Disasters under a Single Prism
By Dialogo December 21, 2012
Interview with Air Force Major General Jorge Robles Mella, Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chilean Air Force
Days before taking over his new position as Head of the Chilean Air Force’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Major General Jorge Robles Mella spoke with Diálogo during his visit to the United States Southern Command on the first week of December. The General highlighted the importance of the role the Chilean Armed Forces play during natural disasters, and he shared their lessons learned during the devastating earthquake of 2010, among other topics.
Diálogo: General Robles, how are the Chilean Armed Forces preparing to respond immediately and effectively in case of natural disasters?
Major General Jorge Robles: Even though the Armed Forces have a great capacity to collaborate in case of an emergency, after the 2010 earthquake we realized that there is a need to update several concepts that are sometimes left behind. The earthquake that shook my country in 2010 forced us to analyze the law, and we are currently about to pass a new bill within the new system of civil protection and emergency, where the roles of different social and political elements in case of emergency are better defined.
The earthquake also gave us the chance to determine where we were making mistakes. In the case of emergency situations, we noticed that there are three crucial factors: the first one is information. Without information, decision makers will be prone to making mistakes. The second factor is time: information must be provided as soon as possible to the political or military authorities in charge of making decisions. And the third factor is the procedure for which we can prepare. We cannot control information, we cannot control time, but we can control procedures.
Sometimes it is about simple things, such as HF [radiofrequency] equipment used in the past within the Armed Forces, and that was ignored. We had to get them ready, because they allowed us to communicate when other sources of communication failed. We learned simple things, such as the fact that mobile telephone systems collapse in an emergency. We had to implement automatic procedures; in other words, if something takes place, I automatically know I have to do A, B, C, D, and not to wait to be told what to do. Our government and our ministry have emphasized that the Armed Forces must continue getting ready.
Diálogo: Recently, Chilean and Argentine militaries participated in a bi-national readiness exercise to confront natural disasters. Could you talk about that sort of event?
Maj. Gen. Robles: In October, Exercise Solidaridad took place in Mendoza, Argentina, and it was a great experience, not only for the Chilean and Argentine Armed Forces, but also for society, since the governor of Mendoza participated with different teams during the four days we carried out the operations. We had the chance to test joint and combined procedures currently being developed by the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, as well as jointly with society.
We also had observers from Brazil. I wish we had more observers, because all of them have something to say. All countries have different realities: some have earth quakes, others have floods, and/or volcanoes… The more observer countries participate, the better.
Diálogo: What is the system of international collaboration for emergencies proposed by Chile during the X Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Uruguay, and how do you plan on implementing it?
Maj. Gen. Robles: The different Armed Forces have several emergency and support capabilities that might be available. There are several efforts: we have the Conference of Armies of the Americas, which provides manuals and procedures to work on at the Army level; the Inter-American Naval Conference, during which commanders in chief agreed to create procedures for the Navies in the region in order to work in harmony in case of disasters, the Air Forces of the Americas issued their manual of procedures, and in 2010, they participated in an exercise in Chile. There is another instance planned for 2013 in Argentina, and another one for 2014 in Peru. However, there is no system that joins the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, and that was one of Chile’s greatest suggestions in the last Conference of Defense Ministers in Uruguay. The system we suggested is an open technological platform that encompasses what already exists separately under a single prism, in order to facilitate the application of defense resources during emergency situations. We observed what these organizations were doing, and unified it under one single perspective; a transversal prism that is functional to the countries interested in participating, but can also unify what is really important: saving lives and supporting society.
The system we created, called the Mechanism of Information Exchange about Capabilities in Support of Natural Disasters, allows us to send pictures of a collapsed system, and send video of something that is taking place. I could say that “water will be sent, food will be sent,” but maybe other elements of support are needed. Since structures may be collapsing, maybe field hospitals are needed because there are burned victims. If I can send photos and videos through this system, you can see what is going on in the whole region in two seconds, and then figure out the requirements you have as a country. If I have an online open platform, we can exchange information in less time, so that we can make decisions.
Diálogo: Since the participating nations approved the system proposed by Chile, which is the next step?
Maj. Gen. Robles: The Chilean proposal was accepted after a long debate. However, we were able to move forward and the tool is now available for those countries that would like to join voluntarily. One of the proposals was that the Pro Tempore Secretariat at the Ministers Conference take charge of all this. This year, [the Secretariat] was in charge of Uruguay, while next year it will be Peru’s responsibility. We are going to pass on the system to Peru, so that they can manage it. The idea after approximately six months is to put into practice some of the exercises that are frequently carried out in the region.
Diálogo: Now, regarding the Chilean Joint Chiefs of Staff, founded in 2010, which are the most relevant successes?
Maj. Gen. Robles: I think that one of the greatest things we have accomplished to date is our consolidation as a credible organization, trying to make things right. This is possible because of the support of the minister [of Defense], undersecretaries and different organizations. We have reached consensus with different points of view. It is not easy to build a Joint Chiefs of Staff with the speed we have done it. However, I guess that due to our nations’ maturity, we have been able to move forward.
Diálogo: What is the position of the Chilean Joint Chiefs of Staff in terms of collaboration with other Central American countries?
Maj. Gen. Robles: For us, Central America is an absolute regional need. We are a continent, we have several flaws and requirements. We are evaluating the possibility to participate at different levels, as we are doing so with MINUSTAH in Haiti. We may cooperate in the same way with other countries. We can’t ignore this region; we live in a very different region, with different problems, so if we are mutually collaborative with each other, we’ll become a very safe and secure region.
Diálogo: Beyond Latin American borders, how do you see the collaboration with the United States?
Maj. Gen. Robles: We have worked extensively with the Southern Command. The new structure we have at the Joint Chiefs of Staff has allowed us to see the Southern Command as a benchmark. Before establishing our Joint Chiefs of Staff, SOUTHCOM did not have a similar entity in Chile, and we have established a close relationship. Last year, we had an important conference in Chile: SOUTHDEC. This year, we had a joint exercise, in which over 300 people participated. And we are still working in the long term on another exercise: Partnership of the Americas. The Southern Command did not have a point of reference in Chile at the level in which they were able to discuss what the training was about, either joint or combined. So, having the Joint Chiefs of Staff has made it easier for us to work with the Southern Command.
Diálogo: What’s your opinion after a week of exchanging ideas about information operations during the seminar organized by U.S. Southern Command?
Maj. Gen. Robles: This seminar has allowed us to learn about important issues, such as information operations, from a different perspective; all current matters that we need to develop. We have to learn from the U.S. and the U.S. has to learn from us, because we all live in different realities. We have been able to obtain different perspectives that will allow us to develop mutually beneficial strategies in our service, our institutions and our Joint Chiefs of Staff.