Cablegate: Air Mobility Key to Success in Colombia


DE RUEHBO #1988/01 1511947
P 301947Z MAY 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (U) SUMMARY: Colombia has transformed itself into a secure,
prosperous democracy and an even closer U.S. ally with our help.
Many factors contributed to this successful transformation, but one
of the most important was the provision of air mobility to the
Colombian security forces. Air mobility allowed Colombia to project
force and state presence throughout its vast area, providing greater
security and setting the stage for social, economic, and judicial
development. U.S. assistance to Colombia for air mobility is
declining, and one of the biggest challenges for Colombia will be
sustaining air mobility in order to maintain and expand the
government's presence in all its facets. END SUMMARY

Colombia Transformed In A Decade, the Numbers Tell It All

2. (U) In 1999, major narcotrafficking groups and the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) threatened the sovereignty and
governability of Colombia. The USG responded with support via Plan
Colombia and Colombia responded with its own funding and political
will. The transformation of Colombia in the last decade from a
country that some thought could become a narco-state and others
thought could become a FARC-controlled state has been impressive.
By almost any metric available, Colombia has made incredible strides
in transforming itself from a near-failed state to a democratic and
more prosperous country. Between 2000 and 2007, the numbers are
strikingly positive. Murders are down by 38%; kidnappings are down
86%; terrorist attacks are down 96%; attacks against pipelines are
down 73%; attacks against towns are down 99%; more than 31,000
members of the leading paramilitary group demobilized and more than
15,000 narcoterrorists have deserted. On the "soft side", the
numbers are also impressive. The poverty rate has declined by 20%;
kilometers of paved roads have increased by 431%, primary education
rate increased 15% and secondary education rate increased 50%;
families receiving nutritional assistance increased 402%; and the
economy's growth rate has almost doubled to 7.6%. There simply are
no measurable areas in which the country is not better off today
than it was ten years ago.
What Made The Turnaround Possible?

3. (U) There are many reasons behind the dramatic turnaround.
These include political will, increased GOC spending, worldwide
rejection of terrorism post 9/11, professionalization of the
military, police, and prosecutors; transition to an oral accusatory
judicial system; demobilization of the AUC; improved intelligence
capabilities; stopping the increase in coca cultivation;
extraditions to the U.S.; and U.S. developmental assistance.
However, the overarching force multiplier behind the scenes that has
made this dramatic change in Colombia possible is air mobility.

4. (U) In 1998, the Colombian Military Forces and Police had about
two dozen helicopters to project force and provide assistance in a
country the size of Texas and California combined. Colombia's
current inventory is about 285 helicopters, with about half of these
purchased with the GOC's own funds. These helicopters have made the
critical difference in counterdrug efforts, in providing mobility to
successful military operations, in the evacuation of wounded
soldiers and civilians, and in helping establish legitimate state
presence in rural areas by bringing in and supporting police,
judicial, and civilian authorities after the military secured the

5. (U) One of the most important lessons learned from Plan Colombia
is that socio-economic development is not possible without security.
Helicopters and other air assets have helped to deliver the
security necessary for development and economic activity to succeed.
Without security and reasonably safe access by civilian and
governmental representatives, there can be no sustainable
alternative development or state presence.

Air Mobility Made the Difference

6. (U) Colombia east of the Andes is the size of Texas, but only
has about 5% of the national population (2.2 million). Roads are
scarce and in poor condition. At the same time, this territory has
been part of the traditional homeland of the FARC and an area where
the FARC earns significant income from coca cultivation and
narcotrafficking in all its facets. Until the arrival of
significant air assets, Colombia could not exert state control east
of the Andes, and the armed forces were a garrison force, with a
security strategy based on a bunker mentality, reacting to the
FARC's actions. There were few proactive offensive operations and
most of the residents in "Texas" believed that the FARC was the real
government in that part of Colombia. The ten-fold increase in the
number of helicopters allowed the GOC to project force and state
presence to these far-flung areas and provided security for the full
gamut of nation building activities. We might have made progress in
Colombia without so many new air assets, but it would have been
slower and many more lives would have been lost.

