Alternative Futures: United Kingdom Options in Venezuela

Hal Wilson is a member of the Military Writers Guild, and uses narrative to explore future conflict.  His finalist fiction contest entries have been published by the leading national security journal War on the Rocks, as well as the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project.  His fiction has also been published by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Australian Army Logistics Training Centre.  Hal graduated with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is studying an MA on the First World War. He tweets at @HalWilson_.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  In an alternative future, the United States and Brazil will intervene imminently in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The United Kingdom (UK) faces being pulled into the crisis. 

Date Originally Written:  February 2, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  February 11, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the UK National Security Adviser personally briefing 10, Downing Street on potential courses of action.

Background:  The Venezuelan state has collapsed, leaving the country in the grip of growing civil strife.  The recent death of Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro in last month’s crash of a Cessna Citation – registration number YV2030, frequently used by the Maduro family[1] – failed to leave a clear successor.  As such, the ‘Bolivarian’ armed forces, affiliated militias (‘colectivos’) and even government-aligned criminal networks (‘pranes[2]’) are clashing for control of the socialist regime.

Mounting violence has seen the abduction-and-murder of opposition leader Juan Guaidó by regime intelligence on February 29, 2019[3], followed by last week’s shoot-down of a Puerto Rico Air National Guard C-130J, tail registration 64-0008. C-130J / 64-0008 was supporting in Operation DELIVER COMFORT – the ongoing U.S. effort to airdrop aid over Venezuela. UK Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood now confirms that, late yesterday evening, the Bolivarian Navy of Venezuela (BNV) attacked the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Agrippa.

Agrippa, a maritime support ship, was in-region to conduct Atlantic Patrol Tasking North – the UK’s standing patrol to support Caribbean Commonwealth partners and British Overseas Territories (BOTs). While departing Grenada for Monserrat, a single anti-ship missile (AShM) was fired against Agrippa, which successfully destroyed the missile with its Phalanx Close-In-Weapons-System. The BNV patrol boat – most likely Constitución-class, ironically built in the UK during the 1970s[4]  – withdrew immediately after firing.

It remains unclear why the Agrippa was attacked. Even despite recent aggressiveness by the BNV towards U.S. shipping[5], this represents a grave escalation.

Significance:  Without a leadership figure in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, the Agrippa incident and the loss of 64-0008 to a Man-Portable-Air-Defence-System (MANPADS) demonstrate a probable loss of control over state arsenals. Despite limited professionalism among the armed forces[6], the availability of such sophisticated weapon-systems is a major threat to regional stability. The risk of proliferation of MANPADS on the black-market is a particular concern.

Uproar over the loss of 64-0008 has also made intervention all but certain: repeated[7] warnings[8] to avert an intervention in Venezuela have lost weight in Washington and Brasilia[9]. U.S. enthusiasm in particular is buoyed in direct proportion to the likely share of effort which will be borne by Brazilian troops[10].

Although the UK faces no direct risk, Commonwealth partners and already-vulnerable BOTs stand to suffer if the violence continues to spill-over. A regional Notice to Mariners has been issued, complementing last week’s Notice to Airmen after the loss of 64-0008. The resultant increase of shipping insurance is further disrupting vital supply chains to isolated BOTs such as Monserrat. The UK is obliged to protect these territories.

Option #1:  The UK provides aerial support to the probable U.S.-Brazilian joint humanitarian intervention.

Risk:  Between Brazilian forces and the U.S. Global Response Force[11], the Venezuelan military will be rapidly overrun[12]. It is illustrative to note the Venezuelan Air Force is grounded by flight-safety issues[13] and defections[14] – to the point where DELIVER COMFORT remains unchallenged by any Venezuelan military aircraft.

The primary challenge will be the U.S./Brazilian occupation of major urban centres such as Caracas or Maracaibo. These cities include neighbourhoods dominated by loyalists to the socialist regime, and will pose considerable counter-insurgency challenges. Improvised explosive devices have already been employed by the opposition[15] and it can only be assumed regime loyalists will use similar techniques following an invasion.

UK sealift capacity is largely tied down supporting EXERCISE SAIF SAIREEA 6 in Oman. This conveniently precludes the prospect of large-scale UK ground contribution in Venezuela. The Royal Air Force (RAF) can nevertheless offer FGR4 Typhoons and Voyager aerial tankers to stage out of Puerto Rico, drawing on experience in long-range deployments[16].

Gain:  The UK will win favour in Washington while avoiding the more substantial risks of a ground deployment. By helping to crush the vying armed groups within Venezuela, Caribbean BOTs and Commonwealth partners will be reassured of ongoing UK support to their security.

Option #2:  The UK coordinates the acquisition or sabotage of Venezuelan MANPADS & AShM systems.

Risk:  By targeting sophisticated weapon-systems, we can not only neutralise a key threat to our U.S. & Brazilian allies, but also the main source of disruption to regional Commonwealth partners and BOTs. Bribery or staged purchases can be used to render these weapons harmless, or to have them delivered to UK hands for safekeeping. A similar activity was pursued by the Secret Intelligence Service during the 1982 Falklands War, targeting stocks of the ‘Exocet’ AShM[17].

This route, however, cannot guarantee complete success – especially where MANPADS may be held by regime loyalists, for instance. The risk to UK contacts inside Venezuela will be severe, besides the public-relations risk of UK taxpayer money being used in the illicit trade of arms. As a covert activity, it will also fail to publicly reassure local Commonwealth partners and the BOTs of a diminishing threat.

