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Chilean Naval Aviation Upgrade: A pressing operational need?

By Jose Miguel Pizarro

Those familiar with the business world recognize the use of a common vision to stretch the imagination of a corporation, create new expectations and cause a sense of urgency for the proposed changes. Once the goals and the strategic vision are set, the direct involvement between potential suppliers and the leaders of the organization about to initiate the changes are one of the first steps towards information exchange and cooperation. Kind of the "be there, make it happen" new business style.

This might be the case of Chilean Naval aviation. Out of all the South American nations, Chile – along with Brazil -- is the one with the most urgent and obvious need for an aircraft carrier and embarked aviation fighter squadrons. The increasingly active and more evident involvement of the Chilean Navy throughout international naval exercises such as the exclusive RIMPAC (Japan, Australia, Canada, United States, etc.) is a clear sign that change might be under way. However, and due to the strict discipline of the Chilean Navy officer corps, their leaders and aviation pilots are not vociferous and publicly aggressive as they should be regarding new requirements. Chile is traditionally Latin America's major sea power. Although it lost its position of quantitative primacy to Brazil late in the 20th century now ranks second in terms of size and firepower amongst regional navies. Technologically speaking the Chilean Navy remains unmatched on a qualitative basis throughout Latin America

Chilean thinkers like Daniel Prieto Vial (Chilean defense consultant) view the future of strategic environments revealing danger and opportunity. Danger -chaos in the littorals- is characterized by myriad clashes of national aspirations, religious intolerance and ethnic hatred. Unfortunately, today more than 75% of the Chilean economy depends largely of the safety arrival of its cargo ships to international ports (not to mention the total dependence on the timely arrival of foreign oil.) Failure to accomplish the above may very well threat the very existence of the nation. Opportunity for future enemies emanates from advances in information management, battlefield mobility and the lethality of conventional weaponry in irregular warfare. Such changes in the operational environment (already in use by some unstable and aggressive nations) representing both new threats and enhanced capabilities for piracy, sea crime, commercial area denial, etc., raise many questions regarding how the Chilean government is preparing its naval forces for the future.

I have been asked to provide an insight into today's Chilean Navy and specifically today's naval aviation. As a result, I would like to briefly outline plans for the introduction of future equipment and to give an indication of past and present lessons from around the world in order to "uncover" the striking need in this particular nation for modern embarked air power. In my view the Chilean Navy needs AV-8B Harriers and the naval aviators are looking for a way to get what they want. The recent disband of Harrier Squadrons in England could well be an attractive opportunity for Chile. But since there are no official government plans to acquire naval fighters, they might need some external help to convince legislators that this is what they should have in order to properly protect their economic future and commercial sea lanes.

The modern strategic environment in international waters is one of regional rather than global crisis with intra-regional conflicts (revolutions, terrorism, civil war, guerrilla, piracy, etc.) quickly replacing more traditional inter-regional conflicts. Advanced navies such, England, Italy and Spain have recognized this shift and the increased requirement to counter potential economic threats, when and where they arise, with military force. As we are all learning in the 21st century, you can no longer keep on dealing with criminal and terrorist organizations as if they were traditional nation states. Negotiating with them should not be an option.

Modern navies have demonstrated that embarked aviation has much to offer to help preserve and strengthen international security in the difficult and uncertain circumstances of our world today. However, from a local perspective, it is important to note that within the generation of current congressmen in Chile there is not a single member ever to serve in the Armed Forces, therefore their views and understanding of international conflicts and threats is at best…quite limited. As a result, placing urgency in the acquisition of new and costly weapon systems for the navy, it is not a major concern. We recognize that economical problems and funding will be major issues before acquiring a small aircraft carrier, but pursuing the acquisition of a modest embarked fighter force should not. Since Harriers can take off and land from small ships, the Chilean navy can take them on board of its frigates and destroyers when going at sea, adding tremendous firepower, tactical mobility and playing a major role in the activation of a fighter force ready to protect its economic interest beyond territorial waters.

This alternative offers an advantage when an enemy has the capability to operate fast attack boats against commercial vessels. This particular naval posture offers unique abilities by matching demands for full dimensional protection of commercial ships with responsive maneuver and engagement capabilities for a minimal operational cost. For the future, a more aggressive and decisive approach, by both, Chilean politicians and foreign defense companies should ensure that the Chilean navy is well placed for the next century, and able to provide the Chilean government and its western allies with a flexible and deployable force capable of generating enough air power for current and future operations as diverse as warfighting and peacekeeping. Protecting sea lanes might be the new task of the South Pacific navies. There is no reason to believe that the Chilean Navy and its naval aviation forces should not be part of it.

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