With the United States and much of Latin America recognizing Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president — declaring President Nicolas Maduro's government as "illegitimate" in the process — it appears that the country is heading toward a chaotic, violent transition of power. As the stakes rise, so does the possibility that Venezuela could witness an external military intervention (an option that Washington has so far refused to take off the table in its desire to see the back of Maduro), particularly if Caracas responds with mass violence against opposition protesters. But despite the weakened state of Venezuela's armed forces, any military intervention in the country is unlikely to be a simple and seamless affair.
Venezuela's crisis appears to be approaching a head, especially after numerous regional states recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of the country. As countries such as the United States, Brazil and Colombia consider how they could force President Nicolas Maduro from power, the prospect of an external armed intervention in Venezuela remains on the table. Several factors, however, suggest that any outside force would experience great difficulty in intervening militarily in the country.
A Military That Mirrors the Country
There is no denying that the Venezuelan military finds itself in a significantly weakened state following years of domestic economic trials and tribulations. The Maduro government may retain the loyalty of Venezuela's top military officers, but it cannot depend on support across all ranks. The men and women of the armed forces, after all, reflect wider Venezuelan society, which is deeply divided. If the government orders the military to conduct a violent and large-scale crackdown on anti-government protesters, many soldiers would likely desert, or even defect, in droves. In fact, concerns over the loyalty of the rank and file are likely discouraging Caracas from ordering troops to repress demonstrators, forcing the government to instead rely on more ideologically loyal paramilitary formations such as the National Guard.
The military also suffers from a spate of other problems, many of which existed well before Venezuela entered its crisis. Training, for instance, has never been a particular strength of the armed forces, but it is now a glaring problem because of the current dearth of food and fuel, which has largely kept military units idle in their barracks. Corruption, nepotism and cronyism have also eaten away at the overall efficiency of the armed forces. Increased factionalism exacerbates these shortcomings, which have begun to hinder command and control and cooperation among service branches. All things considered, the Venezuelan military might appear to be one of Latin America's strongest, but its deep-seated problems mean that it is in little position to defend the country effectively from a serious external attack; instead, it is far more likely to splinter under serious pressure.
The Challenge That Awaits
Nevertheless, there are several reasons why an external military intervention in Venezuela would be no cakewalk. For one thing, even if sizable portions of the armed forces might balk at turning their weapons on fellow citizens, an invasion could galvanize them to circle their wagons against an external aggressor. And in contrast to Libya's military on the eve of the 2011 intervention that ultimately toppled Moammar Gadhafi, Venezuela's armed forces are much better equipped and enjoy much more advantageous terrain. What's more, Venezuela could receive increased external support from allies such as Russia, which could further complicate plans for an intervention.
Any external military action against Venezuela would, in all likelihood, involve a significant air campaign whose first and foremost goal would be to gain air supremacy over the skies. The only country equipped to conduct such a campaign is the United States. Colombia and Brazil — two regional heavyweights that are staunchly opposed to the Maduro government — lack the aircraft necessary to neutralize the Venezuelan Air Force and its air defenses independently. And even if Venezuelan pilots lack the skills of their Brazilian and Colombian counterparts, they boast an advantage thanks to their superior combat aircraft, especially the Russian-made Su-30MK2. Brazil, for example, will only begin to address this technological imbalance this year, when the country acquires its first batch of Swedish JAS 39E Gripen fighters.
A military intervention could quickly snowball into one of the largest worldwide military operations since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A U.S. air campaign would undoubtedly decimate the Venezuelan air force, but it would require a considerable effort to also suppress and destroy the country's surface-to-air missile batteries on the ground. This would be a complicated endeavor, particularly as Venezuelan air defense units, unlike Gadhafi's forces, would benefit from the mobility of their systems and the abundance of dense urban and jungle terrain. Furthermore, the Venezuelan army as a whole is very large — even before adding in various paramilitary formations — and relatively well-equipped with light and heavy weapons. With such forces also able to benefit from the same dense urban and jungle terrain, it would require an extended air campaign to grind them down if they were to continue active resistance.
Unless an intervention triggered a mass uprising that quickly toppled the government, any effort to accelerate the campaign with a ground invasion would face its share of problems as well. Given Venezuela's sheer size and population, an intervening country or countries would require a sizable military force. Such an army would then need to confront the problem of choosing a route into Venezuela. A direct intervention by sea is inherently risky because amphibious operations are one of the most complicated and dangerous military maneuvers. Overland invasion routes from Colombia or Brazil also face difficult terrain, complicated logistics and extended supply lines that would be vulnerable to guerrilla attack. In effect, a military intervention could quickly snowball into one of the largest worldwide military operations since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
All of these constraints highlight how a military intervention in Venezuela is not comparable to previous interventions in the region, such as Grenada (1983), Haiti (1994-1995) or Panama (1989-1990). Nor is it particularly similar to the 2011 intervention in Libya. Venezuela's size, population, terrain, and weaponry ensure that a long military campaign would be almost inevitable if the initial action doesn't quickly topple Maduro's government or trigger a collapse in the armed forces. And even if an attacking force were successful, the leaders of a military intervention would be faced with a very messy aftermath in which they would have to suddenly shift from offensive operations to propping up the new government and support its efforts to rebuild a broken economy and food distribution system — to say nothing about the prospect of dealing with possible attacks from disenfranchised Chavista forces in a protracted insurgency. And then there are other pressing issues, such as forced migration, the effect of conflict on the energy market or the potential proliferation of weapons and violence. Simply put, overthrowing Maduro through external intervention is unlikely to provide a shortcut to resolving Venezuela's myriad problems.