7. (U) Throughout the first half of the current decade, significant
social and developmental projects were not possible in many
Colombian departments, such as Putumayo, Vichada, Meta, and
Guaviare. The security brought about by the Colombian security
forces using air mobility has made these areas more secure, allowing
other elements of the government to operate. Currently, there is a
multiagency bilateral program in the area around the Macarena Park
in Meta. This is the center of the FARC's traditional base and
never before has the GOC or USG attempted significant developmental
and judicial projects in this area. Because of improved and
increased security, this program is moving forward, utilizing both
military and civilian resources to guarantee consolidation and

8. (U) The Colombian military and police, with USG assistance, have
made great strides and are now one of the most professional and best
trained and equipped militaries and police in the hemisphere. This
was not always the case. At the end of the 1990's, Colombia's army
was mainly one of conscripts and it was on the ropes. Some said
that the FARC was as well-trained and equipped as the Colombian
army, if not better. Although the FARC recently has suffered
tremendous losses from the Colombian security forces, it still
receives substantial revenue from illicit drug crops, which sustains
the armed insurgency. However, the FARC has not been able to
challenge Colombia's air mobility. The single biggest difference in
the battlefield balance of power between the Colombian security
forces and the FARC and other armed groups is that of air mobility.
It is the force multiplier that allows the GOC to put their
professional, well-trained and equipped troops where they need them,
when they need them with protection from above. In addition, other
aviation assets allow the GOC to provide the logistical support to
keep the troops in place for as long as necessary. In 2002,
Colombia did not have a government presence in 158 of the then 1,098
municipalities and counties in Colombia. Today, the GOC has a
presence in all 1,102 municipalities, which could not have happened
without aviation assets that allowed the GOC to remove the enemy and
then provide support for the sustainment of government presence.

9. (U) In addition to helicopters, Colombia has benefitted from
fixed-wing air assets carrying sensors that provide intelligence
information that allow commanders to plan their actions and direct
the movement of the helicopters carrying the troops. There has also
been an increase in logistical aircraft that maintains soldiers and
police in the field longer and keeps readiness and morale up by
providing a constant stream of food, ammunition, and medicines. An
army marches on its stomach, and the Colombian Army would not march
for long without support from aviation assets.

The Future of Aviation in Colombia

10. (U) U.S. assistance has helped the GOC train hundreds of pilots
and mechanics to fly and fix the almost 500 helicopters and fixed
wing aircraft. Less than half of these were purchased by the USG.
We are just now beginning to see the results of this Herculean
effort. This has not been easy or fast, because training a
pilot-in-command or a master mechanic for a helicopter often takes
more than four years. In addition, the overall fleet is much larger
than anyone could have predicted at the beginning of Plan Colombia.
Over the next year Colombia will receive 15 UH-60 Black Hawk
helicopters, and up to 15 additional helicopters of other models --
all purchased with GOC funding. These aircraft will require pilots
and mechanics at a time when USG support for "hard side" aviation
training and support activities is decreasing. Colombia's challenge
will be to keep the operational readiness rate for existing and new
aircraft at a level high enough, so that they can continue to make
progress against the FARC and other narcoterrorists. Our
nationalization plans are trying to take this into account, but
planning is difficult for the controlled and moderate glide path
needed to guarantee success and sustainability in an environment of
budget cuts of almost 30% to aviation programs in fiscal year 2008.

Air Mobility Will Be Needed, Even In Post Conflict

11. (U) As the Colombian military and police forces continue to
make advances against the FARC, the smaller insurgent Army of
National Liberation (ELN), and other narcoterrorists, the need for
air mobility and logistical support is even greater. Even in an
eventual post-conflict Colombia, roads will not be built overnight,
and commercial air service will not immediately extend to remote
areas. Colombia will need a robust aviation fleet to satisfy the
needs of all sectors of the government. Already, the growing
emphasis on manual coca eradication has led to a greater need for
air support for this difficult and dangerous endeavor. There are
not enough prosecutors and judges to totally cover Colombia, so
Colombia will either need to take the judges and prosecutors to the
public or bring the public to them. In either case, air assets will
be needed. Colombia is subject to earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis,
major forest fires, and a plethora of other natural calamities.
Facing these problems and providing humanitarian support and
security requires aviation assets.

12. (U) Even as large illegal armed groups and transnational drug
cartels are broken up, there will still be localized criminal groups
that have the ability to cause serious disruptions to the lives of
Colombians in remote areas. The GOC must be able to respond to such
incidents swiftly if they are going to make the tremendous progress
to date irreversible. Air mobility has been vital in accomplishing
both USG and GOC goals over the last ten years. With or without USG
support, Colombia will need to ensure a robust and efficient fleet
of aircraft into the foreseeable future in order to continue to
project, promote, and protect state presence.


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