Updated 8/12/2018 to reflect Mexico’s purchase of Evolved SeaSparrow missiles for the Sigma 10514s.
Despite Mexico’s sizeable population and economy, its navy has long suffered from a lack of modern assets. Mexican military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is quite low at 0.6%, and much of those funds go towards fighting a prolonged war against organized crime and drug trafficking. As a result, the Mexican Navy, whose main contributions to the counter-drug effort are anti-smuggling patrols and raids by the Mexican Naval Infantry, has not been a high budgetary priority.
The current state of Mexico’s navy
The Mexican Navy possesses six frigates, all of which previously served in the US Navy and were donated to Mexico after being decommissioned in the 1990s. However, the ships were stripped of major weapons systems prior to their transfer, rendering them unsuitable for intensive combat operations. Because they were old, difficult to maintain, and lacked weapons, Mexico decided to mothball the frigates in 2017, according to IHS Jane’s. Mexico also fielded two ex-Israeli Sa’ar 4.5-class missile boats, but Jane’s reports that one has been decommissioned due to availability issues and the other has been stripped of its missile system, which had become unserviceable. This left the Mexican Navy without a single modern, missile-armed warship in deployable condition.
Nevertheless, Mexico does have a sizeable fleet of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), which are used for territorial patrols and the interdiction of smugglers. The Oaxaca class, Durango class, and Sierra class are large OPVs which have 57 mm cannons and facilities for an embarked helicopter. These three classes were designed and built in Mexico and incorporate modern features such as low-observability.
Considering Mexico’s large population and status as an upper-middle-income economy, its dearth of bona fide warships is somewhat of an anomaly. Many smaller countries — such as Chile, with 1/7th of Mexico’s population and 1/4th of its nominal GDP — field modern, missile-armed combatants. In some cases, naval weakness can lead to an erosion of maritime territorial integrity. The Philippines, for example, has been unable to check Chinese breaches of its territorial seas due to its lack of a modern fleet. Mexico has good relations with its neighbors, so state-on-state naval confrontations are unlikely. Nevertheless, Admiral Vidal Soberón, the secretary of Mexico’s Navy, cited the protection of sovereignty and national security as the primary impetus for purchasing the new ships.
Moreover, the dearth of large combatants precludes Mexico from substantial participation in international naval drills, maritime peacekeeping operations, and anti-piracy patrols. The Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs identified boosting its presence in multilateral operations as a goal in its 2013-2018 roadmap, a document which envisions “a Mexico with a global responsibility.” To realize this, Mexico’s navy needs ships with a good cruising range and the ability to defend themselves should a conflict break out.
A new Dutch-engineered class to revitalize the fleet
To acquire such a capability, the Mexican Navy has turned to Dutch shipbuilder Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS). The firm is no stranger to the world of high-end surface combatants, having built the advanced De Zeven Provinciën-class multirole frigate for the Royal Netherlands Navy. Mexico has ordered a smaller, simpler DSNS design, the Sigma 10514, which also serves in the Indonesian Navy. While DSNS refers to the 10514 as a frigate, Mexico will classify it as a long-range ocean patrol vessel (Patrulla Oceánica de Largo Alcance, or POLA).
DSNS’ Sigma is a family of modular surface combatants based on a central platform but with variances in size and capabilities. The 10514 is the largest member of the Sigma line — “10514” refers to the class’s nominal 105-meter length and 14-meter beam. Sigma 10514 vessels have a combined diesel or electric (CODOE) powertrain, driven either by two 13,400 hp diesel engines or two 1,700 hp electric motors powered by the ship’s six CAT C-32A 735 kW generators. According to the Mexican government, the POLA can reach up to 27 knots. Loaded displacement is 2,570 tons, similar to a small frigate or a large corvette. Specified cruising range is 4,000 nmi, allowing for the conduct of blue-water operations.
While DSNS promotional materials do not specify a radar, renderings on Mexican government websites depict a Thales SMART-S air search unit atop the ship’s main mast. This, combined with the fact that Indonesia’s Sigma 10514 frigates are equipped with the SMART-S, suggest it will likely be included on the POLA. DSNS declined to comment on the POLA’s radar configuration.
Mexico has decided to arm the POLAs with American weapons, an unsurprising choice given the level of military cooperation between the two countries. Thus far, a $98.4 million dollar order has been placed for six RGM-84L Block II Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles, a SeaRAM launcher plus 23 Block II Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAMs), six Mk 54 Mod 0 lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes, and associated launching systems. The contract includes installation assistance, logistical support, and training. The Sigma 10514 design has the capacity for two surface-to-surface missile launchers with four missiles each, but Mexico has only ordered six Harpoon missiles. Some of these may be spares or used for test firing, so the actual loadout could be fewer than six.
As of 10/14/2018, Mexico has also purchased six Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles (ESSMs) and a Mk 56 VLS system plus two telemetry test missiles, indicating that the Sigma’s VLS capability will be utilized. Six ESSMs is a relatively small buy considering the class has an advertised capacity of twelve vertically launched SAMs, but more missiles could be forthcoming.
To provide Mexican industry with experience on a modern combatant, four of the ship’s modules will be built indigenously, with the other two being fabricated in the Netherlands. Final integration is set to take place in Mexico.
Jane’s reports that up to four ships are planned, but only one POLA is currently being procured — it should enter service before 2020. Details regarding the next three ships are sparse, and their configurations could differ from that of the first. A common rule of thumb is that around one-third of a modern navy’s ships are deployed during peacetime, with the other two-thirds either undergoing maintenance or conducting training. Assuming the Mexican Navy adheres to this convention, a fleet of four POLAs would allow it to maintain a constant presence at sea.
Implications of the purchase
With the delivery of the first POLA, the Mexican Navy will have an up-to-date surface combatant for the first time in decades. While the configuration is light in armament and lacks the long-range anti-air punch of a full-size frigate or destroyer, it nevertheless provides a well-rounded combatant capable of anti-air and anti-shipping duties in blue water. The Block II Harpoon variant purchased by Mexico also features GPS navigation, allowing it to be used as a land-attack missile. The decision to procure ESSMs will allow the class to conduct light area air defense duties and the SeaRAM system with its eleven-missile magazine provides good defense-in-depth against modern anti-ship missiles. Assuming Mexico is receiving the SMART-S air search radar, the ships will be able to detect and track small aircraft; considering the prolific use of light aircraft by the drug cartels of Mexico and South America, this capability may prove valuable. The six Mk 54 Mod 0 lightweight torpedoes provide a short-range anti-submarine capacity which could be strengthened if Mexico were to embark a medium anti-submarine helicopter.
Moreover, the 4,000-nautical-mile range of the class will allow for long-endurance patrols of Mexico’s exclusive economic zone and participation in joint operations anywhere on the globe. Modern electronics will facilitate non-combat missions as well; improved radars allow for superior detection capabilities while on patrol and modern data links should allow the POLAs to operate in tandem with allied vessels.
Beyond the capabilities offered by the ships themselves, the POLAs will grant Mexican sailors experience with modern weapons systems such as the ESSM, the Harpoon, and the Rolling Airframe Missile, fostering a culture of high-end surface warfare which could pay dividends should Mexico decide to further expand its surface warfare fleet in the coming decades.