Gain:  This averts the expense of a full RAF deployment, while delivering results which can speed the U.S./Brazilian occupation of Venezuela – and ultimately assuring improved Caribbean stability. By not directly involving ourselves in the invasion, we also avoid inadvertent attacks against Russian mercenary forces in-country[18], or Russian civilians engaged in arms deliveries to the regime[19].

Option #3:  The UK enhances Royal Navy (RN) patrols in the Caribbean.

Risk:  The RN is currently thinly stretched. Besides ongoing North Atlantic Treaty Organization deployments and ships based at Bahrain, significant resources are tied up in the HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH Maritime Task Group to Singapore. A Type 45 Destroyer, HMS Dido, can nevertheless be made available. With a significant anti-missile capability[20], Dido can intercept any further AShM attacks and better protect local shipping than the Agrippa.

This will, however, fail to address the wider issue of MANPADS proliferation within Venezuela itself. The presence of a single additional air-defence warship will also do little to assist the U.S./Brazilian invasion: Washington may perceive the deployment as a token gesture.

Gain:  This option again averts the potential costs of an RAF engagement in the upcoming invasion of Venezuela, while offering highly visible reassurance to Caribbean Commonwealth partners and BOTs. Shipping insurance may be induced to return to pre-crisis levels, alleviating local supply chain disruptions.

Other comments:  The Venezuelan crisis poses an increasing destabilization risk to already-vulnerable BOTs and Commonwealth friends in the Caribbean. We must take action to assure their safety and prosperity.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Bellingcat, (2018, Dec 22)Identifying Aircraft in the Comina Operation in Venezuela https://www.bellingcat.com/news/americas/2018/12/22/identifying-aircraft-in-the-canaima-operation-in-venezuela/

[2] Centre for Strategic & International Studies, (2019, Jan 23) The Struggle for Control of Occupied Venezuela https://www.csis.org/analysis/struggle-control-occupied-venezuela

[3] The New York Times, (2019, Jan 13) Venezuela Opposition Leader is Arrested After Proposing to Take Power https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/13/world/americas/venezeula-juan-guaido-arrest.html

[4] Hazegray.org, (2001, Oct 26) World Navies Today: Venezuela
https://www.hazegray.org/worldnav/americas/venez.htm

[5] Navaltoday.com, (2018, Dec 25) Venezuelan Navy stops ExxonMobil ship in Guyana Dispute
https://navaltoday.com/2018/12/25/venezuelan-navy-stops-exxonmob%E2%80%8Eil-ship-in-guyana-dispute/

[6] Bellingcat, (2018, May 13) “We are going to surrender! Stop shooting!”: Reconstructing Oscar Perez’s Last Hours
https://www.bellingcat.com/news/americas/2018/05/13/we-are-going-to-surrender-stop-shooting-reconstructing-oscar-perezs-last-hours/

[7] Foreign Affairs, (2017, Nov 8) What Would a U.S. Intervention in Venezuela Look Like?
https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/venezuela/2017-11-08/what-would-us-intervention-venezuela-look

[8] TIME, (2019, Jan 31) I Commanded the U.S. Military in South America. Deploying Soldiers to Venezuela Would Only Make Things Worse
http://time.com/5516698/nicolas-maduro-juan-guaido-venezuela-trump-military/

[9] The Guardian, (2018, Dec 14) Rightwing Venezuelan exiles hope Bolsonaro will help rid them of Maduro
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/13/brazil-bolsonaro-maduro-venezuela-dissidents-rightwing

[10] Twitter, (2019. Feb 2)
https://twitter.com/saveriovivas/status/1091733430151364610

[11] RAND, (2016) Enabling the Global Response Force, Access Strategies for the 82nd Airborne Division https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1161.html

[12] Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, (January 2019) Venezuela, A ‘Black Swan’ Hot Spot
https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/Jan-Feb-2019/Delgado-Venezuela/

[13] The Aviationist,(2012, Nov 28) Photo shows pilots ejecting from their jet moments before it crashed into the ground https://theaviationist.com/2012/11/28/k8-crash/

[14] Daily Sabah, (2019, Feb 2) Venezuela air force general defects in rebellion against President Maduro https://www.dailysabah.com/americas/2019/02/02/venezuela-air-force-general-defects-in-rebellion-against-president-maduro

[15] Bellingcat, (2017, Sept 2) The Bombs of Caracas
https://www.bellingcat.com/news/americas/2017/09/02/the-bombs-of-caracas/

[16] Forces Network, (2016, Sept 29) RAF Typhoons Head to Far East Amid Heightened Tensions https://www.forces.net/services/raf/raf-typhoons-head-far-east-amid-heightened-tensions

[17] The Telegraph (2002, Mar 13) How France helped us win Falklands War, by John Nott https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1387576/How-France-helped-us-win-Falklands-war-by-John-Nott.html

[18] The Guardian (2019, Jan 13) Russian mercenaries reportedly in Venezuela to protect Maduro https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/25/venezuela-maduro-russia-private-security-contractors

[19] TASS, (2018, Apr 4) Kalashnikov plant in Venezuela to start production in 2019 http://tass.com/defense/997625

[20] Savetheroyalnavy.com (2015, Sep 28) UK and NATO navies take further small steps in developing ballistic missile defence
https://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/uk-and-nato-navies-take-further-small-steps-in-developing-ballistic-missile-defence/

 

Alternative Futures Brazil Option Papers United Kingdom Venezuela