Diálogo interviewed U.S Major General Andrew A. Croft, Commander, 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern), at the South American Air Chiefs and Senior Enlisted Leaders Conference, held at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, November 4-8, 2019.
Diálogo: What is the importance of hosting the South American Air Chiefs Conference at the 12th Air Force’s headquarters?
U.S. Major General Andrew A. Croft, Commander of U.S. 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern): The importance of hosting the conference here is to build partnerships, relationships, and friendships with the South American air chiefs to include their senior enlisted leaders. The conference allows us to discuss common values and threats and share their views of how we can assist as the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). It also allows us to build a team to work together, which includes our U.S. Air National Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP) members.
Diálogo: The conference focused on the protection of cyber and space security. What is the importance of these topics for the air forces of the region?
Maj. Gen. Croft: Some of the participant nations have various levels in their ability to defend themselves against cyber attacks from Russia, the People’s Republic of China, those that want to take personal information or intellectual property. However, some have very limited abilities to protect that, so we want to identify their threats and offer assistance to help them.
Space is an opportunity for all of us. If we collaborate with nations in the region (as they use space assets to do things like monitor deforestation, illegal mining, and the protection of their economic zones) on technology sharing and space situational awareness agreements, we can share more information which benefits security.
Diálogo: The role of senior enlisted leaders was also part of the agenda. What is the significance of this topic for the new generation of non-commissioned officers?
Maj. Gen. Croft: This is one of the largest topics we’re discussing right now. Eight percent of our force is enlisted and we rely on them for leadership, expertise, and execution of the mission. We are trying to partner with the South American air forces to encourage them to do the same. In many of these nations, the enlisted force is simply technicians, but they are not groomed to be leaders and this is a long-term effort. We offer courses and expertise through the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in San Antonio, Texas. We also do it through our engagements to build a model for them that they can follow. For example, Honduras is not asking for airplanes, they’re asking for the professionalization of their enlisted force. The Dominican Republic has already done this and they’re in the midst of transitioning right now. We want to offer that model to countries like Ecuador who asked for it so we can assist them in building this in their force.
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. Croft: I think the two biggest challenges to the air forces are the political uncertainties under which they work and the economic difficulties under which they have to operate. We use our military relationships to remain steadfast and as a bedrock of stability in support of all these nations. This is why our long-term efforts such as education, training, and exercises allow us to maintain and build a military-to-military relationship that is enduring in spite of any political or economic changes or difficulties.
Diálogo: What are the main capabilities that the 12th Air Force shares with partner nations in the region?
Maj. Gen. Croft: We offer cooperation and partnership. For example, we bring in our Air National Guard forces through the SPP to do exercises with these nations to build their own capability and capacity in the air component. We also offer humanitarian assistance and disaster response, counter-drug operations, search and rescue operations, and domain awareness.
Diálogo: How do you promote security cooperation with the air forces in the region?
Maj. Gen. Croft: We do it primarily through the U.S. Embassy, the Department of State, and our security cooperation officers who work at the embassies to partner directly with the officers and enlisted folks of their respective air forces, so we can understand what they want to do or how they want to build their capacities. We partner with them and we have country desk officers in our headquarters who work side by side to assist those nations in helping them to acquire and maintain aircraft, or anything else related to the air side.