Published by the Council on Foreign Relations
March 19, 2019
What a Military Intervention in Venezuela Would Look Like
Getting In Would Be the Easy Part
The United States has a clear objective in Venezuela: regime change and the restoration of democracy and the rule of law. Yet sanctions, international diplomatic isolation, and internal pressure have failed to deliver a breakthrough. Minds are turning to military intervention. U.S. President Donald Trump has said that “all options are on the table.” What if he means it?
There are two plausible ways the United States might use force in Venezuela: a precision bombing campaign and a full-scale invasion. Either course would have to be followed by efforts to stabilize the country and establish a civilian government. That could take years, given the country's size and military strength. Venezuela has a population of 33 million spread across a territory twice the size of Iraq. Its military is 160,000 strong and paramilitaries, colectivos (armed leftist groups that support Maduro), and criminal gangs collectively have more than 100,000 members. Even if a military intervention began well, U.S. forces would likely find themselves bogged down in the messy work of keeping the peace and rebuilding institutions for years to come.
For precision strikes to work, they would need to destroy the Maduro regime’s military, security, and economic infrastructure. The aim would be to eliminate the regime’s ability to repress the Venezuelan people and to convince the military to abandon the government.
Precision strikes are often portrayed as a quick, cheap, safe, and effective alternative to a broader military intervention. But two U.S. precision strike operations—in Libya, in 2011, and in Yugoslavia, in 1999—underscore their unpredictable nature and their limited ability to shape political outcomes. In Libya, where the strikes lasted for seven months, the intervention achieved its narrow objective—the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime—but left the country in chaos. The three-month bombing campaign in Yugoslavia was more successful: It degraded the Yugoslav military’s ability to repress the population and helped lead to the establishment of a UN-monitored political framework, although that was a more limited goal than regime change.
A precision military intervention in Venezuela would require operations in the air, at sea, and in cyberspace. The U.S. Navy would need to station an aircraft carrier off the coast of Venezuela to enforce a no-fly zone and hit military targets and crucial infrastructure. The navy would also need to deploy a group of battleships and, perhaps, submarines that could launch a steady stream of Tomahawk missiles at military targets, such as air bases, air defense facilities, and communications and command and control centers. The United States would need to deploy other assets, too, such as attack tactical aircraft (which have greater precision) and drones, deployed either from an aircraft carrier or from a partner nation, to help destroy infrastructure. Finally, U.S. forces would likely use cyberweapons to manipulate, degrade, and destroy Venezuela’s defenses.
The United States would almost certainly get sucked in to a long, difficult campaign to stabilize Venezuela after the initial fighting was over.
In the best-case scenario, the Venezuelan military would defect at the sight of the first Tomahawk missile, deciding to support a new government to avoid escalation. The Venezuelan military, however, may not have the professional wherewithal, after decades of degradation by the Chavista regime, to maintain order as an interim government assumed power by disarming rogue groups that would continue to support Maduro.
In the worst-case scenario, a precision strike operation would last for months, killing possibly thousands of civilians, destroying much of what remains of Venezuela’s economy, and wiping out the state security forces. The result would be anarchy. Militias and other armed criminal groups would roam the streets of major cities unchecked, wreaking havoc. More than eight million Venezuelans would likely flee. The chaos would likely lead the United States to send in ground troops in order either to finally dislodge the regime and its security forces or to provide security once the dictatorship had collapsed.
Such a scenario is not improbable. Indeed, the most likely outcome of a campaign of air strikes is that the Venezuelan armed forces would disintegrate. The United States, perhaps with international partners, would then have no option but to send troops to neutralize Venezuela’s irregular armed groups and restore order while a new government and security apparatus established themselves. How long such a peacekeeping occupation would last is hard to say, but the difficulty of the project and the complexity of the country's geography suggest that troops would stay in Venezuela for a lot longer than the few months for which they might initially be sent. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, for example, lasted thirteen years in a much smaller country.
Rather than launching precision strikes and getting sucked into a ground war later, the United States might choose to go all-in from the beginning. That would mean a major intervention, including both air strikes and the deployment of at least 150,000 ground troops to secure or destroy airfields, ports, oil fields, power stations, command and control centers, communications infrastructure, and other important government facilities, including the president’s residence, Miraflores Palace. The invading army would face 160,000 regular Venezuelan troops and more than 100,000 paramilitaries.
The most recent large-scale U.S.-led military interventions, in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, both required U.S. troops to remain after the initial invasion for nearly 20 years. By 2017, the two interventions had involved more than two million U.S. military personnel and cost more than $1.8 trillion. More than 7,000 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The costs of an intervention in Venezuela, which is free of the kind of sectarian divides that plague Afghanistan and Iraq, would likely not come near those numbers, but they would likely be significant.
The last Latin American country the United States invaded was Panama, in 1989. More than 27,000 U.S. military personnel and more than 300 aircraft quickly overwhelmed a Panamanian Defense Force of less than 20,000. Although the invasion lasted only about 42 days, U.S. military operations in Panama continued for another four and a half years. An invasion of Venezuela would take far more troops and last far longer.
In the best-case scenario, the Venezuelan military would fold quickly and Maduro and his inner circle would flee without a fight. The colectivos, civilian militias, and other paramilitaries would stay out of the way. Cuban and Russian security forces would abandon their posts, and the Venezuelan people would welcome the foreign forces with open arms. After the collapse of the regime, the United States would withdraw most of its troops, except a limited number who would stay to support the Venezuelan security forces working to restore order.
Yet things would likely not go so easily. In the worst-case outcome, U.S. forces would quickly defeat the Venezuelan military but then find themselves bogged down in guerrilla warfare with former members of the Venezuelan military, paramilitary groups, Colombian insurgents, colectivos, and some members of the civilian militia—all of them aided by Cuba and Russia. Under those conditions, the U.S. military would have to stay in Venezuela for years until a new government was able to maintain order.
The most likely scenario lies somewhere between the two extremes. After a U.S. invasion, the Venezuelan military would likely surrender quickly, the regime would collapse, and most Cuban and Russian personnel would withdraw. But the U.S. presence would push military defectors, paramilitary groups, and militias into hiding. The United States would have to lead the rebuilding of Venezuela’s security forces and keep troops in the country for years.
There’s no such thing as risk-free military action. But in this case, the social, economic, and security costs of intervening far outweigh the benefits. Whether the United States launched limited air strikes or a full ground invasion, it would almost certainly get sucked in to a long, difficult campaign to stabilize Venezuela after the initial fighting was over. Such an engagement would cost American lives and money and hurt the United States’ standing in Latin America. An extended occupation would reignite anti-Americanism in the region, particularly if U.S. soldiers committed real or perceived abuses, and it would damage U.S. relations with countries outside the region, too. Finally, a war-weary American public is unlikely to stand for yet another extended military campaign.