Although Mexico is the eleventh largest economy in the world, its military was traditionally one of the smallest in the world. In 2015, Mexico’s military budget was less than one percent of its GDP. Mexico has operated its military forces under a three-pronged doctrine of external defense, internal defense and disaster relief. The United States, on the other hand, has valued force projection, the ability to project its military to all parts of the world. This is an extension of US foreign policy.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Mexican Drug Wars (2006-2008) forced both countries to reevaluate their ability to coordinate in the future. Because Mexico focused on internal security and because it did not perceive an external vulnerability, it allowed its military to degrade. As a result of 9/11, the United States began focusing on homeland security. Because of the oceans on both sides of the country and its close relationship with Canada, through NORAD, the United States had one defense sector that was not integrated into its command and control doctrine.
The United States relies on technology for its military operations. One aspect of the technology is a system of integrated command and control. Military units operate cohesively through connected nodes with each node operating in conjunction with the other units. In simplest terms, an air intercept mission requires a radar operator to detect and track an unknown target. The target is continuously moving, changing directions and speed. Launching an effective intercept mission requires locating the closest air assets with the appropriate equipment and ability to reach the target, identify and engage if necessary and return to base. You cannot normally send a helicopter to engage a fast moving target just like you can’t expect a fighter jet to effectively intercept a Cessna 172.
There are many logistics involved that requires bringing many pieces to bare on the target.
The United States has developed a sophisticated command-and-control system where sentinel aircraft work in conjunction with ground radars, theater commanders and smaller units, like fighter jets intercepting the target. Air intercepts also require the cooperation of civil air control centers to manage both the crowded airways and provide information about other aircraft in the vicinity.
Through technology, the United States has substantially increased its awareness of its airspace and its ability to react. However, the United States has always operated on the doctrine of expanding its defense umbrella as far away as possible of the US homeland.
Mexico, on the other hand, has been resistant to integrating its military forces with US forces. There are many reasons for this, both cultural and politically. This has always stymied the US military leadership because it did not have an ability to defend as effectively from the southern border. This does not mean that the United States was vulnerable, it simply means that the southern border did not fit the integration that the United States operates effectively operates under.
After the Merida Initiative, I started to notice a significant uptick in military infrastructure development by Mexico since 2011. Obviously, counter insurgency operations have been bolstered as well as naval installations. There are many examples I want to share with you but today I am going to focus on air defense.
Mexico’s Air Force is severely degraded. The Air Force does not only guard against foreign aircraft but it is also the backbone of Mexico’s military’s ability to move troops quickly and effectively as operations demand. Many times, I have been asked, why does it take the military so long to get to where the drug dealers are. The notion being; if the news media knows where they are then why does it take so many days for the military to get there. It comes down to logistics.
There are only so many troops available to mobilize. Mobilizing them means transporting them to where they need to be. Because of the degraded status of the Mexican Air Force, both aircraft and pilots were unavailable to meet the requirements.
Air Force units are expensive. Aircraft, hangers and runways are expensive to build and maintain. Airplanes need expensive maintenance. Pilots are expensive to train because they need to fly often and push the aircraft to their limits. Fuel and munitions are expended regularly. It is not as simple as buying F-16’s, even used ones.
As a result, the United States saw an opportunity to fully realize the dream of a fully integrated North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) it had been trying to assemble and Mexico saw an opportunity to address some serious deficiencies in its military.
There are many pieces that are being assembled quietly to reach the full potential of NORAD. The most obvious one was Mexico’s decision to purchase Beechcraft T-6C+ Texans to begin replacing its Pilatus PC-7 trainers for pilots. Like the Pilatus, the T-6’s give Mexico an aircraft to train pilots as well as aircraft to use for COIN (counterinsurgency) operations. However, the most important aspect of the decision to go with the T6’s, instead of Brazil’s Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, lies on the Texan’s training and operations commonality with its US counterparts.
The Texan T-6’s are based in Santa Gertudis in Chihuahua at the Escuela Militar de Aplicacion Aerotáctica de la Fuerza Aérea (Air Force Military School of Aerotactic Applications), also known as BAM-11. Some have also been allocated to BAM-2 as part of the 402nd Squadron in Ixtepec, Oaxaca.
Since 2010, Mexico has been aggressively bolstering its air defense capabilities with ground-based radars as well as airborne platforms using Embraers and Fairchilds to provide AWACs services. The initiative has been dubbed SIVA, an acronym for Sistema Integral de Vigilancia Aérea, or Integrated Airspace Surveillance System.
In addition to the glass cockpits and advanced avionics, the Texans integrate digitally with SIVA and communications are being standardized and secured. They likely integrate with the MEXSAT satellite system. More importantly, the integrated system is compatible to the United States air defense doctrine and NORAD.
Yesterday, July 2, 2015, a tactical exercise dubbed AMALGAM Eagle 15 was concluded, NORAD, the US Northern Command and the Mexican Air Force participated in the exercise that started on June 30. The exercise was to “lay the foundation to streamline a bi-national response” to “an illegal flight transiting” the borders of Mexico and the United States. This according to a June 30, 2015 issued by the NORAD and USNORTHCOM public affairs office.
The exercise included several aspects of air intercept missions and tested how each country would coordinate with each other to affect the intercept of an aircraft transiting both countries.
From my perspective it looks to me like this is the another step of integrating Mexico into NORAD.
It is no secret that Mexico’s supersonic interceptors, the F-5e are beyond their life span. From the original 12 aircraft, there are six still operating according to the latest military census. They need to be replaced.
It is likely that once the foundation in systems and pilots has been completed through the T-6’s, Mexico will be upgrading its supersonic fleet with a small contingent of advanced US interceptors. The T-6’s serve the dual-purpose of training pilots, testing operational methods and, additionally preparing pilots to transition to more sophisticated jet interceptors. The AMALGAM Eagle 15 exercise provides further proof of this.
Photo credit: TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States gather in front of the Killey Center for Homeland Operations August 13. The group was here to participate in the Amalgam Eagle planning conference. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund/Released) 15aug2014