Mexican government priorities mean Benito Juarez sails alone
The Mexican Navy is unlikely to receive additional SIGMA 10514 Patrulla Oceánica de Largo Alcance (POLA) long-range ocean patrol vessels — or other ships in the near future — due to the priorities of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the economic effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The first and only POLA vessel, ARM Benito Juarez (formerly Reformador), is the crown jewel of the Mexican navy for two reasons.
First, it was manufactured by the state-run shipyard ASTIMAR with co-operation from Damen Group (the ship is based on Damen’s SIGMA 10514 frigate design). ASTIMAR already produces an array of platforms such as Oaxaca-class and Durango-class OPVs, as well as Tenochtitlan-class coastal patrol boats, but POLA is a different technological achievement.
Second, the vessel enhances the ability of the Mexican Navy to project power. The navy does not lack numbers of ships – when Benito Juarez was commissioned in February 2020, the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy noted that the service has 279 vessels in its fleet – but most assets are meant for littoral patrol operations.
POLA therefore marks a departure from the norm, by increasing the ability of the Mexican Navy to operate in blue water environments. Benito Juarez was scheduled to participate in the USN-hosted RIMPAC 2020 exercise in August, although Mexican media reports suggest the government has withdrawn the vessel because of COVID-19.
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It is highly likely that Benito Juarez will remain as the sole ship in its class for the immediate future, despite the eight-vessel contract between the Mexican government and Damen. President Obrador is known to oppose major government spending (including defence acquisition programmes), preferring to focus on development and population-assistance projects instead.
As a result, the Mexican Navy ‘has suffered the effects of financial policies [focused on] cuts since December 2018 [when Obrador came to power],’ according to an April 2020 report on Mexico and COVID-19 from Christian Ehrlich, director of the Institute for Strategy and Development Research in Mexico City.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the government to allocate even more resources to civilian assistance projects.
Geopolitical factors influence the direction of Mexican naval acquisition. Since its neighbours are Belize, Guatemala, and the US, the possibility of inter-state warfare is negligible.
This means that the priority for the navy is to monitor the vast Mexican EEZ, covering 3 million km2 in the Pacific and Caribbean, to conduct SAR operations and combat crimes such as drug trafficking and illegal fishing.
Ehrlich predicts that Mexico’s COVID-related financial crisis, plus stronger US patrols across the US-Mexico border, will result in an increased ‘movement of narcotics across the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean’.
Moreover, as part of the government’s response to COVID-19, the navy has converted some of its vessels into floating medical platforms (Estaciones Médicas de Superficie) to assist coastal communities. For example, the logistic support vessel Libertador recently docked in Veracruz to help treat patients.
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