Air Force wants Latin America to Be Less Dependent on U.S. Military

By Grace V. Jean

SANTIAGO, Chile — The Air Force is requesting more than $300 million to help modernize the aircraft fleets of four Latin American nations that assist the United States in the war on drugs and in humanitarian missions.

The project also is part of a broader effort to make these countries less dependent on U.S. military support at a time when forces are overstretched by deployments to the Middle East and South Asia.

Officials say $84 million would help jump start efforts to upgrade the airlift, helicopter and interceptor fleets in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

“It’s that first line of defense that we’re trying to build in Latin America,” says Lt. Col. Troy Hewgley, chief of 12th Air Force’s theater security cooperation division at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz.

These nations fly aircraft that originally were gifted to them by the United States in the 1970s. But the platforms are aging and need to be replaced because the parts to repair them are no longer readily available. Current reliability rates are only 20 to 25 percent, which means that out of a fleet of five helicopters, only one would be in working order.

Air Force officials worry that, in the event of a natural disaster or other emergencies, Central American nations would turn to an already-stretched U.S. military for assistance because their own fleets are depleted.

“We don’t have time to avoid this problem any longer,” says Col. Jim Russell, director of operations for 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern, which works with military forces in Latin America. “What we want to avoid is becoming a surrogate air force for Central America. We are already stretched thin with our own air force, so the more we can do to help them help themselves, the better we are as a nation,” he says.

The goal is to fund 16 cargo planes, four for each country. A longer term objective is to purchase 16 multi-mission helicopters, and 16 light interceptor aircraft.

The Air Force estimated the cargo planes would cost $5.5 million each — including five years of maintenance and logistics support.

The airframes under consideration already are in service in different countries throughout Latin America. Officials have narrowed down the choices to the Cessna Caravan and the PZL Skytruck.

“We want partners to step up to the table and share some of these costs with us,” Hewgley says. “It’s a challenge with these countries, because they’re used to the mentality of where it’s gifted to them.”

Officials are awaiting congressional approval to start funding the program in 2009. “We are very close to getting funding this year. We’ve got strong support,” he says.

Another example of Latin America’s dependence on U.S. Air Force support is aerial refueling. Chile, which owns U.S.-made jet fighters, relies on the United States for aerial refueling and for training.

During a three-day exercise with their Chilean counterparts here in April, Air Force personnel practiced not only aerial refueling but also combat rescue and medical evacuations.

In the past two years, Chile has acquired 10 Block 50 F-16s and 18 updated F-16 fighters from the United States and the Royal Netherlands air force, respectively. But because the Chilean air force does not have a boom-capable air refueling aircraft, it must rely on other nations’ tankers to maintain its F-16 fighter pilots’ aerial refueling skills.

U.S. Air Force tankers in a previous exercise in October helped to qualify those pilots in aerial refueling. Once qualified, fighter pilots must update their currency every 180 days. Air-to-air refueling was the highest priority on the Chilean air force’s list, says Russell.

Several Chilean cadets are on board an Air Force KC-135 tanker to observe the refueling operations. “We want to know how it works,” says 1st Class Cadet Cristian Espejo, who flies the T-35 Pillan trainer aircraft. He and his classmates snap photos and watch intensely as four F-16 fighters float up behind the tanker in turn.

Lying on his stomach, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tony Graziani helps guide the pilots to the nozzle. Though he has placed a small piece of paper denoting the Spanish words for “up,” “down,” “left,” “right” and other directions near his controllers, the boom operator rarely refers to it as each pilot swoops up for a quick contact and takes on 2,000 pounds of fuel. The entire process takes less than 10 minutes.

“They were pretty good,” he says.

During the next two days, U.S. airmen flying the KC-135 and the KC-10 will help 20 Chilean F-16 pilots update their aerial refueling currencies in between dogfights with U.S. F-16s and F-15Es. It is the first time the Chilean F-16 pilots have flown against the Strike Eagle and the first time the two-seater F-15E has participated in an exercise in Chile.

“It’s a different kind of flying platform, and that’s why the FACh [Fuerza Aera de Chile] pilots want to fly against the F-15, because they don’t get to see them,” says Brig. Gen. “Boats” Bartlett, mobilization assistant to the commander at 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern.

“Chile has the most advanced air force in this region,” he adds. “We need to stay linked up with them because they fly similar airplanes.”

The Chilean air force flies the Block 50 F-16s primarily in an air-to-air combat role, whereas the U.S. Air Force employs the same aircraft in surveillance and air-to-ground roles. Those differences are important for pilots to know and even better to observe firsthand in the skies.

“It was really interesting to see how the FACh operated and flew,” says Capt. Luke Ball, an F-15E weapon systems officer with the 391st Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. “It’s great having to work alongside with them and see how they’ve integrated with their air force.”

