This article is a part of our 2021 Series on Caribbean Maritime Security. Read the Series Introduction at this link.
On the 1st of December 2018, Mexico inaugurated President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Within only a few days of beginning his term, he had clearly established his security and defence priorities: tackling the country’s internal violence and scrapping all “unnecessary” defence expenditures. This announcement had a tremendous effect on the Mexican defence establishment, which was already planning several key modernizing projects.
One of those projects is the procurement of eight light, multi-purpose frigates, co-developed with the Danish shipyard Damen. Though, this acquisition is just one of several projects intended to better equip the Mexican Navy with capabilities appropriate for the maritime challenges of the 21st Century. However, proposed overhauls of the Mexican Navy risk coming to nothing amidst political landscape disinterested in maritime defense issues.
To better understand the Navy’s current state, it is important to first explore its doctrinal evolution over the last 40 years. To this effect, this article draws from informal interviews with retired Mexican captains and admirals, assessing their thoughts in light of Mexico’s naval doctrine evolution since 1980. The group identified three main doctrinal evolutions since 1980, the first taking place at the beginning of that decade, the second starting in the middle of the 1990s and the last, which is still ongoing, beginning in the wake of September 11, 2001.
A Constabulary Navy (1980 – mid 1990s)
After the Second World War, the Mexican Navy focused on building a constabulary force to conduct coastal patrols, fisheries control and limited search and rescue (SAR) operations. Platform-wise, Mexico relied on decommissioned US Navy vessels that formed the backbone of the fleet for decades. The sudden discovery of large oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, which occurred at the same time that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into existence, started to change this constabulary focus. The first evidence of this was the acquisition of the ARM Cuauhtémoc, a Spanish-made tall ship that would serve as the navy’s training vessel as well as a tool for naval diplomacy. The acquisition of Cuauhtémoc sent a clear message that the Mexican Navy was ready to look outward.
The arrival of the ARM Cuauhtémoc was followed by the introduction of six Uribe-class offshore patrol vessels (OPV) from 1981 to 1982, also bought from Spain. These vessels were intended to boost the navy’s maritime presence in Mexico’s recently demarcated three million square kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The OPVs were lightly armed but capable of embarking helicopters, which helped the navy as a capability multiplier for ocean patrol missions. Integrated air and naval operations helped the navy gain confidence and laid the groundwork for subsequent growth.
Towards International Cooperation (mid 1990s – 2001)
Although Mexico and its naval forces had prioritized sub-state threats before, the end of the Cold War reinforced their focus on naval policy relating to non-state actors and trans-national crime. For example, the fight against drug trafficking at sea became, and still is, a cornerstone for U.S.-Mexico maritime security cooperation. Bilateral security and defence cooperation between both countries reached new heights during this decade, and the Mexican Navy has played a key role in maintaining security ties with the United States ever since.
Subsequently, the Mexican Navy decided to increase its naval shipbuilding efforts and to focus on domestically developed offshore patrol vessels. Building on the lessons of the Uribe-class the Mexican government built four Holzinger-class OPVs in local shipyards during the first half of the 1990s. At the same time, the navy acquired two Bronstein-class and four Knox-class frigates from the United States, all part of the Cold War glut of US Navy vessels. The vessels were outdated by international standards but helped the Mexican Navy maintain a modest ocean-going capability.
During the second half of the 1990s, the navy was also investing in its personnel by sending more personnel to attend training in US Navy and US Coast Guard schools. Though mostly academic, this foundation of security cooperation between the United States and Mexico was important for the current doctrinal stage, which came in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the United States.
Speeding Up Internationalization (2001 – Present)
After the attacks on 11 September 2001, the Mexican Navy came to the consensus that it had more to worry about than maritime drug trafficking. Specifically, it became increasingly concerned with the possibility of a terrorist attack on offshore drilling platforms in the Bay of Campeche, and in response to this perceived threat, the navy acquired two Aliya-class corvettes from Israel. They were the first Mexican vessels capable of launching anti-ship missiles, which was a major step in conventional naval capability. The two Aliyas were part of the Navy’s overall patrol scheme in the zone, also comprised of interceptor boats, Raytheon-made Sentinel coastal radars and a special operations base located on an oil platform. The Navy also continued to build offshore patrol vessels like the Oaxaca-class OPV. By the end of President Vicente Fox’s administration in 2006, the Mexican navy could call on a fleet of modern OPVs and limited anti-surface warfare capabilities.
Fox’s successor, President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), took office and aggressively used the Mexican military to attack the growing power of the drug cartels. These measures included the Mexican navy’s marines who were generally regarded as the most efficient, respected, and reliable force in the military. The crackdown on the cartels also drew the Mexican Navy into closer cooperation with its US counterparts. In his book A Tale of Two Eagles, Craig Deare argues that during this period is was the war on organized crime that allowed the United States-Mexico security and defence relationship to reach new levels. Cooperation was most evident in intelligence sharing and in the United States’ actions assisting the Mexican navy to invest in new platforms, like maritime surveillance aircraft.
Simultaneously, the Mexican Navy has continued to invest in patrol vessels, for instance the aforementioned Oaxaca-class and a new class of Stan Patrol vessels built in Mexico under license from Damen Group in the Netherlands. Eventually this project led to the most ambitions Mexican acquisition, the multipurpose SIGMA 10514 frigate. The SIGMA 10514 project would not have been possible without building on some of the earlier Mexican shipbuilding programs like the Oaxaca-class. For the Mexican Navy, the SIGMA-class is a strategic bet on the country’s national defence in the 21st Century. Initially envisioned as a class of eight vessels, construction has been halted after only the first, ARM Juárez, has been launched.
The SIGMA project has been suspended since December 2018, with only one ship operational. All other naval construction has also been halted, breaking with what has been a near constant period of acquisitions since the 1990s.
The future of the Mexican navy is at a crossroads. The doctrinal evolution that started in the 1980s, both in terms of organizational culture and capabilities, has yielded a modern-thinking navy with moderately capable vessels but, a lack of interest in the navy and maritime affairs by the current administration may halt or even begin to reverse some of that hard-won progress. Nonetheless, even while naval construction is halted, decades of evolution in service culture and doctrine should survive a temporarily hostile political climate.
A clear sign that the Navy is still on the same strategic path that began 40 years ago, would be its participation in multinational naval drills and exercises, such as UNITAS, RIMPAC or Trade Winds. If the Navy does not take part in those exercises, and the shipbuilding program remains halted, the Mexican Navy will have a hard time to keep the pace of its strategic doctrinal evolution.
Time will tell.
Christian J. Ehrlich
Christian Ehrlich is the founding Director of Riskop, Mexico’s leading Strategic intelligence and risk mitigation firm. He has worked as Non-Resident Fellow at the Mexican Navy Strategic Research Institute, focusing on strategy and new types of conflict. A graduate of the William J Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (Defense Policy and Complex Threats), he is currently studying a MA in Maritime Security at Coventry University, UK. Christian has researched and published extensively on Mexico’s maritime domain and the country’s maritime security challenges.
He has been a speaker at the Mexican Defense Secretariat’s National Defense College, the Mexican Navy Center for Higher Studies and the Peruvian National War College.