Uruguay’s military is undergoing a transformation. Its limited defense budget, combined with no apparent traditional security threat, means that its armed forces must find a new raison d’être in order to justify obtaining new equipment. A prime example of this evolution is the Uruguayan Navy, which is currently attempting to choose the ideal offshore patrol vessel (OPV) to efficiently monitor its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Due to space issues, we will simply define OPVs as small vessels (between 60-90m long) that are utilized for coastal patrol to combat crimes like drug trafficking, illegal fishing, as well as carrying out search and rescue operations. The fact that Uruguay regards them as the future cornerstone of its naval platforms explains the geopolitical situation in the South Atlanticnowadays. Montevideo enjoys positive relations with its two neighbors, Brazil and Argentina (the dispute with Buenos Aires over a controversial pulp mill notwithstanding), to the point that an inter-state war with either state is too farfetched to be realistically hypothesized. Hence, in order to justify its existence and budget, the South American nation’s navy is now focusing on combating non-traditional maritime threats, such as drug trafficking and illegal fishing. In order to achieve this, Uruguay needs a fleet of small but fast vessels that can monitor its EEZ, namely OPVs.
The need for a modern fleet that can patrol a country’s EEZ was made by a recent incident in which Argentina’s Coast Guard sank a Chinese vessel that was illegally fishing in its territorial waters. Buenos Aires argues that its Coast Guard shot at and sank the vessel after an ineffective chase that lasted hours. The Chinese government has declared that it is “very worried” about the incident.
As for Uruguay’s navy, back in 2013 the Uruguayan daily El País quoted Rear Admiral Daniel Núñez Rodriguez as saying that the fleet’s status was “disastrous” as several of its vessels are decades old and should be retired. To stress that point, in January an Uruguayan vessel, theROU Vanguardia, had to be rescued by a Chilean vessel when it was trapped in a storm in Antarctica and its motor reportedly suffered malfunctions.
The Uruguayan government seems to (finally) recognize this urgency and plans to purchase between two and three OPVs to modernize its fleet. This interest has caught the eyes of several important military industrial companies.
It is worth noting that companies outside of Europe are also looking to win this coveted contract. One good example is Austal. The Australian company is known for its deals with the U.S. Navyto construct Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) such as the USS Montgomery. However, Austal produces smaller vessels like the High Speed Support Vessel (HSSV 72), which Oman has acquired, and the Patrol 58-cape class, which Austal constructed for Australia. Austal is already well regarded for its LCS warships, so it will be interesting to see if this pedigree helps their OPVs enter the Latin American market via Uruguay.
Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez can govern with the certainty that his country does not face any major security threats (e.g., Brazil trying to invade the country). And while the Uruguayan military is not at a crossroads per se, it is nonetheless in the process of transforming itself into a new force that will focus on combating non-traditional security threats. Choosing the correct OPVs is the first step for the Uruguayan navy to effectively face its 21st century challenges.