable to other scenarios where AvFID is employed. This is the case for at least two reasons. First, U.S. and Colombian interests were closely aligned and both sides were deeply committed. Unfortunately, this is not always the case when trying to build partner capacity. And indeed, in Colombia, this only occurred after the Colombia military suffered decades of punishing defeats at the hands of insurgents. Second, building partner capacity is slow. This is especially true for AvFID given the complexity of operating and maintaining complicated systems like advanced airframes. Whereas AvFID in Colombia occurred over multiple decades with a reasonably well-educated force and minimal language barriers (many U.S. personnel operating in Colombia spoke Spanish), evidence from Afghanistan suggests serious limitations to AvFID due to shorter time-horizons, limited educational attainment of partner nation forces, and language barriers. In short, the Colombian case suggests that AvFID done right can be hugely impactful. That said, doing it right is often especially difficult.[ii]