AT THE READY

Colombia 2013 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: DEFENSE INDUSTRY

With a military budget set to increase for at least the next four years, the armed forces look to balance the import/export deficit.

The arms industry in Colombia has evolved over time to combat a variety of threats to the nation, helping the US with the “War on Drugs," and fighting domestic groups like FARC and the ELN. The total defense budget (including the police) for 2012 was $14.7 billion, which represented 3.9% of GDP. The budget is expected to rise over the next four years to $23.4 billion or 4.8% of GDP by 2017. There are an estimated 435,000 uniformed personnel in Colombia, of which 285,000 are in the military and 150,000 in the police. Even though Colombian arms manufacturers are increasing their production every year, the country still relies heavily on imports. Its main source markets are the US and Israel. In 2011, it is estimated that the total size of Colombia's defense market was $2.05 billion, of which $1.18 billion was through imports, $225 million in exports, and the remaining $645 million from the domestic market. Of the $1.18 billion worth of imports, $596 million came from the US, which represents a little over 50%, with Israel contributing to 38% of Colombian military imports at around $300 million. Colombia is trying to modernize its army to give it a strategic advantage in maintaining internal and external security.

In 2012, the country ordered five new UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters from the US, along with the associated equipment and training for an estimated $87 million. The helicopters will be invaluable when conducting tactical operations. The Colombian government also signed a $160 million contract with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) in late 2007 to buy 13 Kfir C-10-C12 combat planes and upgrade a further 11 jets that were bought in 1980s. The first batch of planes was delivered in 2009. At the moment, the Colombia government is relying heavily on the US and Israel for expertise and spare parts for the equipment it is purchasing. However, such purchases are paying off with the Colombian Air Force (FAC) now recognized as a fourth-generation force, which puts it on a similar level to the world's major powers. “Such improvements have partly been possible thanks to the international agreements that we have with the armed forces of other countries," General Tito Saúl Pinilla Pinilla of the FAC explained to TBY. In recognition of its achievements, Colombia attended the Red Flag exercise organized by the US Air Force (USAF) for the first time in 2012. An air force needs to meet a number of criteria before it is invited to attend. The FAC is not just importing all the equipment it needs. Its R&D department has developed personalized helmets for its Arpía attack helicopter pilots, who are able to control weapon systems by the movement of the pilot's head.

To help boost the country's domestic production of arms, in 1994 Colombia bought the right to manufacture the Israeli Galil assault rifle and later went on to become the sole global manufacturer. During the mid-2000s, even Israel began importing the Colombian-made rifle, which is produced by Industria Militar (INDUMIL). The company began in 1954 as a small arms producer and has grown into one of the largest manufactures in the country. In 2011, INDUMIL provided 14,000 rifles to the Colombian Army, as well as producing a further 38,000 self-defense weapons. The company is the main supplier of weapons and ammunition to Colombia's army. INDUMIL's main products are armaments, grenades, mortars, and rifles. It currently manufactures every part of the Galil rifle in the country and is able to export them to numerous countries. The company believes 2012 to be a very good year; it expects that exports to Israel increased by 200%. “Our most important business link is the export of rifle parts to Israel," General Gustavo Matamoros Camacho, General Manager of INDUMIL, clarified to TBY. The company is also expected to experience a growth rate of 300%. It is opening up new export markets in the region, including Chile, Paraguay, and Peru, as well as increasing its current activities in Central America.

Throughout Colombia's modern history, its armed forces have faced many challenges. During this current period of stability, both politically and economically, the government has been able to modernize the security forces and gain the upper hand in maintaining domestic security. The increased spending over the past decade, which is set to continue into the future, demonstrates the government's commitment to maintaining a level of excellence that has seen its armed forces receiving long-deserved international recognition.