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Colombia - Air Force (Fuerza Aerea Colombiana- FAC)

The Colombian Air Force (FAC), the smallest of the armed services, had a total of 10,150 personnel in 2008. This total included up to 2,000 conscripts. The commander of the air force is assisted by a staff made up of a chief of air operations, an inspector general, and a council of former commanders. The deputy commander, in addition to being the chief of staff, coordinates the FAC’s nine directorates: air operations, intelligence, logistics operations, aeronautic education, air base security and defense, logistics support, human development, judicial, and health. The FAC deputy commander also coordinates the service’s Directorate of Health.

In addition to the conventional mission of protecting Colombian airspace, the air force is involved in both antinarcotics and counterinsurgent operations. The FAC has primary responsibility for aerial interdiction, which includes detection, interception, and neutralization of aircraft used in drug-trafficking activities. The air force also plays a key role in counterinsurgent operations through direct aerial bombing, air-fire assistance to ground troops, and troop and matériel transport using a wide range of aircraft.

The basic unit of the air force, the Combat Air Command (Cacom), is responsible for air operations in a specific geographic area. Aircraft can be deployed or loaned to a different Cacom, as needed. The air force has six Cacom units and two training schools. The 1st Cacom is assigned to the Captain Germán Olano de Palanquero Air Base in Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca, and operates six squadrons; its mission is air defense and combat training. The 2d Cacom is headquartered in the Captain Luis F. Gómez Niño Air Base in Apiay, Meta, and operates four squadrons; it is responsible for counterinsurgency and offensive operations. The 3d Cacom is located at the Major General Alberto Pauwels Rodríguez Air Base at Malambo, near Barranquilla, Atlántico, and operates two squadrons; it conducts search-and-rescue and maritime patrol operations along the Caribbean coast.

The 4th Cacom is located at the Lieutenant Colonel Luis Francisco Pinto Parra Air Base in Melgar, Tolima, and operates five helicopter squadrons; it is dedicated to tactical support operations and training. The 5th Cacom is assigned to the Brigadier General Arturo Lema Posada Air Base in Rionegro near Medellín, Antioquia, where it operates one helicopter group and conducts search-and-rescue, transport, and heavy-helicopter support operations. The 6th Cacom is located at the Captain Ernesto Esguerra Cubides Air Base in Tres Esquinas, Caquetá, and operates two squadrons; it is devoted to counterinsurgency operations. In addition, the air force has a Military Air Transport Command (Catam), based at Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport; an Air Training Command (CAE), based at the Emavi in Cali; and an Air Maintenance Command (Caman), based in Madrid.

The air force also has two air groups, which are smaller units than the Cacoms and do not have their own operational aircraft. The Eastern Air Group (Gaori) is located in Puerto Carreño, Vichada, and is the launching base for joint operations in the Vichada, Arauca, and Vaupés region. The Caribbean Air Group (Gacar) is based on Isla de San Andrés. Gacar’s mission includes the strategic and tactical patrol of airspace and island and coastal areas and support for the navy in its search-and-rescue missions. The FAC’s training schools include the Marco Fidel Suárez Military Aviation School (Emavi) in the Cali suburb of Santiago de Cali, where officers receive instruction, and an NCO school (Esufa) in Madrid, Cundinamarca. The other schools are the Aeronautics Military Institute (IMA), which is part of the Superior War College, and the Helicopter School of the Public Force (Ehfup) in Melgar.

The Colombian Air Force dates back to 1922 with the creation of a Military Aviation School in Flandes (the school was closed within two years due to financial difficulties). The school operated eleven aircraft supplied by France: three Caudron G3s, four Caudron G4s and four Nieuport 17s. For the next twenty years military aviation remained part of the Army.

In 1943 military and naval air units were officially coalesced into the Colombian Air Force (Fuerza Aerea Colombiana- FAC). Around the same time the FAC began to grow in size as a result of two important developments: the establishment of a US Military and Naval Mission in Colombia in 1942, and Colombia's military support of UN operations in Korea in 1950.

