The Risk of a Military Incident Between Venezuela and the U.S.

Venezuelan waters have been a recent stage for incidents between American and Bolivarian military forces. Could this all escalate into actual, frontal war?

Photo: Reuters

Less than a week after President Donald Trump gave a tepid speech at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami, the U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Pinckney entered contested Venezuelan waters on July 15th, in an aptly named Freedom of Navigation (FON) operation. The Pinckney’s course, which at its closest passed 16 nautical miles from the Venezuelan coast, prompted a number of short communiqués from Caracas a day later, where the regime referred to the maneuver as an “erratic” and “childish” act of provocation. However, what the scripted response to the routine military exercise left out, was an assessment of the latent risk of a military escalation between both countries. Especially when that “provocation” is aimed at an adversary, like Caracas, with an untested level of tolerance or control for such actions.

FON operations (or FONOps for short) are fairly conventional military actions, stemming from the “freedom of navigation” principle, which allows vessels flying the flag of any sovereign state to avoid interference by a separate state. FONOps in essence are the operational reinforcement of a norm that has existed for hundreds of years, even before it was codified and accepted as international law in 1982, by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the risk attached to FONOps is significantly increased when they are accompanied by another strategy: tactical psychological operations (PSYOps). A simple example of a PSYOps mission during the Cold War involved a U.S. military aircraft flying straight at Soviet airspaceforcing them to turn on their surface-to-air missile radars and place aircraft on alertonly to see the American aircraft peel off meters before reaching restricted airspace. These would take place anywhere from once every week, to one every day.

Despite the Pentagon’s reticence to either confirm or deny PSYOps in any operational theater, there is already some evidence to suggest that PSYOps are taking place in Venezuela. U.S. signal intelligence aircrafts are regularly tracked close to the Venezuelan border with Colombia and over the Caribbean. In July 2019, a Venezuelan SU-30 Flanker was even scrambled to intercept a U.S. Lockheed EP-3 conducting reconnaissance over what the Venezuelan government claimed was Venezuelan airspace. 

Although the frequency of the operations can be debated, considering the significant military build-up in the Caribbean in recent months, one can infer that they will likely become more frequentif they aren’t already. 

Are there consequences of a dramatic uptick in both FONOps and PSYOps across the Venezuelan coast line? Consider this: the majority of modern conflicts or even military exercises do not begin with a declaration of war. Latin America’s largest armed conflict in the past 50 years, over the South Atlantic’s Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, was an undeclared war. And up until the arrival of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s single largest military mobilization was due to the presence of a Colombian corvette, the Caldas, inside the Gulf of Venezuela, in 1987. 

Although the frequency of the operations can be debated, considering the significant military build-up in the Caribbean in recent months, one can infer that they will likely become more frequent.

The last time the U.S. Congress authorized a “state of war” was in June 1942. Since then, Washington has actively supported, or been directly involved, in at least 17 foreign military conflicts. And a considerable percentage of these conflicts began with unplanned small-scale uses of force, in essence accidents, which led to a gradual escalation of military activity. 

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, a fictional account of a possible nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula, begins with the accidental downing of a civilian airliner in the wake of multiple PSYOps targeting North Korean missile defenses. Separate large-scale modern war games run by war colleges and military think tanks also start off following simple military accidents. These hazards are also more common than popular belief would suggest; just this year, we saw the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, hit by a surface-to-air Iranian missile moments after take-off due to a human error

Is there a way to prevent such accidents? The answer is probably no, but having a disciplined and professional military force helps. And the National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela (FANB), especially in its lower and middle ranks, are hard to describe as disciplined or professional. The last major conflict involving Venezuelan ground troops occurred over 190 years ago. Since the 1940s, the FANB have largely been geared towards a possible conflict with neighboring Colombia, followed by counterinsurgency, anti-narcotics and, most recently, civil unrest. 

Take for example, again this year, what should have been a routine coast guard mission near La Tortuga, when the Venezuelan patrol boat Naiguatá attempted to escort a cruise ship into a Margarita naval port, citing suspicious activities. Video released of the incident showed naval officers fire automatic weapons at the cruise ship, before it attempted to close ranks with the vessel only to be rammed by its reinforced hull, causing the $2.2 billion dollar Naiguatá to sink.  

An Unpredictable Actor

The logic behind FONOPs and PSYOps, or their intended outcome, is to progressively degrade an adversary’s decision-making process, undermining command and control. Carried out on a regular basis, they put the adversary under a false state of alert or, worse, monotony. They also serve to map out air defense capabilities, as most modern military aircraft can track anti-air defense installations, even if a weapon has yet to be fired. Hence, frequent PSYOps, also forces anti-air batteries and support structures to constantly move from location.

The logic behind FONOPs and PSYOps, or their intended outcome, is to progressively degrade an adversary’s decision-making process, undermining command and control.

Setting the military asymmetry between Venezuela and the U.S. aside, could an accident caused by either incitement or incompetence (or both) ever escalate into a larger conflict? The answer will likely reside in the magnitude of a possible “accident” and the willingness of the U.S. to escalate minor confrontation. There are scenarios where, for example, the targeting or sinking of a U.S. vessel would assure a response from Washington. But taking into consideration recent PSYOps (carried out by mostly surveillance aircraft) and factoring in Venezuela’s coastal defense system, any accident or even a determined act of aggression will be limited in scope. 

A force readiness assessment conducted by the FANB measuring the Navy’s ability to escalate and control its use of force isn’t publicly available, but we can be somewhat sure that its conclusions are not positive. Combine that with the FANB’s top-heavy partisan chain of command, with as many as 2,000 admirals and generals (twice the top brass as the U.S. military). Operational responses to any incident catalyzed by either FONOps or PSYOps is likely to be mired with bureaucratic disarray. 

Lower down the chain of command, many soldiers are as destitute and desperate as most of Venezuela’s working class. Their training is frequently interrupted not only by political rallies and events, but by tasks such as garbage collection or farming. Their ranks likewise tend to be saturated with counter-intelligence agents, undermining cohesion and confidence necessary to respond with restraint to any “provocation”.  

President Donald Trump, despite his often bellicose rhetoric, has also shown more restraint than his predecessors in committing the U.S. to open-ended conflicts. A small military altercation, in other words, won’t necessarily lead to an invasion force parking itself across the Meta River, or Roraima. What it might lead to is a shift away from the U.S.’s targeted sanctions strategy, into a sanctions regime akin to that of other pariah states. 

That is, assuming that all factors taken into account remain constant, and Venezuela’s capacity to retaliate continues to be limited…