Tag: Columbia

Mission Failed: Inside Silvercorp’s Bizarre Plan to Overthrow Maduro

The Venezuelan authorities announced that they thwarted a coup against the Maduro regime, on 4 May 2020. Venezuelan forces captured eight and killed two men who tried to infiltrate the country’s…

The Venezuelan authorities announced that they thwarted a coup against the Maduro regime, on 4 May 2020. Venezuelan forces captured eight and killed two men who tried to infiltrate the country’s seacoast by boat. Among the arrested were two American citizens, both former U.S. Army Special Forces. Caracas claims that the infiltration attempt is proof of the Trump administration’s plan to overthrow the Venezuelan government. While the raiding party intended to oust Venezuela’s Socialist dictator, Nicholas Maduro, no evidence links the United States government to the operation. Instead, a group of Venezuelan dissidents led by the Florida-based security company “Silvercorp USA” is to be blamed.  

The recent events are nevertheless an excellent opportunity for the Maduro regime to stir anti-American fervor and to move against the opposition.   



SILVERCORP USA: FROM SECURITY AT CONCERTS TO REGIME CHANGE

Silvercorp, a Florida-based security company, was founded by former U.S. Green Beret Jordan Goudreau. Silvercorp has operated in over 50 countries and provided protection services for several Trump campaign rallies in 2018, as Bellingcat discovered. In early 2019, Silvercorp ran security for Venezuela Aid Live, a charitable concert on the Venezuelan-Columbian border. Through this Columbian connection, Silvercorp CEO Goudreau met with Venezuelan military dissidents to plot the overthrow of the Maduro regime in Carcass.

Goudreau at a Trump rally in Pennsylvania on 10 March 2018 (source: Bellingcat)

Goudreau liaised with retired General Cliver Alcala, the ringleader of a hotchpotch of Venezuelan military dissidents and former politicians. Alcala, who was a former associate of Hugo Chavez, claimed to be representing Juan Guaido, the leader of the Venezuelan opposition.

THE $212 MILLION CONTRACT

Reports suggest that the two sides signed a contract, which promises $50 million to Silvercorp in exchange for undisclosed security services. If successful, Silvercorps was to receive a total of $212 million, “backed/secured by Venezuelan barrels of oil.”  A scan of the contract was shared by @FactoresdePoder on Twitter. Guaido’s people argue that they only signed an exploratory contract and that they broke ties with Silvercorp in late-2019.

SILVERCORP’S UNILATERAL ACTION

Venezuelan military dissidents first met with the Trump administration to discuss military options against the Maduro regime in 2018. The White House nevertheless declined to partake in a coup. When the CIA learned of Silvercorp’s operation, it urged Mr. Goudreau to abort the plan, according to the website Connecting Vets.

Sources told Associated Press that Columbian intelligence also warned Alcala, Silvercorp’s Venezuelan accomplice, to stop promoting an invasion of Venezuela. Columbian authorities eventually arrested Alcala in March 2020 and extradited him to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges. 

Eventually, the Venezuelan opposition withdrew support for the operation and refused to pay even the contract retainer. Silvercorp’s CEO Goudreau nevertheless refused to drop the job, stating that he was a “freedom fighter” and wanted to liberate Venezuela. 



Preparations, therefore, continued on a tight budget. Goudreau allegedly raised funds from Roaen Kraft, a descendent of a cheese-making family, and his associates. The Associated Press suggests that Kraft lured further donors with promises of preferential access to the Venezuelan energy market. 

With funding secured, Goudreau recruited a few former Green Berets buddies to help him prepare the operation. After they drafted a plan, Gaudreau opened training camps in eastern Columbia, where Silvercorp trained around 300 Venezuelan dissident soldiers. 

OPERATION GIDEON

Silvercorp commenced with Operation “Gideon” on 3 May 2020 at 1700 hours local time. Mr. Goudreau publicly announced the operation in a Tweet (now deleted) on the same day. He tagged President Trump, probably a last attempt to secure political backing. 

3 MAY 2020: 62 Silvercorp operatives (60 Venezuelans, and two former U.S. Army Special Forces) left Columbia. 

The first of two amphibious assault groups attempted to disembark in the Bay of Macuto, four kilometers east of Venezuela’s main port (La Guaria), and 42 km north of Caracas. The Venezuelan Navy and Coast Guard captured them as soon as they began “hugging” the coastline.

