Air Forces United against Natural Disasters

Air Forces United against Natural Disasters

By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo
November 27, 2017

“All our nations face different challenges, from floods, to wildfires, to earthquakes, etc., and frequently these challenges come with very little warning,” U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Mark D. Kelly, commander of the 12th Air Force /U.S. Air Forces Southern (AFSOUTH), addressed more than 50 participants at the 2017 South American Air Chiefs Conference, held October 30th –November 2nd. “In many cases, the only way to get to the victims is through the air forces.”

“If we don’t talk about these challenges and how we can help each other, and how each nation can help themselves with best practices, we can never solve this situation,” he added during the event’s opening ceremony at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Tucson, Arizona. Lt. Gen. Kelly welcomed the air chiefs and representatives of air forces of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and the United States, as well as a U.S. delegation from the Air National Guard’s State Partnership Program and from U.S. Southern Command.

The conference takes place annually for air forces to discuss topics of regional interest in a joint setting. In its 2017 edition, they analyzed the role that air forces play in responding to natural disasters, shared their experiences and charted a path to coordinate humanitarian aid efforts.

“With so many climate and weather changes, natural disasters that threaten the lives and safety of citizens increased. This leads us to join our technical and human capabilities to act in a timely and organized way,” said Colombian Air Force Major General Rodrigo Alejandro Valencia Guevara, chief of Air Operations. “This conference allows us to strengthen bonds of friendship between commanders to keep standardizing our protocols and procedures, especially to act in the event of natural disasters.”

Responding to natural disasters

During the event, each representative presented their air force’s capabilities, while studying various cooperation strategies to be better prepared to respond to natural disasters. One of the main strategic associations among the air forces of the Western Hemisphere is the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA), a non-political volunteer organization that promotes cooperation, unity, and interoperability among air forces of the Western Hemisphere.

“When the earthquake struck Ecuador [April 2016], one of our options was to request help from SICOFAA, and the response was immediate,” said Brigadier General Patricio Mora Escobar, commander of the Ecuadorian Air Force, taking the opportunity to express Ecuador’s gratitude for the assistance received during the disaster. “This conference is important to present our experiences precisely because we can analyze how to improve coordination to respond to natural disasters.”

His counterpart in the Argentine Air Force agreed. “Nowadays, SICOFAA, which has been around for many years and counts many member countries, proves to be a valuable tool, [the] annual Cooperation exercise is already in its fourth edition. The exercise Cooperation IV was held in Argentina in 2016,” Lieutenant General Oscar Charadía, commander of Enlistment and Training of the Argentine Air Force, said. In his presentation, Lt. Gen. Charadía talked about humanitarian aid offered to Peru in March 2017 after the Coastal El Niño event that affected hundreds of Peruvians. Air supply tasks, transfers of personnel in evacuation mode, and more than 59 flight hours were part of the aid.

“We do very well at disaster relief and humanitarian assistance,” said U.S. Air Force Colonel Anthony Cook, secretary-general of SICOFFA. “There may be new ways to use our sense of unity to do good for our countries and for our air forces.”

Improving air capacities

“The interaction at the conference is really good. We learn about the capacities the air forces comprising SICOFAA have for humanitarian aid operations,” said U.S. Air Force Major Jaime E. Zambrano, director of the Connecticut Air National Guard’s State Partnership Program—whose state partner is Uruguay. “It’s nice to participate in these conversations because they keep us better informed about the resources that Uruguay possesses. In an emergency event, we’ll know their capacities and how we can support each other in every aspect of humanitarian aid,” Maj. Zambrano said.

For the air chiefs, teamwork is essential to respond to natural disasters. “We have to communicate better in every opportunity, to be clear in a disaster situation and act much more quickly,” Maj. Gen. Valencia said. “We take away lessons learned to improve from a procedural standpoint and be more effective in our tactics and techniques. Every nation is committed and open to improve to operate in a more timely way when required.”

The air chiefs expressed their wish to remain united and continue to advance in their disaster response capabilities. “No one nation brings all the solutions. It takes the partner nations, the neighbors to come together; it’s a sort of collective security agreement where everybody does their part (firefighters, airlifts, etc.); no one does it all but collectively everybody contributes to the solutions,” Lt. Gen. Kelly concluded.