The U.S.-Colombia Action Plan (USCAP) will resume training in May 2021. USCAP training halted when the stakeholder nations’ implemented COVID-19 mitigation strategies to protect their populations. The combination of the threat to human health posed by COVID-19 and the implementation of mitigation strategies created a non-permissive environment for training. The USCAP managers used the shutdown period to design and adopt new COVID-19 protocols. After a yearlong shutdown, USCAP partner nations (PN) are relaxing international travel restrictions and the USCAP program is ready to resume.
COVID-19 challenges to USCAP execution
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) categorized the COVID-19 a pandemic. The sudden announcement contributed to the creation of a non-permissive environment for training — the COVID-19 environment. The characteristics of the COVID-19 environment include uncertainty about its threat to humans, limited availability of personal protective equipment, and the reaction from the international community. The USCAP stakeholder nations — Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and the United States — closed airports, maritime ports, and land borders to control travel. They also enacted internal population movement restrictions and quarantines. Consequently, USCAP travelers, Colombian instructors conducting USCAP training in the region and PN students attending training at military schools in Colombia, could not return to their countries of origin.
In view of the COVID-19 environment, U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) USCAP managers decided to shutdown USCAP training until conditions returned to normal. The USCAP team and U.S. Security Cooperation Organizations (SCO) located in the affected PNs hosting USCAP personnel established reporting procedures for the travelers. The USCAP team and the SCOs passed information relating to the personnel to the SOUTHCOM leadership as well as the leadership of the affected PNs. The USCAP team also increased coordination efforts with the Colombian military focusing on the safety and sustainment of the stranded USCAP travelers. In some cases, the stranded personnel returned to their country of origin within a week or two, but some personnel remained safely isolated for several months in Colombia.
Initiating the resumption of USCAP training
SOUTHCOM’s USCAP managers and the Colombian military initiated collaborative actions toward the safe resumption of USCAP training. Restarting the USCAP training expeditiously is important because, in the words of U.S. Army General Mark A. Miley, “Training is the key task to improve [U.S.] our readiness.” The readiness of the security forces in the USCAP PNs depends on continuous training. Any lapse in training will likely negatively affect the academic and technical progress of PN personnel toward maintaining their skillsets and/or attaining increasingly sophisticated ones. Despite eagerness to restart USCAP training activities and coordination engagements, the COVID-19 environment continued to prevent the safe execution of USCAP training for 12 consecutive months.
The U.S. and Colombian USCAP teams decided to consolidate, into one document, a set of common sense and globally accepted force health protection protocols. The protocols document provides guidance to the USCAP participants to ensure safe training once the COVID-19 situation begins to subside and the PNs relax their mitigation efforts — mainly opening up airports and ports as well as eliminating Restriction of Movement (ROM) policies for travelers. The team researched the Centers for Decease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and sought the advice of military health experts at SOUTHCOM and in the Colombian military establishment.
The team’s emphasis is to accelerate the resumption of USCAP training while ensuring the safety of USCAP mission coordinators, instructors, and students participating in training in classrooms and tight spaces on boats and aircraft. The health protocols list personnel protective equipment (PPE) requirements, disinfecting equipment/cleaning solutions, as well as social distancing procedures. This work preceded planning for the resumption of USCAP training in Colombian military schools and the deployment of Mobile Training Teams (MTT) to participating PNs.
Planning for COVID-19 safe training
The USCAP stakeholders’ demand for training coupled with the establishment of COVID-19 mitigation preparations provide a solid base for planning the safe resumption of all USCAP training. The Colombian military recognizes the urgency of restarting training in the region; therefore, it incorporated COVID-19 precautions and measures into their training. In February 2021, the USCAP team conducted a virtual workshop to coordinate and plan available Colombian mobile training for execution in the remainder of FY 2021 and all of FY 2022. The workshop lasted two days and each SCO representative had one hour to identify training requirements and coordinate execution dates. The workshop yielded 57 mobile training engagements in the PNs. The plan is to train approximately 1,261 PN personnel in their countries.
The work did not stop there, the Colombian military continued to make their schools COVID-19 safe training environments.
Their efforts created 22 in-person courses for safe execution. As of March 2021, the PNs enrolled 180 personnel for training at Colombian schools.
Way ahead to safe execution
Colombian schools are ready to receive PN students in May 2021. The SCO in each PN will purchase the plane tickets and provide funds for incidentals to the travelers. Once in Colombia, the Colombian military will provide training in a COVID-19 safe environment. Likewise, the SCO in Colombia will provide the Colombian instructors travelling to the USCAP PNs, to conduct pre-deployment site surveys and/or actual mobile training, plane tickets, and funds to cover lodging and meals. U.S. personnel coordinating the training missions will arrive in the USCAP PN prior to the actual training to arrange lodging and facilitate the acquisition of training logistics and ground transportation.
The execution of USCAP training requires Leahy vetting of the PN participants per U.S. law. In addition, the instructors will dedicate two-hours of the total time allocated for USCAP training to educate and/or reacquaint PN students with basic Human Rights and Law of War (HR & LoW). Travelers are required to possess life and health insurances valid for the country to which they will travel. The health insurance must include a COVID-19 rider.
Monitoring and controlling the execution
After a 12-month pause of USCAP training, the team at SOUTHCOM identified new opportunities to measure the program’s return on investment. The USCAP team continues to work with the SCOs and the PN teams to review the training history of each PN to collaboratively plan on the most effective course of action to elevate their readiness. The purpose is to focus the USCAP training on capacities that require reinforcement, fill gaps, avoid duplication, and/or avoid conducting ineffective training. More conversations with the PN personnel will seek to measure the impact of the training on the units’ readiness and mission effectiveness.