4 MAY 2020: A video on Twitter showed Jordan Goudreau and a Venezuelan commander of the assault, Javier Quintero Nieto, claiming responsibility for the incursion. Despite the setback, Goudreau and Nieto announced that the operation would go forward. They added that many other units are active in southern, western, and eastern Venezuela. The objective of the raid, as described in the video, was to prosecute Maduros’ hardline loyalists, free the political prisoners and spark a revolution to overthrow the regime. 

Later that day, the second assault force approached Playa de Chuao, a coastal town north of Caracas (Venezuela). Local security forces also interdicted this element. Eight men were captured, including the two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Aaron Barry. 

BOUNTY HUNTING?

In an interview with Venezuelan state media, Luke Denman later stated that the team’s objective was to seize an airstrip and bring in a plane to fly Maduro to the United States. In his own televised confession, Airan Berry names “La Carlota” (Air Base Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda) as being the airstrip they had intended to seize.  He also added that seizing Maduro however necessary was the operation’s end goal. The cells referenced by Goudreau and Quintero were likely responsible for getting a fix on Maduro, capturing him and bringing him to the airport. It is unknown why the objective was not to neutralize Maduro but to bring him out of the country – an infinitely more difficult task. There is reason to believe that Silvercorp was hoping to claim the $15 million bounty that the U.S. Department of Justice placed on Maduro’s head for narco-terrorism. The reward would have been an instant pay-off for Silvercorp’s “suicide mission.”



THE VENEZUELANS KNEW

It is virtually certain that the Maduro government was aware of the plot. Whether they collected intelligence on Silvercorp’s preparatory work in Columbia or were tipped off by the Associated Press reporting (the article appeared on 1 May 2020), Carcass prepared for the impending assault. 

Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) suggested the Venezuelan Navy and Coast Guard were on high alert for the past five weeks. On 30 March 2020, the Venezuelan Navy attempted to intercept the Portughese-flagged “RCGS Resolute,” an empty cruise ship en route to Curacao. A Venezuelan destroyer attempted to push the RCGS Resolute into Venezuelan waters but sank after ramming the cruise ship. The Venezuelans accused the cruise ship of transporting mercenaries and weapons but were unable to detain it.


On 29 April 2020, the Venezuelan Coast Guard moved two speedboats from Guiria to La Guaria, the approximate objective of Silvercorp’s first landing party.

In hindsight, Silvercorp should have read these movements as a sign that Caracas had caught up with its plot.

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USAF F-22A Raptors Could Ground Venezuela’s Su-30MK2s and Establish No-Fly Zone

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment. (a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish…

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.


(a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish a strategic bomber presence in the Caribbeans, it is not out of the question that the United States will step up its opposition to the Maduro government. The Trump administration, alongside the European Union and the large majority of Latin American states, already provide political support to the Juan Guaidó interim presidency. Currently, the rift between factions of Venezuela’s armed forces and the Maduro government are growing. Suspicious of his own security forces, Maduro reportedly hired Russian private contractors to provide additional VIP protection.  Should the conflict turn into a civil war, the United States will likely support neighbouring allied countries such as Columbia. While National Security Advisor John Bolton is suggesting the idea of deploying 5,000 troops to Columbia, it is unlikely that such a plan is anything more than a psychological operation against Maduro and the Kremlin.

(b) Overall, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will venture into regime change operations. Any hypothetical U.S.-led military engagement against the Venezuelan regime will likely be limited, as seen in the previous strikes against the Syrian government’s Shayrat airfield and chemical weapons sites. The most likely of the unlikely military engagements will be an air interdiction operation, aimed at reducing the government’s capability of inflicting mass-casualties on opposition targets. Also known as a No-Fly Zone (NFZ), the U.S. could ground the Venezuelan Air Force’s (VAF) aircrafts and suppress its air defences.

(c) The United States has never conducted air interdiction missions in an environment contested by fourth generation aircraft and advanced anti-access surface-to-air missile (SAMs) systems such as Venezuela’s Su-30MK2 and S-300VM SAM system respectively. While sidelined in the last NFZ operation in Libya, the F-22A could however take a control role in such a hypothetical engagement.