By the end of the 1960s the air force had a limited air-ground support capability and a limited capability for patrol and surveillance of the borders and coastline. Its most useful capability was provided by its 13 UR-type helicopters which were used extensively in support of the army's counter-insurgency operations. Because of maintenance requirements, however, only half of these were available for duty at any given time. The air force also had 14 C-47s and 6 C-54s, which provide aerial resupply and troop transport services for the army.

By 1988 the Colombian Air Force had some 6,700 personnel, including approximately 1,900 conscripts, about 8 percent of the country's military forces. Members of the air force reserve were estimated at approximately 1,900. In 1988 the commanding general of the FAC was General Alfonso Amaya Maldonado. He was assisted by an air force chief of staff, an office of air operations, and an inspector general. Headquartered in Bogotá, the service consisted of three combat air commands, one tactical air support command, one military air transport command, and one training command.

The principal units assigned to the FAC's commands included two fighter squadrons, three squadrons dedicated to counterinsurgency missions (including a squadron of helicopters under the tactical air support command), a reconnaissance squadron, and a transport squadron. The two fighter squadrons were assigned to the First Air Combat Command, with headquarters at the country's principal air base, the Germán Olano Military Air Base at Palanquero in Cundinmarca Department. These squadrons were composed exclusively of the fifteen Mirage 5 jet fighters that Colombia had acquired from France during the early 1970s following United States refusal to supply Colombia with advanced fighter aircraft. The FAC relied on the Skyguard air defense system, which was installed at three sites and equipped with some 240 AIM-7F Sparrow missiles. The air force also reportedly had an undetermined number of R-530 antiaircraft missiles.

In addition to the base at Palanquero, Colombia's major air bases included the FAC's facility at the El Dorado International Airport at Bogotá, the Luis Gómez Niño Military Air Base at Apiay, the Ernesto Cortissoz Military Air Base at Barranquilla, and the Marco Fidel Suárez Military Air Base at Cali.

By 1988 the counterinsurgency units were composed of fifteen aging AT-33 and two RT-33 ground attack aircraft and eighteen A-37 Cessna Dragonfly light attack aircraft, most of which were acquired in 1980. Two of the counterinsurgency units made up the Second Air Combat Command and the Third Air Combat Command. The helicopter squadron consisted of ten Hughes 500M OH-6A Cayuse and six Hughes 500-MG Defenders. The reconnaissance squadron was equipped with three RT-33 aircraft and seven Hughes 300C and eight Hughes 500C helicopters. Aircraft assigned to military air transport included a squadron composed of C-130s, a C-54, C-47s, HS-748s, F-28s, DHC-2s, IAI-201s, and PC-6s. The helicopter squadron was equipped with seventeen Bell UH-1B/Hs, most of which were purchased during the early 1980s, and eleven Bell 205 A-1s. The training command was equipped primarily with twenty-one Cessna T-41D and twenty-one T-34A/B aircraft; its helicopters included eight Bell 47s, seven Hughes 300Cs, and fourteen Hughes 500Cs.

In 1984 the FAC acquired an additional fifteen A-37s. The A-37s reportedly were intended to reinforce the country's coastal surveillance capabilities and were to be used in patrolling the San Andrés and Providencia archipelago. Colombia's military industry manufactured a number of the FAC's smaller aircraft, many of which reportedly were employed in counterinsurgency.

A highlight of the FAC's efforts at modernizing its force came with the announcement in early 1988 of its plans to purchase thirteen C-7 Kfir fighters from Israel. In part, FAC concerns over its capabilities were spurred by Venezuela's acquisition of some two dozen United States-built F-16 fighters in the mid-1980s. The contract for the Kfirs, valued at about US$200 million, included a supply of spare parts and pilot training in addition to the aircraft.

By 2014 the Colombian military was looking to replace the their aged Cessna A-37 Dragonfly light strike jets and Rockwell OV-10 Bronco armed Forward Air Control Platforms. Possible candidates include the Czech L-159, BAE Systems’ Hawk trainer, and the Alenia/Embraer AMX. The Colombian Air Force (FAC) is also looking to modernize EMB 321 Tucano T27 airplanes and was certified by the Brazilian firm Embraer Defense to do so. As part of their agreement with Embraer Defense, Colombia’s Corporation of the Aeronautics Industry will obtain a certificate that will make it the only company able to modernize Tucano planes with the exception of those belonging to the Brazilian Air Force.

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