In the air-to-air combat missions, two F-16s from the 301st Fighter Wing based at Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth (Carswell Field), and two F-15Es team up to fly against four Chilean F-16s. The FACh have asked the U.S. fighters to simulate how MiG-21 and MiG-29 aircraft might try to break through Chile’s air defenses, says Ball.

“When we set up our attack, we tried to find their weaknesses and we tried to exploit those weaknesses first, well beyond visual range,” he says. The Chilean pilots’ abilities to counter those tactics impressed their American cohorts.

“They had just recently received their [F-16] Vipers, so I didn’t think that they really knew how to fully exploit them,” says Ball. “I was incorrect about that. They actually do know their systems very well and they’re able to employ their systems to be very lethal.”

In many instances, the Chilean pilots’ tactics mirror the U.S. fighter squadrons’ own — a reflection of the training they have received from American units. But when the U.S. fighters go on the defensive on the third day, the Chilean pilots pull some maneuvers that the F-15 operators, in particular, have not encountered regularly in training.

“That’s why it’s great to work with other units, to think outside the box a little bit and not get bogged down with the same stuff, and to see something we haven’t seen in a while,” says Ball.

As the Chilean air force’s capabilities improve, exercise planners anticipate incorporating those fighter pilots into larger, multinational events.

“We’ll keep stepping forward and hopefully, in the near future, we’ll see the Chilean F-16s up at Red Flag,” says Russell.

The Air Force’s annual Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., is the largest aerial combat training exercise held in the United States. To participate, air forces must demonstrate a certain level of proficiency. Next summer, officers and airmen from the Chilean air force will observe the exercise, and Air Force officials say they expect the force to participate in 2010.

The Chilean air force also wants to hone its skills in air evacuation, disaster response, disaster medicine and critical care of patients in flight, says Col. Scott Van Valkenburg, the command surgeon for 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern.

“The medical care is comparable to that of the United States,” he says aboard a U.S.-based HC-130 that is preparing to depart Santiago for Quintero Air Base, where the FACh has deployed a transportable medical clinic. Medical personnel there have set up a triage for incoming patients, played by 20 conscripts in the Chilean air force who simulate injuries from a catastrophic event. They are given red, yellow, green or black cards to indicate the severity of their injuries.

In the combat medicine realm, the two nations have maintained a long and fruitful relationship, says Lt. Col. Dana Willis, cooperation team chief for 12th Air Force. The Chilean force’s aeromedical skills, in particular, were developed with the help of the California Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing.

“The reason we do this is theater security cooperation — that’s the big buzz word in SouthCom,” says Willis. “The idea is, if we need friends and allies to call upon in times of disaster, they’ll be there.”

During the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Chilean air force was the first unit to call the Pentagon to offer assistance, he says.

Maj. John Dorsch, a physician with the 48th Rescue Squadron based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, observes the teams carrying the litters of patients out of the makeshift hospital and into the awaiting HC-130. “I think they enjoy being able to tap into our on-going experience in a combat environment, and we similarly enjoy tapping into their experience with humanitarian and disaster relief,” he says.

The FACh medical personnel have been active in the region, providing assistance to Peru after its deadly earthquake last summer.

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen, meanwhile, instruct the Chileans on pre-hospital care and search-and-rescue missions.

“It’s good to get down here and see what their medical capabilities are,” says Senior Airman Derek Anderson, a pararescueman with the 48th Rescue Squadron.

Quintero Air Base is an ideal location for training rescue squadrons, says Willis. Chile’s special forces moved out of their old base in Santiago and relocated here, where they can train their divers and jumpers with ease. In contrast, the Arizona-based 48th Rescue Squadron might have to go to four different locations throughout the United States — sometimes as far away as Alaska — to find comparable ranges to practice their skills.

“They could come down here and train in one spot and get the maximum amount of training done in a short period of time, so that’s one of the future things we’re looking at,” says Willis.

While relations with Chile improve, the U.S. Air Force faces a possible eviction from a large base it has leased in Manta, Ecuador, for the past 10 years. Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman R. Seip, commander of the 12th Air Force, Air Forces Southern, says he does not expect the Ecuadorian government to renew the lease when it expires in fall 2009. The base has been central to Air Force counter-narcotics missions, Seip says. “We’ll probably never build a base like that again,” he tells reporters. “I don’t think there’s an appetite in Congress to invest money that way.”

Once that base is closed, he says, “we’ll move around and put our assets in partner countries on a temporary basis.”

He notes that “sovereignty and nationalism are very strong in that part of the world. That’s a good thing. A lot of countries are nervous when the United States shows up and starts building things.”

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Topics: International, Air Force News

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