January 10 interview with U.S. Army Colonel Steven Barry, Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-Bravo).
How would you describe the state of JTF-Bravo today?
U.S. Army Colonel Steven Barry, commander of Joint Task Force Bravo: Long-term, the task force has been here as an established organization for well over 30 years, but the missions have evolved. Today, we are a dynamic force that the [U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)] commander can deploy anywhere he needs to throughout the area of responsibility. Traditionally, we were tied to Honduras, doing most of our activities in this country because we are based out of here. Now our scope and our gaze have expanded beyond to try to have more regional focus. The past six months have been a huge effort from all components of Joint Task Force Bravo to change not only things like equipment we need and our procedures, but most importantly, our mentality.
Another significant change over the past few months is that now we have a persistent presence with civil affairs in the Northern Tier countries. That is something that we lacked, and now we are able to conduct activities every day in those countries. They are critical to our neighborhood here in the Western Hemisphere, and the impact we can have to work with those countries that obviously influence the United States is great.
What has been the driving factor for pushing JTF-Bravo’s activities further into the joint operations area?
Col. Barry: When you look at the entire U.S. Southern Command region, its 31 countries, and so we decided that inside those countries — including Central America in its own operating area — JTF-Bravo was given a regional focus to help the combatant command integrate everything we are doing. Geography and relationships — everything is tied together on this isthmus, from the border of Colombia and Panama to the border of Mexico and Guatemala. You really have to take a regional view, especially when considering that borders are extremely porous.
Every one of these Central American nations has a large tract of land that is essentially an ungoverned space — whether it’s Gracias a Dios in Honduras, Petén in Guatemala. What we are trying to do is knit the efforts together across the borders, including how we spend money and how we do activities. There are eight components in U.S. Southern Command that work throughout the entire area of responsibility, so we’re also trying to bring some coherent unity of efforts to how we operate here in Central America, which is far more underdeveloped than parts of South America. It has things like a poor doctor-per-person ratio. It still has high murder rates, although they have gone down. Their militaries could benefit more from our security cooperation. The threat networks that work throughout this region don’t care about borders, and they exploit them. So, by focusing beyond just one country, we are trying to bring a more deliberate approach and knit these activities together.
How important is a historical and cultural perspective for members of JTF-Bravo and how does it affect your decision-making model?
Col. Barry: I think historical perspective is tremendous. I have a deep history background, so when I came into this job, I tried to find what I could about what we are doing in Central America and South America, as it was my first time in the region. I tried to get that background and ask, “What exactly do we need to be doing here?” We did not even have a written history of our unit to put it all in perspective. When I think about what this region looked like in the early 1980s at the height of the Cold War, this is where the war moved to. It was the last sort of gasp of where the Soviets and the U.S. teed off against each other. As those nations weakened their presence here, narcotrafficking increased.
But as we’ve clamped down and put pressure on that drug network, we’ve had other threats grow too. The world is really trying to follow two philosophies right now: Either you’re for a liberal, open, democratic and international, rules-based framework, or you’re for more authoritarian-run nations who subscribe to only some of the economic policies of capitalism. There are also external-state actors in this region, which is part of why the U.S. presence matters so much. This is the Western Hemisphere, and the United States always has interests here. We are the most significant power here, and we have the responsibility to lead and support our partners to make sure it can be the best neighborhood. Often with task forces, they’re stood up for a certain reason, and then they’re stood down, and I think that’s totally appropriate for some missions. JTF-Bravo is unique because of its geographic location and the cultural similarities and interests we have with our partners. When I look at [the Soto Cano AB] airfield, I imagine in 1982 or 1983 we were out here paving it, and we’re still here now using it to do all the things we need to do.
What has been the strategic impact of the work JTF-Bravo has done over the last six months?
Col. Barry: We’ve been able to get people to look beyond themselves and their time here. We’re producing a long-range training calendar well beyond any of our tenures here. So getting people to have that idea that, “Hey, when I leave here, the mission still continues, so how have I set the right conditions?” is important. We talked before about the expeditionary mindset — realizing that as a staff we need to push people out from Soto Cano and bring them back. Whether that’s equipment or new processes to do that, the staff has done a tremendous job. Considering our regular, current operations, how do we track what’s going on? How do we protect our soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors when they’re here? We’re at a level now where, based on what I’ve seen in previous operations, whether it’s been combat or not, we’re at the standard.
One of the other key components is relationships. I always emphasize to the staff that those matter outside of Soto Cano and JTF-Bravo. I talk about the fact that we always know who we work for and who we need to work with. The staff has made tremendous strides building relationships and being aware of capabilities. If there is some sort of crisis down here, now we have plans on the shelf for how we respond. We’ve done a deep dive on the seven Central American countries and produced useful information that any officer or noncommissioned officer coming into this organization can pick up and read and have some situational awareness. I’m really proud of how we have taken it as a challenge to integrate folks and to have continuity.
JTF-Bravo recently has new lines of effort. Why were they chosen?
Col. Barry: We have a new SOUTHCOM campaign plan. So our responsibility as a component is to decide how we support that plan. We thought about the three lines of effort — strengthen partnerships, counter threats, and build our team — and we adopted them for our more tactical level. We changed “strengthen partnerships” to “grow partnerships” because we believe we are at the grassroots, tactical operational level to do that. If we look at “build our team,” we still do that, and that can be everything from our leader development program to how we work with other folks in the SOUTHCOM enterprise. One of the other things we have to do is “counter threats.”
It’s very difficult with the way JTF-Bravo is organized to directly counter a threat. As far as something like an external state actor, we try to undermine those actors by doing the activities we can do under the authorities we have. We also focus on threat organizations — basically terrorist or criminal organizations — that operate in Central America. Because of the high corruption, weak institutions, poor economic opportunities, there is a high gang and crime rate, including narcotrafficking through here. JTF-Bravo does directly support our partners who counter that. Together, these are the three parts that essentially echo the SOUTHCOM lines of effort, but we’ve changed the names a bit to come in line with what we are actually meant to do.
What does the future of JTF-Bravo look like, both in the near and long-term?
Col. Barry: I think it’s going to look fairly consistent if you looked at six months from now or two years from now. One of the good things about being here this long as a task force is there has been a sustained stability brought to the region. If you go back 20 or 25 years, there was violence against U.S. personnel here — helicopters being shot down, grenade attacks. Today, that does not happen. You see a slow, steady stabilization here for this region. Now we can focus on some of the underlying things like corruption and building the capacity of our partners to deal with threat networks. How do we get our partners to be more efficient at countering threat networks? I think you’ll see attempts through our policies to try to use the aid packages where we spend money down here to undermine certain actors.
I think our presence here and the way we spend our money does counter that long-term. So, I don’t see any drastic shifts. There’s no cold war going on. I don’t see a terrorist campaign developing here because of the cultural similarities we have with Central and South America. I don’t see that as a way for, say, the Iranian threat network or any other terrorist threat network to come over here. I see the region struggling with the same things it has been. There’s a lack of economic opportunity in Central America. We really need to figure out how to get that right. A lot of those are not in our “job jar,” but they definitely affect what we do.