The news that Hugo Chavez expects delivery of his new Russian tanks “soon” revives concerns about what he wants them for. The reported order of 92 main battle tanks (MBTs) from Russia (a mix of predominantly T-72s with some T-90s) will more than double Venezuela’s MBT inventory, which stands at 84 French-built AMX-30s. Those 84 AMX-30s are a healthy force in comparison with most of Chavez’s neighbors. But he also has a light-tank force of some three dozen French AMX-13s and over 70 British Scorpion 90s.
The light tanks alone are more than enough to quell popular unrest in Venezuela. They are more likely to be used in that role than the MBTs, as they are smaller, lighter, and travel easily on more of Venezuela’s erratic road network – while providing all the firepower necessary for the average insurgency-quelling.
Meanwhile, a look at the map shows that Venezuela’s environs, and in particular her borders with Colombia and Brazil, are spectacularly hostile to armored warfare. There is no threat of invasion from either side. Brazil has a substantial inventory of armor, but no political friction with Venezuela of the kind that would make present-day Brazilians hanker after the capacity to invade their northern neighbor. Even if they had such a hankering, getting tanks into Venezuela from Brazil would entail filing through a narrow, mountainous route – being highly vulnerable to counterattack – and having to go a very long way through Venezuela to achieve any territorial gains that were politically useful.
The border with Colombia is, if anything, even more inhospitable to armor. The peaks of the Andes are a prohibitive geographical feature between the main population centers of the respective countries – and much of the Colombian Andes comprises “páramo” terrain, a unique ecosystem carved out by ancient glaciers, with erratically distributed crags and rills surrounded by peat bogs, springy turf, and wetlands in which armored tanks would be mired immediately. Feasible approaches to western Colombia across this mountain terrain are very limited, and are made impassable by seasonal conditions (the winter, as a reminder, occurs during our summer months). Few roads in the Andean north would sustain an efficient armored advance toward Bogotá, and there are, today, no bridges that would support a tank invasion through this northern border area.
In Colombia’s sparsely populated southeast, the “Llanos” region, the terrain is savannah-like grassland. Tanks, even light ones, would sink and get mired in this terrain too, as other forces have found in other savannahs. During the winter months, the rainy conditions turn much of the Colombian Llanos into marshland, awash in up to a meter of standing water.
Colombia is not a likely place to fight a tank battle. So Colombia has no armored tanks, and is therefore not an armor threat to Venezuela. Hugo Chavez faces zero prospect of having to fight off a tank invasion from Colombia.
With that in mind, a few observations. First, the strongest likelihood, all things being equal, is that Chavez is seeking to make himself immune to invasion from El Norte. As hard as it is to understand a mindset like Chavez’s, he has evinced on more than one occasion a belief that the US is actively plotting to come down and regime-change his “Bolivarian” revolution. The wicked actually do flee – or imagine pursuit – when none pursueth.
That said, however, there are other factors we should not ignore. One is that Venezuela has a tank landing-ship force. It’s not a big one; there are only four ships. They were built in South Korea in the 1980s. But that number of ships, and the number of tanks they could deliver, would make a difference to a dicey internal situation in a nation like Panama, Costa Rica, or Honduras. In combination with paramilitary forces from Cuba and Nicaragua, they could up the ante significantly.
In theory, Chavez has this particular capability now, with the existing landing ships and his French and British tanks. The addition of the nine submarines he is buying from Russia would significantly enhance a landing force’s survivability and effectiveness, however, along with the dozens of Su-30 strike fighters, and Mi-17 and Mi-35 combat helicopters, being purchased from Russia as well. No single capability is a game-changer; it’s the cumulative enhancement of capability from Chavez’s shopping spree that makes the difference.
There are two other factors that merit discussion. Their potential significance comes from their interrelationship. One is Chavez’s well-known obsession with establishing himself as a regional leader in the Bolivarian mold. Little is made of Simon Bolivar’s military exploits in analyses of Chavez and Venezuela, but with Chavez arming himself to the teeth, the topic is at least worth a look. And, as students of Bolivar know, his most famous campaign was his wintertime crossing of the Andes in 1819, to launch a surprise attack on the Spanish forces in New Granada, or what is now Colombia.
The campaign is justly famous, in part, for the prohibitive conditions Bolivar overcame in prosecuting it. Everything that makes it impossible to operate armored tanks in the Llanos and the Colombian páramo was a towering problem for Bolivar. He took a southerly route, approaching his objective – Bogotá – from the east through the Llanos, and his troops had to slog through a marshy Llanos that was waist-deep, in some places, from the winter rains. He crossed the mountain range at the Páramo de Pisba pass precisely because the terrain was so bad that the Spanish had no one guarding it.
But a key condition has changed on the route Bolivar’s army took, and literally in the last few years. There is now an improved, commercial-grade highway stretching all the way from Caracas to Bogotá, served by the José Antonio Páez Bridge over the Arauca River at the Colombian border town of Arauca. (See map.) The road enables heavy commercial traffic (primarily oil-industry traffic) to traverse the Llanos. The bridge – an iron-truss bridge built in the second half of the 20th century – was given a maintenance upgrade by Colombia in 2009 and 2010.
The highway, inaugurated in stages from 2008 to 2010, is christened La Ruta de los Libertadores – the Route of the Liberators. Venezuela refers to her stretch of the roadway as the Autopista José Antonio Páez. The road traces the route of Bolivar’s army in the Andean campaign of 1819. And its completion means that it is no longer the case that Chavez literally cannot drive 45-ton main battle tanks into central Colombia. Doing so might be inadvisable: with only one feasible route, an alerted Colombian military would have no difficulty finding the invasion force, and would have at least one key advantage in countering it. But the enterprise has gone from being impossible to being highly unlikely. The road itself is more important than the bridge; bridging equipment, well deployed, can get tanks across a river, but the important change from a military standpoint is the existence of a road that will bear heavy traffic through the thinly-populated Llanos and across the rough ascent to Bogotá.
From a military perspective, there are two other approaches to northern Colombia from the Venezuelan side. One is the mountain pass that lies between Cúcuta, Colombia, north of Bogotá in the Andes, and the Venezuelan state of Táchira. Colombia improved the highway connecting Cúcuta and Bogotá in 2007, but the road through the pass and the bridges at the border (the Simon Bolivar and the Francisco de Paula Santander) would not, in their current state, be anyone’s choice for a main battle tank advance. Chavez noted, at the time of the “Miraflores declaration” with new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, in November 2010, that he considers improving that road, and building a bridge at the border for commercial traffic, one of his highest infrastructure priorities. This route has the drawback, however, of traversing heavily populated areas.
The other potential approach is now the least appealing of the three, running through the Valle de Upar in extreme northern Colombia, near the coast. The terrain on the Venezuelan side – around Maracaibo – is problematic; multiple river crossings are required to traverse it, and the cross-country route south of Lake Maracaibo is hindered by swampland. The northerly route into the valley in Colombia is circuitous and the road condition is poor. Getting through this valley would connect a tank force with the Colombian highway system, but wouldn’t put it in a particularly useful position in Colombia, except as part of a multi-pronged invasion.
Three years ago, Chavez had tanks but no way to get them into the heart of Colombia over land. Today, he has a way to drive them into central Colombia, he has more tanks on the way, and he has an agreement with Colombia to improve a second potential tank route across the Andes. There’s no need to panic. But strategic conditions are, in fact, changing.