The Su-30MK2/ Flanker-C Threat

1. While overall modest, the Venezuelan Air Force (VAF) is regionally superior in terms of aircraft and air defense systems. The VAF’s combat aircraft inventory is particularly interesting, as it sports a combination of 20 mostly “canabilized” and unoperational F-16 Fighting Falcons A/B and 23 fourth generation “plus” Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK2 (NATO Reporting name: Flanker-C).

Four Su-30Mk2 VAF formation via Sergio j. Padrón (One Big Photo)

2. Like the Su-33 (Flanker-D) and Su-35 (Flanker-E), the Su-30MK2 Flanker-C is an evolution of the Su-27 family (Flanker-A/B). This variant was designed in particular to outmatch its American counterpart, the F-15 Eagle, in air superiority battles. While the United States stopped investing in the F-15 family (except for export) when transitioning to the F-22A Raptor as the nation’s air superiority aircraft, the Russians continued to enhance the Flanker-family. The limited number of Flanker-C aircraft in the VAF’s inventory will likely be a strong incentive for the U.S. to deploy the F-22A for air-to-air combat, at least in addition to the more equal F-15 or F-18 aircraft.

3. As in all fighter jet comparisons, there is much controversy about the balance of power between the F-22A and Russia’s Flanker-family. While the F-22A very low-observable (VLO) classified radar-cross section (RCS), supercruise speed and standoff sensors render it superior, some estimates claim that the Flanker-C/D/E is closing the gap in terms of avionics, maneuverability and armament.

4. In a hypothetical air combat maneuver (ACM) or dogfight, the F-22A Raptor could detect the Flanker-C using the APG-77, a long-range (160 to 250 km) low-probability of intercept radar, and engage it with standoff munition from beyond-visual range (BVR) without being detected. This is called the first look, first shot, first kill doctrine and its central to the F-22A engagement tactic.

5. The Flanker-C’s own passive-electronic scanner array (PESA) radar, called N-001 VEP, was developed for the Flanker-A in the 1980s to outperform the USAF’s F-15E Strike Eagle’s onboard sensor. Even with upgrades, the Flanker-C’s detection capabilities are vastly inferior to fifth generation sensors and obsolete against VLO RCS foes. Currently, the only Russian-made radar that can pose a threat to the F-22 is the IRBIS-E, an active-electronic scanner array (AESA) developed for the Flanker-E. The IRBIS-E is capable of detecting normal airborne targets at a distance of 300 km.  The F-22’s VLO RCS, while classified, is believed to be between 0.0001 and 0.0003 square meters, with the frontal aspect performing better. Within these parameters, it is estimated that the IRBIS-E could detect the F-22A at a distance of 50 to 90 km.

6. Should the F-22 be drawn into a small- or medium-range fight or acquire a horizontal ACM pattern, the Flanker-C becomes a challenging adversary. In visual range direct engagement, the F-22A major weakness is its smaller number of electronic warfare (EW) vulnerable air-to-air missiles that it can carry in comparison to the Flanker-C. However, the inclusion of the AIM-120 AMRAAM blocks C-D allows for a 120 to 160 km operational range with increased EW resilience. While the F-22’s VLO-nature mandates a limited and concealed payload, the jet can compensate the limited munnition number by participating in a combined strike force with the “missile truck” F-15 or other aircraft (tasked with targeting the VAF’s F-16s), even relaying targeting data via data link.

An F-22 flies over Andrews Air Force Base in 2008

7. The VAF lacks BVR standoff munition equivalent to the AIM-120 AMRAAM block C/D as well as the training and combat experience of American and Russian pilots. Furthermore, such direct comparisons are ineffective when applied to real combat scenarios. In a NFZ operation, the F-22A Raptors will likely be supported by AWACS, Electronic Attack (EA) aircraft and naval assets. At the same time, the VAF will seek to draw the ACM in the engagement range of its SAM batteries.  However, as the F-22As ACM tactics rely on standoff BVR combat, the air superiority jet will avoid medium-range fights at all costs and even disengage when necessary. In a 2017 joint aviation exercise, the F-22A exercised ACM against Malaysian Royal Air Force Su-30MKK (Flanker-G).

8. Besides ACM, a hypothetical U.S. NFZ over Venezuela would also involve massive ship- and air-launched cruise missile attacks on the VAF’s airfields and logistics (fuel storage, hangers, etc.). This would reduce the number of fighter jets that the Venezuelans could get airborne in the first place. However, that would bring surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems into the equation.


