Colombia Needs a Pragmatic Foreign Policy

Without a pragmatic and strategic approach to foreign relations and defense procurement, Colombia’s military readiness could deteriorate, weakening the country’s ability to address evolving security threats.


Image Source: International Crisis Group.

President Gustavo Petro’s recent decision to sever diplomatic ties with Israel has sparked widespread debate and concern about the implications for Colombia’s military readiness. This move, along with other aspects of Petro’s foreign policy, has likely exacerbated existing challenges within the Colombian military, particularly in securing and maintaining crucial military equipment. The cases of the Colombian Army’s Mi-17 helicopter fleet and the Colombian Air Force’s Kfir fighter jet program illustrate the probable negative impact of these policies on the country’s defense capabilities.

Mi-17 Helicopter Fleet: Facing Operational Challenges

The Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters are essential for the Colombian Air Force’s operations, including counter-drug efforts, counter-insurgency missions, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. However, the operational readiness of these helicopters has significantly declined. Less than 50 percent of the current inventory of 19 Mi-17s is operational, far below the international standard of at least 70 percent. This puts additional strain on the U.S.-made Blackhawk fleet, which has had to take on missions traditionally handled by the Mi-17s.

The maintenance of the Mi-17 fleet has been severely affected by the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russian service providers, resulting in a lack of spare parts. This has led to increased operational constraints and higher risks for the remaining helicopters. Over the past year, two major Mi-17 crashes have occurred, resulting in nine deaths and seven injuries, underscoring the dangers posed by insufficient maintenance.

Previously, Colombia had considered Israel as a potential source of spare parts to maintain these aircraft, according to Cambio. However, Petro’s decision in early May to suspend ties with Israel over its handling of the conflict in Gaza has eliminated this option. The United States had offered approximately USD 300 million for the Mi-17s, intending to ship them to Ukraine as part of a broader effort to support the Ukrainian defense. Petro’s refusal of this offer, in line with his non-aligned stance, has left the Air Force with the only option of cannibalizing parts from grounded helicopters, a strategy that is unlikely to be sustainable.

While the Ministry of Finance has announced USD 53 million for repairing and maintaining the Mi-17 fleet, concerns remain about the feasibility of sourcing the required Russian spare parts from non-sanctioned service providers. Despite being aware of this issue for over a year, Petro has not secured viable alternative aircraft through procurement or contributions from the U.S. or other Western allies due to his political positions.

Kfir Fighter Jet Program: Uncertainty and Risks

The severance of ties with Israel has also cast uncertainty over the future of Colombia’s Kfir fighter jet program. The state-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries has been the sole provider of maintenance for Colombia’s aging Kfir jets. As of March, only six of 21 units were operational, with the majority facing significant maintenance issues. The breakdown in relations between Colombia and Israel has almost certainly halted any meaningful maintenance, further jeopardizing the program.

Additionally, the appointment of anti-corruption leader Ivan Velasquez Gomez as Minister of Defense has negatively impacted defense procurement programs. Gomez’s focus on purging negative elements from the military has contributed to an insufficient effort to secure a replacement for the Kfir fleet. While Petro has expressed interest in acquiring 12 to 36 fighter jets from Sweden, France, or the United States, a deal has not yet been reached. The process of finalizing an agreement, transferring the aircraft, and training Colombian pilots could take years, leaving the Kfir fleet in a precarious state. Estimates suggest that the fleet could be completely grounded within the next two years due to a lack of parts and maintenance.

Broader Implications for Security

The implications of Petro’s foreign policy decisions extend beyond immediate maintenance issues to the broader security landscape of Colombia. Some allege that Petro is trying to weaken the military, given his historically tenuous relationship with the armed forces. This relationship has been marked by significant changes in military leadership and allegations of coup plots by retired service members.

Others contend that Petro’s softer security approach, which emphasizes less reliance on military and law enforcement actions, reflects a strategic choice rather than mismanagement. Regardless of the rationale, the impact of these policies on Colombia’s military readiness is likely to be profound, with far-reaching consequences for national and regional security.

The Need for Strategic Reassessment

Petro’s foreign policy decisions, particularly the severance of ties with Israel, underscore the need for a strategic reassessment. The Mi-17 maintenance impasse highlights the importance of reducing dependence on sanctioned countries and seeking stable, high-quality defense procurement from long-term allies like the United States. Similarly, the crisis within the Kfir fleet emphasizes the need for diplomatic realism to manage essential international security relationships and protect critical defense assets.

Without a pragmatic and strategic approach to foreign relations and defense procurement, Colombia’s military readiness could deteriorate, weakening the country’s ability to address evolving security threats. The urgency of addressing these challenges cannot be overstated, as the consequences for Colombia’s national and regional security are significant and immediate.

Joseph Cain is a research intern at Global Americans.

Next Generation Commentary is a Global Americans series offering fresh insights from young analysts on the Americas, including our talented staff and interns.

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