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Chilean Army: Really modernizing?

By Jose Miguel Pizarro

"This is another type of war. New in its intensity, ancient in its origins - war by guerrillas, subversives, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat. By infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. This type of war requires a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training."

President John F. Kennedy. Remarks to the graduating class, U.S. Military Academy, 1962.

The Chilean Army is currently in the final phases of completing an historical modernization process that it is almost exclusively focused on conventional warfare. Chilean main battle tanks, mechanized formations and heavy artillery provide a false sense of superiority that confuses political decisions -- about the eventual use of force -- with the urgent need to develop a military that is truly prepared for a myriad of asymmetric contingencies. While it is important that the implementation of maneuver warfare with heavy tank formations be subject to critical evaluation, the generalized disregard in the Chilean Army against Irregular Warfare (IW) is flawed and warrants a closer look.

After nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan – between some of the most powerful armies in the world and a group of poorly equipped guerrilla fighters – professional soldiers and military analysts have driven home important lessons that have resulted in the rapid development of new technologies as well as a new sense of appreciation for old ones.

While these lessons have been taken on board -- to a greater or lesser degree by most armies around the globe -- the Chilean army remains largely uninformed and disconnected with these developments. A look at worldwide procurement trends reveals that while the number of main battle tanks in some major armies is falling, the market for lighter armored vehicles such as MRAPs, 8x8 armored personnel carriers, and 4x4 armored security vehicles – all of them more suited to fighting insurgencies -- has been growing almost out of control for the past 10 years. Likewise, most western armies are now developing some type of soldier system that gives the individual soldier better communications, situational awareness, protection, and increased lethality.

That lethality is increasing at the smaller unit level with a new generation of precision munitions, with GPS-guided artillery rounds for the 155 mm howitzer and with the deployment of precision-guided mortar projectiles and rifle-caliber guided rounds in development. Unmanned vehicles are also becoming more common at the rifle company and platoon levels throughout the U.S. and European forces, with an increasing array of sensors even aboard little hand-launched UAVs. Surprisingly none of these training, doctrinal or technological developments are being implemented into the regular combat units of the Chilean army. Not even one.

Chilean army generals reject Irregular Warfare (IW) and Counterinsurgency (COIN) because they don’t see the Chilean army embroiled in guerrilla conflicts that will tarnish the reputation of the army as an institution and because they truly believe they will never face a determined enemy wearing the “uniform” of the insurgency. “Why prepare for a war that will never come? We will defeat them in the conventional battlefield with our tanks, they will surrender, sign the peace and we will all go home victorious. There will never be a guerrilla movement strong enough to disrupt army operations.”

I believe this view is misguided. To be prepared for war (for virtually any type of war) is one of the most effective means of preserving peace. For instance, the Chilean army prepared for tank battles with the Peruvian and Argentineans for more than four decades, yet rarely deployed to fight. The system worked because we were never forced to cross the border. This in turn created a self-perceived idea of invincibility that effectively eliminated the need to prepare for any other type of battle.

Unfortunately, the Chilean Army high command has never considered the possibility that maybe… war cannot be avoided, and that in the event the Chilean elected civilian leadership takes the decision to go to war it is the Chilean Army’s responsibility to be prepared to fight in all types of contingencies. The Chilean Army cannot prepare only for the war that they hope to or would like to fight. Once begun, a war's character evolves and changes. Even a reasonable expectation that no insurgency or guerrilla force will arise, may in fact be tremendously flawed. The point of counterinsurgency is to counter insurgents - that is, to fight against those who use terror, violence and fear to undermine the presence of Chilean forces in a foreign land -- both sides fighting to take control of people and territory. This is a type of war that is recurring, consistent and repetitive in the 21 st century… whether or not we are comfortable with its character.

Finally it is the lack of debate the thing that concerns me the most. The Chilean people is convinced they have a robust, modern and highly trained military force ready to win (at least) the wars of the next decade. In fact, they truly believe that once the political decision is taken the military forces being deployed by Santiago are fully prepared to respond and adapt to all kinds of contingencies against the same traditional adversaries they have faced for the past 100 years. As a result, no surprises are expected.

Sadly, that’s not true.

To suggest that the Chilean armed forces are ready to cross the northern borders, win the conventional war and then shift to maintain enemy territories under control for several months or even years… is to overstate our true capabilities. And yet that is exactly the kind of operational environment we will be forced to face. Our enemies have choices in war and in the 21 st century small enemy organizations have demonstrated an amazing ability to shift the character of armed conflicts in ways that avoid our strengths and take advantage of perceived weaknesses.

The Chilean army is by no means a perfect organization. We certainly have made some mistakes in the past and vowed never to repeat them, but to ignore a whole dimension of war because we wish to, and because some academia geeks believe that certain forms of warfare do not play to our strengths, threatens to replace our duty to prepare for future wars with nothing more than simple… wishful thinking. And that’s a mistake history will force us to pay with blood.

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