Confronting the S-300VM/ SA-23?

9. Venezuela has the most the most robust air defense in the region. The Comprehensive Aerospace Defense Command (Commando de Defense Aerospatial Integral/ CODAI) tasked with defending Venezuela’s airspace, is directly subordinated to the Operational Strategic Command of the Ministry of Defense.  The mentionable assets operated by CODAI are three long-range S-300VM (SA-23 Gladiator) SAM systems used for area air defense (AAD) and several mid-range Buk M-2 (SA-17 Grizzly) for point air defense (PAD). Most assets are deployed to provide overlapping and saturated coverage over key governmental and military sites in Caracas.

Venezuela’s S-300VM (SA-23) via Defesanet

10. The SA-23 is a capable anti-access asset, threatening ballistic missiles, fighter jets, heavy lifters and even unmanned aerial vehicles. U.S. AWACS, AEW and ISR platforms would be at the highest risk, even at the SAM’s 200-350 km range edge. The U.S. operates its own S-300, acquired in the 1990s from Belarus that it uses for defense research and development purposes and for pilots to test ways to defeat the system. Likewise, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has likely acquired critical intelligence on how the system functions from allied S-300 operators such as Slovakia, Greece and Bulgaria, and Ukraine.

11. Theoretically, a F-22A or F-35B can enter a S-300 denied airspace and strike the battery or guide external-launched standoff and loitering munition to the target. Such a penetration would require a terrain hugging flight path, massive electronic attack support from airborne platforms, such as the E/A-8 Growlers, and a small payload for the F-22/F-35.  

12. The VAF uses the highly-mobile self-propelled Buk M-2/SA-17 SAM to counter air-breathing threats. As the SA-23’s long-range high-altitude coverage would push aircraft to fly low and use terrain to hide from radars, the Buk M-2 would have a greater opportunity to intercept missile attacks. Some analysts estimate that the SA-17 is performing better than the Pantsir S-1 (SA-20 Greyhound).

13. CODAI also operates SA-2 and SA-3 SAMs. However, NATO does not consider these systems as anti-access capabilities, given how inefficient they are in the face of current technology. On the other hand, CODAI is equipped with approximately 5,000 Russian-made Igla-S (SA-24) man-portable air defense missile systems (MANPADS). The shoulder-fired SAM is quickly deployable, difficult to track and poses a great threat to low altitude penetrations. 

14. Should the unlikely NFZ operation also contain a suppression/ destruction of enemy air defense (S/DEAD) element, the U.S. would likely conduct multi-platform air-naval saturation strikes, which would overwhelm the CODAI’s SAMs and subsequent radars. As seen in recent SEAD engagements, air defense unit cannot maintain a 24/7 high readiness. SAM systems can be caught off guard, the personnel can be unprepared or give in to psychological pressure. Overall, Venezuela will not be able to protect its airspace if the United States takes out its Flanker-Cs. Follow-up S/DEAD sorties might not even be needed.

15. In past NFZ operations, adversaries regularly complied to the new operational environment after the “first day of war”. The defenders chose to ground their aircraft and switch the SAM radars off to increase survivability of their armed forces, when attacking forces were reported in the area. In other engagements, such as the air campaigns in Yugoslavia and Vietnam, defending SAM personnel caused tactical surprises. While we cannot estimate how a hypothetical NFZ operation in Venezuela will turn out, it would certainly be the most contested airspace that U.S. forces experienced in the past decades.

UPDATE 24.2.2018

16. This analysis has been updated with an OSINT-based imagery intelligence map showcasing the known SA-23/S-300VM deployments at Manuel Rios air base (AB) and the Brazil-Guyana border. Several Flankers have been forward deployed from Luise del Valle Garcia AB (near Barcelona) to Caracas. Not all SA-23 tractor erector launchers (TELs) are concentrated in the pint-pointed positions. While impossible to verify at this point, a third SA-23 system is rumored to be deployed in an AB north of Caracas. 

VAF’s ABs and SA-23 sites via T-Intelligence


By HARM

Editing by Gecko

This analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.  

VAF’s official name is the Venezuelan National Bolivarian Military Aviation (VNBMA).

VAF placed an order for 12 more Su-30MK2 from Russia, rising the overall inventory number to 35, however a delivery or initial operational capability date has not been estimated or announced.

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