Colombia inks deal that could see Damen build five Sigma frigates

Gregory A. Harden II

SANTIAGO, Chile — Colombia is launching a $2 billion shipbuilding program that would see its Navy acquire five frigates.

The announcement, made last week, was followed by the signing on Tuesday of an initial contract between local shipbuilder Cotecmar and Dutch company Damen to adapt the latter’s Sigma 10514 design to meet the Colombian Navy’s requirements.

A definitive contract “will most probably be signed during 2023, with actual building to start late that year, as several technical and industrial aspects, and even some systems including sensors and weapons, are still not decided and agreed,” a Colombian military source told Defense News on the condition of anonymity to avoid workplace retaliation.

The vessels are to undergo construction at Cartagena on the Caribbean coast in Cotecmar’s facilities. The company will serve as the main contractor for the program, using a stretched version of the Sigma 10514 design as well as technical support from Damen.

The move signals a change in military procurement policy for the government of President Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and left-leaning politician who came into office in August. While campaigning, Petro had pledged that military expenditure would not be a priority under his administration.

But since entering office, he has taken a new approach, which some credit to the influence of his defense minister, Ivan Velasquez.

The frigate program offers benefits for national and industrial development, as it’s expected to create jobs and provide to Colombia shipbuilding technology and know-how.

Development plans for the Navy’s fleet were unveiled in 2015, and the government’s recent decision is expected to lead to the frigates’ deployment in the 2030s. About seven years ago, the Navy had stated its intentions to acquire up to eight new oceanic surface combatants of a type known in official documents as Plataforma Estratégica de Superficie, or PES (Strategic Surface Platform in English).

The documents described PES as “a multipurpose frigate displacing between 3,000 and 5,000 tons, armed with weapons and sensors for surface, anti-submarine and anti-air warfare; carrying up to two maritime helicopters and capable of long deployments at sea far from bases.”

The plan envisioned locally built ships using a design and technical assistance from an experienced foreign shipbuilder. The PES vessels were to initially supplement and then replace the four 2,300-ton Padilla-class frigates currently in service in Colombia and built in Germany in the early 1980s. They received modernization upgrades over the past decade.

Political and fiscal conditions delayed the PES plans after 2015. Ambitions to acquire a platform bigger than 3,000 tons were dropped to avoid heavy investment on new facilities at the Cotecmar shipyard in Cartagena. The number of hulls expected to be acquired also dropped to five. However, the military source expects “the number of PES can increase in the future, if political and fiscal conditions allow.”

The size restraint brought with it a reduction in hangar and flight deck space, meaning a ship could only carry a single 10-ton maritime helicopter. But requirements remained for anti-surface vessel, anti-submarine warfare and air defense capabilities.

With a displacement between 2,800 tons and 2,900 tons, and a length close to 120 meters, the Colombian frigates will be the biggest version of Damen’s Sigma 10514 design. Smaller versions are already in service with the navies of Indonesia and Mexico. The price for each fully fitted frigate is expected to be about $400 million.