On August 21, 2020, Major General Barry Cornish assumed command of U.S. Air Forces Southern/12th Air Force (AFSOUTH) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. AFSOUTH, is U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) air component, focused on countering regional threats, assisting with humanitarian aid, and training partner nations.
Maj. Gen. Cornish spoke with Diálogo about AFSOUTH’s role in the region as well as Red Flag-Rescue, a premier combat search and rescue exercise in which the Colombian Air Force, along with Germany and France also participated. Maj. Gen. Cornish, who as a fighter pilot flew combat missions in Iraq, spoke about the training received at Red Flag, which prepared him for those missions.
Diálogo: Can you talk about the Red Flag Exercise and the significance of the Colombian Air Force’s participation in this exercise?
U.S. Air Force Major General Barry Cornish, AFSOUTH commander: Red Flag is known around the world as the venue for realistic training. It started at Nellis Air Force Base. We have Red Flag in Alaska and Red Flag rescue here, which is really the center of excellence for rescue forces. From my first Red Flag as an F-15 fighter pilot, my squadron was preparing to deploy to Iraq. When I got to Iraq and my first combat mission, I felt in a sense that I had been there before. Amidst all of the excitement, the planning, and the execution, I felt that it was not new to me. And it wasn’t, because I had been there before at Nellis Air Force Base – Red Flag. That’s the purpose of the exercise, to provide that realistic training. We have demonstrated [that] the more realistic the training is in peacetime, the more lethal and survivable our crews are.
The Colombian participation is interesting, because they’ve come a long way as an air force, primarily through our partnership. And over time, the State Partnership Program with the South Carolina Air National Guard really has paid dividends. This has allowed them to come here and really operate in an environment that they don’t get to operate in Colombia, with a challenging, contested, degraded, operationally limited environment. It really builds better leaders for the future and increases our interoperability with probably our strongest partner in Latin America.
Diálogo: What are the biggest challenges for the air forces in the region? How can you cooperate with them to deal with regional security threats?
Maj. Gen. Cornish: They’re challenged by the constant mission of countering transnational crime. They live it day in and day out, especially the Colombian Air Force fighting the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and the ELN [National Liberation Army], and they’re doing a great job. It’s become tougher because of aging equipment, and they have funding challenges like every air force. But it’s been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic in a very difficult time in their country. So, we are trying to really focus on building, on interoperability, and on professional development of the force.
Diálogo: What are the main capabilities AFSOUTH shares with partner nations in the region?
Maj. Gen. Cornish: Primarily, we do security cooperation. We focus in the aerospace and cyber domains. Our planning assumptions and our campaign support plan mesh with SOUTHCOM’s campaign planning and strategy. And we’re there to demonstrate that we are a preferred partner of choice, that we respond to crisis when needed. And we’ll be there with our partner nations to be committed to peace in our hemisphere and secure a free and prosperous future for all of us.
Diálogo: What’s been AFSOUTH’s role during the pandemic?
Maj. Gen. Cornish: We are currently planning an operation called H.E.A.R.T (Health Engagement Assistance Response Team), a kind of air force equivalent to the USNS Comfort. We will focus that primarily on those countries that need COVID relief the most, to provide assistance, and looking at the distribution of vaccines where we can, with the overall goal of government effort to provide COVID relief to our strong partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Diálogo: How do you promote security cooperation with the air forces in the region?
Maj. Gen. Cornish: We have a number of engagements planned through mobile training teams. We have an advisory squadron that travels to locations episodically. I’ve been very busy engaging at the air chief level with a number of partners, either down in the region or inviting them to come here for us to do key leader engagements. We’re always looking for opportunities to train, to build on professional development through IMET [International Military Education and Training] program, as well as our military personnel exchange program. This is really not only building on the institutions of the United States Air Force and our partner nations but building strong relationships and trust between them.
Diálogo: What is your main goal as AFSOUTH commander?
Maj. Gen. Cornish: When I laid out my focus areas to the command, I focused on four main things. First, an ambassadorship. I feel that all of us, and I include our foreign liaison officers in that because we’re all part of one team, that we’re all ambassadors of our countries. And we build trust with each other, and we keep that trust.
Secondly, as you know, our command, our country, our partners expect us to be the very best service component leaders that we can be. We are airmen and we are expected to dominate the airspace and the cyber domain.
Thirdly, joint integration. Everything that we do, we ought to find ways to improve the way that we operate across components in our joint operations, activities, and investments. And I tell all my folks, if you have a counterpart out there in all of the other components, you need to build on that relationship as well, because that just makes us better.
Finally, to adopt a competitive mindset that’s sometimes hard for people to understand. We understand what peace and war mean and what conflict and crisis means. But competing day to day with great powers that are finding new ways to disrupt our influence around the globe requires a competitive mindset, and that is using all of our instruments of power across not only the [U.S] Department of Defense, but our interagency to implement what I think [U.S.] Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has called integrated deterrence.
If we get it right and we compete strongly each day, then we will avoid conflict in the future. So that’s what I’ve been focusing on.