Just hours after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Ecuador on April 16, 2016, the country’s government issued a request for help to several nations in the region. The response was immediate. In the hours and days that followed, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Peru, and the United States responded quickly.
This was possible, in part, because the Andean nation is a member of the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA, per its acronym in Spanish), a volunteer and apolitical organization dedicated to the promotion of cooperation, unity, and interoperability among the air forces in the Western Hemisphere. Because of the SICOFAA members’ rapid response in the first 72 hours following the tragedy, 113 Ecuadorean lives were saved.
This was the first time SICOFAA was activated in a real-world emergency since its founding in 1961, during the first Conference of the Commanders of the American Air Chiefs, because the focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief was only implemented in 2010. At that time, the Air Chiefs requested that the institution adopt Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) as a primary focus, resulting in the implementation of the live exercise “Cooperación” to the annual cycle. Chile was the host of “Cooperación I” that same year.
The impressive result of SICOFAA’s response to the 2016 Ecuador earthquake, which quickly overwhelmed the nation’s response capability, was possible in part because of the training conducted during the annual “Cooperación” exercises since 2010, and in accordance with its Manual for Combined Air Operations in Humanitarian Support and Disaster Relief, published following the “Cooperación I” exercise.
“At SICOFAA, we discuss many topics of cooperation, but the one that everyone seems to agree on, and everyone needs, is HA/DR. Outside of this scope, there are several themes we work on, such as air safety, accident prevention, search and rescue, etc.,” explained U.S. Air Force Colonel Anthony Cook, SICOFAA's incoming secretary general. “The focus on HA/DR is just one piece of SICOFAA. We are the motor, if you will, of the Conference of American Air Force Chiefs [CONJEFAMER per its Spanish acronym], which was created in 1961 by the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force’s initiative. CONJEFAMER usually convenes in the June timeframe, and is the event that culminates each SICOFAA cycle,” said Col. Cook.
Along with his outgoing counterpart, Colonel Alberto Moreno, Col. Cook spoke to Diálogo during an October visit to U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to bring awareness about the importance of including SICOFAA when planning several engagements between the United States and partner nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. “This synergy is important because we are interacting continuously with the partner nations; we have five conferences a year throughout the theater. It’s a powerful integration tool, to promote cooperation and integration among Western Hemisphere Air Forces,” said Col. Cook. “For instance, we would like to eventually leverage FAHUM [Humanitarian Allied Forces Simulation Exercise] as a way to possibly expand into a joint exercise.”
SICOFAA’s HA/DR cycle is based on a three-year rotation: The first year is dedicated to topics of interest for consideration by the committees; the second year is focused on preparation for a tabletop HA/DR exercise, and the third year is designated for the live HA/DR exercise. In April 2013, “Cooperación II,” a tabletop HA/DR exercise, was held in Argentina in preparation for the 2014’s live HA/DR exercise, “Cooperación III,” in Peru. Argentina once again held a virtual exercise, “Cooperación IV,” in 2016, and planning is currently underway for “Cooperación V,” a live exercise to be held in Puerto Montt, Chile, in September, 2017.
These real and virtual exercises are what differentiate SICOFAA from its sisters, the Conference of American Armies, the Inter-American Naval Conference, and also the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB), according to Col. Cook. “We know that the Conference of American Armies is going to try to implement a similar program so they can start a virtual exercise. It is one of their objectives to get done soon, so maybe in the future, we can merge our efforts and collaborate on these exercises.”
A common language
Another difference between SICOFAA and other sister institutions is that one standard language was chosen for communication between its members, in this case, Spanish. That was one of the very first decisions by SICOFAA members when the “Cooperación I” exercise took place in 2010. “I said, ‘We are starting from scratch, but the most important thing right now is to agree on what language we want to use for air operations during a disaster,’ because we had the Brazilian air crews coming in and speaking Portuguese, the Canadians and U.S. speaking English, and so forth. And then all the others, Spanish. Imagine all those languages in an air operations center. There is no way you can communicate. There is too much confusion. So we decided to choose a language for operations, and Spanish was selected,” explains Col. Moreno.
In 2013, during Col. Moreno’s tenure as SICOFAA’s secretary general, the organization adopted a common operational language and created a common doctrine. Some events are now fully monitored, and the software that the institution uses in air operations centers is now consistent.
For Col. Moreno, there is still a missing piece for SICOFAA to have standardized procedures across the board. “A Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) course needs to be uniform for all participant countries – a course on how to operate in a combined air operations center. The bigger air forces know very well how to work in those kinds of centers, but for the majority of the smaller air forces, it is the first time they are inside of a complex air operations center, let alone a combined air operations center. So it is overwhelming to them,” said Col. Moreno. “This training is going to help us teach them how to manage a center using SICOFAA procedures. The concept, when a disaster strikes, is to have trained airmen to use the air operations centers in their own countries.”
This might be one of the biggest challenges ahead for Col. Cook. “This is definitely on my priority list, but we also have to continue to find ways to be relevant, besides humanitarian assistance and relief,” he noted. “That is a niche area where we fit in nicely, but I want to be careful that we meet the Air Chiefs’ desires – one of those desires is to remain a voluntary, apolitical organization,” concluded Col. Cook.
This is definitely a big task, since 20 member nations comprise SICOFAA: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. There are also five observer nations: Belize, Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago, and two observer organizations: the Inter-American Air Forces Academy and the IADB. “Anthony [Col. Cook] is definitely the right person to take on these challenges. He is an experienced regional affairs specialist having served in multiple roles throughout the region. I am sure he will do great,” concluded Col. Moreno.