Despite Mexico’s sizeable population and economy, its navy has generally lacked 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 drug war 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
On paper, the Mexican Navy operates six frigates, all of which served in the US Navy and were transferred to Mexico at the end of their commission. These ships were stripped of their major weapons systems upon being transferred, 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 operated 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.
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 naval cannons and facilities for an embarked helicopter. These three classes were designed and built in Mexico and incorporate modern features such as stealth.
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 which have 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 diesels 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 SMART-S, suggest it will likely be included on the POLA.
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, one $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 sale, which only covers one ship’s worth of weapons, seems to imply that Mexico’s first POLA will not be fully armed. According to DSNS, the class is capable of accommodating 12 vertical launch anti-air missiles, but no such weapons are included in the buy. Instead, the ship will have a 21-round SeaRAM launcher, which has a very short range of 5 nmi and is only sufficient for self-defense. Furthermore, the ship has the capacity for two surface-to-surface missile launchers with four missiles each, but Mexico has only bought six Harpoon missiles. Some of these may be spares or used for test firing, so the actual loadout could be fewer than six.
The decision not to equip the first POLA with its maximum armament was likely a financial one — by purchasing only the weapons deemed necessary, Mexico will save many millions of dollars. The un-utilized weapons positions could be armed at a later time should the need arise, although it would require a lengthy dock stay to equip a vertical launch system.
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, it still provides for Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which can travel more than 67 nautical miles and inflict critical damage. The Harpoons will restore the long-range anti-ship capability lost with the retirement of the Sa’ar 4.5 class’ weapons systems. The Block II Harpoon variant purchased by Mexico also features GPS navigation, allowing it to be used as a land-attack missile. With regards to air defense, the Rolling Airframe Missile system, while not suited to escort or area air defense operations, does give the class self-defense capabilities 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.
With regards to mundane operations, 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, and an embarked medium helicopter will enable the POLA to rapidly interdict smugglers using fast boats or small narcotics submarines.
Beyond the additional capabilities offered by the ships themselves, the POLAs will alter the character of the Mexican Navy. Its sailors will gain experience with modern weapons systems such as the Harpoon and 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.