The Defense Department believes the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerrilla organization, has obtained surface-to-air missiles, which could upset the balance of power between the insurgent group and the Colombian military as they attempt to negotiate a peace accord, according to defense officials and analysts.
Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, disclosed the Defense Department's finding in testimony prepared for the House Armed Services Committee on March 20. "The hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue the FARC receives from cocaine trafficking alone enable them to purchase surface-to-air-missiles," according to Kelly's statement.
Col. Gregory Julian, Kelly's spokesman, said the FARC has obtained SA-7 shoulder-fired, low-altitude SAMs. "I can confirm that the FARC has acquired surface-to-air-missiles," Julian told InsideDefense.com in a March 21 statement.
Kelly's statement to lawmakers last week stressed how spending cuts required by sequestration will squeeze SOUTHCOM, which is responsible for a region with a complex set of security challenges. In Colombia, for example, the government last October began peace talks with the FARC. However, because no ceasefire was declared, the two sides battle almost daily, security experts say. About a month after peace talks began, the Colombian government seized an SA-7 from the FARC, a development first reported on Nov. 30 by El Tiempo, a Bogota newspaper.
Defense experts say the FARC has long sought to acquire such weapons to counter a key strategic advantage of Colombia's military -- air superiority, in the form of a fleet of more than 200 helicopters that includes more than 100 UH-60 Black Hawks.
The question many security experts have involves whether the Colombian government managed to capture the only surface-to-air missile in the FARC's possession -- and, if not, how many does the FARC have?
"We don't know how many more there are," said David Spencer, professor at the National Defense University's Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and a FARC expert who was in Colombia and said he saw the one SA-7 captured from the FARC. Spencer, who late last year concluded a 15-month stint as the Columbia desk officer in the Pentagon's policy shop, said it was in a case with Cyrillic writing, suggesting it was Soviet-made. A video of the FARC firing another SA-7 missile, which Spencer said the Colombian forces believe to be the other part of the set captured in November, was posted online in December.
"No more have been captured. If they did have more of them, this could change the war," Spencer said. "All you have to do is look at El Salvador," he said, referring to how in the late 1980s, rebel forces acquired SA-7s and shot down five military aircraft -- an inflection point, he said, that prompted the country's air force to reduce flights and limit air support to ground forces.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the FARC would need more than a couple of weapons to change the calculus. "If they had a few dozen, it would make a difference: It could limit what the Colombians could do against them from the air," he said. "My guess is they don't have that many."
Christian Voelkel, a Bogota-based Colombia analyst for the Crisis Group, said he found Kelly's public discussion of the FARC's acquisition of surface-to-air missiles "surprising," an admission he says Colombian military forces would not be inclined to make. "The strategic advantage of the [Colombian] government over the FARC is based on their air superiority," Voelkel said. "Any suggestion that FARC might have been able to acquire the SAM and would use them would be a threat to that military superiority."
Voelkel remains unconvinced by claims of the FARC's new combat capability. "Unless we see the SA-7 in action and it is confirmed by independent sources, for me that remains speculation," he said in an interview. "Why would FARC, which is in the homestretch of a peace negotiation, not use those weapons in order to boost their bargaining power?"
Spencer, the FARC expert at the National Defense University, said Colombian forces have obtained FARC documents that describe concepts for the potential employment of surface-to-air missiles that focus on provoking a large government air operation over the jungle in order to shoot down many aircraft at once.
In the event the peace process does not succeed, Spencer asked, "What's the next step?" Kelly, he speculated, may have been indirectly signaling concern about Colombia's future to lawmakers, saying, "'The war is not over yet, don't quit on Colombia yet, don't sing victory yet.'"
U.S. military assistance to Colombia is slated to total $266 million in FY-13, well below a high of $619 million in FY-07, according to Isacson. -- Jason Sherman