In 1997, a forward-thinking combatant commander conceptualized a plan to invite partner-nation senior military officers — primarily colonels — to serve on his staff as advisors, providing cultural expertise and coordination on military matters between their countries and U.S. Southern Command.
One year later, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, then commander of the Southern Command, made this vision a reality. Argentina and Uruguay were the first countries to send a senior officer to work in the command, thus creating the Partner Nation Liaison Officer program, or PNLO. The following year, Colombia and Ecuador also sent officers. Chile began participating in the program in 2000, and Canada sent a liaison officer in 2007. More than a decade later, the program still thrives.
“The truth is that we have a small community within Southern Command and we share our experiences,” said Chilean navy Capt. David Hardy, who along with his counterparts from Uruguay, Peru, Colombia and Canada, form today’s PNLO program.
Their experience is invaluable as the command strengthens relationships with partner nations. “The biggest benefit they bring is the experience of working in our region,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Jose Sanchez, deputy director of country insight for the command.
“They were raised there, they know their militaries, they know how they think … and they can give us feedback immediately.”
Peruvian army Col. César Alva is working on collaborative solutions to end terrorist activities. “My main job is trying to collaborate in resolving narcoterrorism by means of cooperation between Southern Command and the Peruvian armed forces,” he said. “I’m interested in maintaining a good cooperation program for 2009, and if possible, a five-year midterm plan where our objectives are clear … which are to end terrorism and narcotrafficking.”
The liaison officer is a coveted position appointed by each country’s minister of defense. The tour of duty ranges from one to two years, depending on the country’s agreement with the command. Each officer usually receives a housing and transportation allowance from their military. The officers usually have a good grasp of the English language and, in many cases, speak more than two languages.
While the Southern Command benefits from the knowledge and experience of the liaison officers, the program also gives officers and their families an opportunity to experience U.S. culture.
“My experience until now has been excellent. It’s the first time my family and I have been in the United States,” Uruguayan army Col. Luis Lavista said. “There are some very interesting and enjoyable things for people coming from South America to the United States, above all order, transportation, respect for the laws, and there’s a lot of security.”
The Miami-based command has been working to integrate liaison officers into more of its activities, including conferences and regional exercises such as PANAMAX. Liaison officers have also been visiting component commands, including U.S. Army South in San Antonio; U.S. Navy South in Jacksonville, Fla.; and U.S. Marine Corp Forces South in Miami, to learn more about U.S. military operations.
“By taking them to the component commands, they see their roles and missions. And we try to teach them how we interact with each other and how our components interact with the headquarters,” Col. Sanchez said. “Once they get that view, they are able to better understand the projects that would help us — and them. We have to remember that interoperability is a big thing between our armed forces and our partner nations.”
With the command expected to move into a new facility in late 2010, current commander Adm. Jim Stavridis has invited more countries to participate in the mutually beneficial program.
The officers who have served in the program support increased participation. “We don’t have to be [only] four [countries]. We should have liaison officers here from all countries,” Col. Lavista said. If all countries were represented, he said, they would have the ability to work better collectively.