WASHINGTON — Think Panama — except much more challenging, much more fierce and much less guarantee of success.
That is the scenario Pentagon officials see as contingency plans for a military invasion and — in military parlance — “takedown” of Venezuela are updated and upgraded as tensions rise between Caracas and Washington.
The outline of a possible military intervention was detailed in several interviews by TMN with U.S., Colombia and Brazilian military authorities, as well as civilian analysts. Some of those had first-hand experience in reviewing military plans and intelligence assessments for Venezuela at various times.
“I think the chances of the U.S. invading Venezuela are close to nil,” Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is now a historian focused on security and military history and study, and U.S. foreign policy. He is a professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.
“But if there is a contingency plan, it probably resembles 1989’s Operation Just Cause (Panama): a swift and violent attack aimed at stunning enemy forces into submission immediately followed by political decapitation,” he said. “No long-term effort to rebuild Venezuela. Nobody in the United States has any appetite for another stab at nation-building.”
Washington has pushed diplomatic and economic steps against the Maduro government in Venezuela. That said, a military option has been discussed, according to news reports — and the Pentagon plans to be ready if called to act.
The plan is pretty straightforward, those interviewed said.
Strategic airdrops would seize the airport, to provide an airhead to bring in heavier troops. U.S. forces also would seek to commandeer government offices, communications facilities and other critical points. Ideally, the troops would locate and surround Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, but that is not a given — again, much like Panama, Manuel Noriega initially escaped, those interviewed said.
The force size would likely be at least three or four Army and Marine divisions, those interviewed said.
“The metaphor is ‘a starfish on an oyster,’ ” one of those interviewed said. “Go in quick, take out critical nodes with precision-guided munitions to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties. It is critical that we leave as much intact to rebuild socioeconomic functions as rapidly as possible.”
Some planners also said the Pentagon may consider using variants of pre-2001 war plans that include a “cyber siege” — identifying the power structure to include power grids, industrial grids and also bureaucratic infrastructure. Cyber attacks will be designed to emasculate and destroy personal bank accounts, medical records and similar data to undermine support for the regime, some of those interviewed outlined.
The military study group that constructed the cyber plan, including those at the Army War College, also produced plans for asymmetric strikes, such as using nerve agents to make the opposing military sick with temporary illnesses such as diarrhea, some of those interviewed said.
Those plans were crafted to last until 2015 for targets including lran, North Korea, Libya and Cuba. After 2015, the planners assumed that the U.S. would have to face a resurgent Russia and China — exactly what the Pentagon says today are the primary threats facing the United States.
Unlike Panama, an invasion of Venezuela would include significant challenges, those interviewed said.
First, most planners and analysts said the U.S. should not count on a collapse of the Venezuela military. “The shock of this might provoke the regime to collapse, but I would not bet on it,” John Pike of GlobalStatregy,org said.
It would have to be as much a surprise as possible, so no aircraft carriers lurking offshore, those interviewed underscored. The fact that neighboring nations Brazil and Colombia have publicly said they would not permit an invasion across their borders or allow their territories to be used for any support also must be taken into account, they said.
The Army model for taking down a regime draws heavily on the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the takedown of the Noriega regime in Panama in 1989, one of those interviewed said.
“Simultaneous airstrikes against ‘critical nodes’ to include command, control and communication probably at late night, early morning followed by insertion of Special Ops (Delta Force/SEAL teams) assets to neutralize (kill or capture) key personnel if possible,” he said. “Insertion of Ranger/Marine forces by parachute or helicopter/Ospreys at key areas: airfields, radio/television stations, Government buildings. Follow up insertions of Army/Marine ground forces as needed by air or over the beach. CAS [close air support] provided by aircraft carriers by dawn. Initial air attacks would involve stealth platforms manned and possibly un-manned.”
Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure in Venezuela, with the bulk of the population located in a few large cities. “It is hard to imagine you could have some type of sweeping Cold War-style of invasion,” one individual familiar with the plans said. “You would take the airport, and then move out.”
Venezuela is about the same size as the United States east of the Mississippi, almost twice as big as Iraq, nine times the size of Panama and 27 times the size of Grenada.
But the most significant challenge could be a well-armed Venezuelan military — estimated by some to be about 150,000 troops strong out of 500,000 personnel — supported by a loyal civilian paramilitary of an estimated 200,000 that is scattered throughout the nation, conflict analysts interviewed said.
“The key here is to use enough force to get this done quickly,” Pike said. “Unfortunately, we tend to go with too little up front and then end up having to commit more. What we did in Afghanistan in October 2001 being a prime example: too little force to find, fix and annihilate Osama [bin Laden] and al Qaeda and then ‘mission creep.’ ”