SANTIAGO, Chile — Latin American countries are seeing the beginnings of a resurgence in naval shipbuilding following a decades-long lull that has left industrial capacity there languishing.
European yards have taken notice of the market, as heavy hitters like Naval Group, Thales, Fincantieri, MBDA, Navantia, Damen Schelde, Saab, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, Kongsberg, BAE Systems, Indra and Babcock flocked to exhibit at ExpoNaval, the region’s main maritime show, held in Chile in December.
Pairing proven designs from across the Atlantic with national requirements in Latin America is already beginning to boost local naval industries.
The trend was highlighted by Colombia, which in November awarded a contract to state-owned naval shipbuilder COTECMAR for a series of five frigates for the country’s Navy. The vessels will replace Colombia’s current squadron of four light frigates. The cost of the first new frigate will be $440 million, with the total fleet cost expected to reach $2 billion.
The Netherland’s Damen Schelde yard will be the main subcontractor, providing a tailored version of its Sigma 10514 frigate design as well as technical support to the Colombian shipbuilder.
Meanwhile, COTECMAR is also building a series of two missile patrol corvettes, using an improved and larger version of a design by German shipbuilder Fassmer.
To the north, Mexico’s state-owned shipbuilder Astilleros de Marina, or ASTIMAR, which runs five shipyards in the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the country, has built its expertise constructing patrol vessels based on a Spanish design for the Mexican Navy.
After building the series of offshore patrol vessels of the Holzinger, Sierra, Durango and Oaxaca classes — each locally designed with increased size and advanced capacities — ASTIMAR started the construction of its first modern warship in 2017 using Damen’s Sigma 10514 design.
The result was the 2,900-ton frigate ARM Benito Juarez, completed in 2019 and declared operational in Mexico’s naval fleet in 2020. Known as the first ship in the Long-Range Oceanic Patrol effort, locally known as the POLA program, it is the first oceanic ship operated by the Mexican Navy since 2004.
The Benito Juarez is fitted with a comprehensive suite of sensors coupled with advanced anti-surface, anti-submarine and air defense systems. It includes Boeing’s RGM-84L Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles and Raytheon Technologies’ RIM-162 Evolved Seasparrow Missile air defense missiles, both in Mk 141 vertical missile launchers, as well as a launcher of Raytheon’s RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile II point air defense system.
The vessel will serve as test ship, to be followed by a series of seven sister ships, with building to start from 2025 and to continue into the 2030s, using an improved design that could like increase in size and displacement.
The POLA program, which could cost $3 billion if all seven planned frigates are ordered, could become the largest surface naval combatant program launched in Latin America. The ships are required under Mexico’s plans to deploy a squadron of frigates on each coast of the country.
And in Brazil, after a protracted process, the construction of the first of four 3,400-ton Tamandaré-class frigates started in September, with steel planks cut at a ThyssenKrupp shipyard in the southern state of Santa Catarina.
Original plans were to use an enlarged and improved version of the Barroso-class missile corvette. But the idea was discarded in favor of foreign expertise, after finding that the local capacity to design and build surface ships — developed between the 1970s and 1990s with the construction of British-designed Niteroi-class frigates and the indigenous Inhauma/Barroso-class corvettes — had vanished after a long lapse when nothing was built.
A contract worth $2 billion for the first series of four frigates was awarded early in 2020 to Águas Azuis Consortium, a joint venture formed by Germany’s ThyssenKrupp and Brazilian defense company Embraer. The ships will be built using a version of ThyssenKrupp’s Meko A100 design tailored to Brazilian Navy requirements.
The keel of the first-of-class Tamandaré frigate will be laid in the first trimester of 2023, with deliveries to start in late 2024 and be completed in 2029.
Meanwhile, Chile deploys what is currently the most modern surface combat fleet in South America, with five upgraded frigates of Dutch and British origins, and two air defense frigates acquired secondhand from Australia in 2019. But while those ships will serve well into the 2030s, Chile’s naval service is not idle about the future.
The Chilean Navy’s ambitions are to replace its fleet of eight frigates with a series of new 5,000-ton combat vessels expected to be built locally by state-owned naval yard ASMAR beginning in 2030. The plan has robust political support, and ASMAR has experience from building a series of four 1,800-ton patrol vessels of the Piloto Pardo class between 2006 and 2017.
The shipbuilder is currently building a 10,000-ton icebreaker, to be completed by the middle of 2023, and it’s preparing to build a series of four 8,000-ton amphibious and multipurpose transport ships.
The Chilean Navy’s present interest is Babcock’s Arrowhead 140 frigate design, already ordered by the U.K. and Poland. But it is early days, and the competition for a contract is not expected to start before the 2026-2027 time frame.
Emilio Meneses, an independent analyst based in Santiago, Chile, expects other regional countries to also express their interest in naval technology.
“In the years to come, we will see other Latin American nations with maritime interests, specially at the Southern Cone, to follow the paths of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia as well as potential forerunner Chile,” Meneses told Defense News. “Peru, which has a very capable shipbuilding industry, is likely to build its next frigates using a foreign design. Ecuador and Uruguay most possibly will acquire secondhand vessels with enough service life remaining and space for upgrading, according to their financial resources.”
José Higuera is a Latin America correspondent for Defense News.