The unique military capabilities of Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo), a task force under U.S. Southern Command located at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, are now under new leadership. U.S. Army Col. Keith McKinley assumed command of JTF-Bravo on July 10th to direct its five supporting commands, eight directorates, a diversity of staff, and many multinational engagements.
Col. McKinley brings with him the lessons learned from past experiences, such as from his previous assignment as deputy chief of staff – G3 for U.S. Army Japan at Camp Zama, Japan. Now, his primary focus is promoting stronger relationships among Central American partner nations and JTF-Bravo.
The task force consists of a joint staff and five mission-support commands: the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment; the 612th Air Base Squadron, the Joint Support Battalion/Army Forces Battalion, the Joint Security Forces, and a Medical Element. It operates a 24/7 forward all-weather C-5-capable air base, performs humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, executes multilateral exercises with partner nations in Central America, synchronizes operations against Transnational Transregional Threat Networks (T3N), and builds partner capacities to promote regional cooperation and security.
After two months in his new assigment, Diálogo spoke with Col. McKinley about his military efforts, multilateral exercises, partnerships engagements, and regional efforts to counter T3N.
Diálogo: What is the focus of your military efforts as the new commander of JTF-Bravo?
Colonel Keith McKinley: First, to establish relationships. What I’m learning during my short time here so far, is relationships are key, and not only with the Department of Defense, it’s also with the United States interagency, and most importantly, it’s with our partner nations.
Diálogo: What are your particular goals in the short, medium, and long term?
Col. McKinley: Initially to establish strong relationships with our partner nations and to maintain contact with them. For example, I met General Francisco Isaías Álvarez Urbina [chief of the Honduran Armed Forces Joint Staff], a couple of weeks ago and soon I’ll be in Guatemala. It’s really [about] understanding all the various key leaders within Central America. Looking further out, it’s about finding out how JTF-Bravo could maximize our resources to help those key partners in achieving their objectives within Central America.
Diálogo: How has your prior experience prepared you for this role? And what lessons learned did you bring with you to this role, particularly after serving as the deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Army in Japan?
Col. McKinley: It’s interesting, because for my last three years my experience has been in the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), and then prior to that with the wars, it’s been in the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM). This is my first assignment in SOUTHCOM. My last job in Japan, and my experience at the Naval War College helped me to understand and operate with a more strategic focus. We’re organized tactically in JTF-Bravo –helicopters, security forces, medical, firefighters– and my prior jobs have taught me how to use those tactical resources to have strategic effects.
Here on the ground, I need to understand what SOUTHCOM commander, Admiral Kurt W. Tidd’s vision is for the area of responsibility (AOR), and then synchronize my tactical resources to have strategic effects. I think that’s really what I learned from the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force during my last assignment. The Japanese are a very capable military force, very strategic focused.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern in terms of security in Central America?
Col. McKinley: It would be the threat networks operating within Central America. What we’ve seen over the years are networks becoming more formidable. And it’s not just drugs. You have the drug cartels, which are formidable, but you’re also seeing areas to where we see human trafficking, weapons smuggling, counterfeiting, and other illicit areas where threat networks are expanding their influence.
Diálogo: What do you expect to achieve with the countries in JTF-Bravo’s joint operations area, whether through exercises, key-leader engagements, or any other engagement?
Col. McKinley: What I hope to achieve is a higher level of synchronization and joint force integration within Central America. I think SOUTHCOM is the strongest when we can synchronize our joint capabilities and resources. For example, here on Soto Cano Air Base, we have U.S. marines with their unique, tailored capabilities. We also have Army helicopters, logistics, and security forces. We even have U.S. Air Force firefighters. The effect I want to achieve in Central America is for all of us to maximize our unique capabilities to achieve strategic effects.
Diálogo: How has the fact that JTF-Bravo is located in Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, and has been for the past 33 years (since 1984), helped cement the relationship between the task force and the Honduran government and its citizens?
Col. McKinley: The relationship is strong having been built on trust over the years. The last time I was in Honduras was in 1991, when I was in the Army National Guard and my unit came here for our annual training. We did live fire exercises with the Honduran Army’s elite unit, the Tesons, down in the Zambrano training areas. I remember the great relationship the U.S. and the Hondurans had together. Honduras is a great partner, and we have a lot of shared experiences.
Diálogo: JTF-Bravo comprises the Joint Staff, Joint Security Forces, Joint Support Batallion/Army Forces, Medical Element, 612th Air Base Squadron, and the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment. How do all the units works together to achieve the mission?
Col. McKinley: It goes back to capabilities. For example, some of our medical missions –our medical unit has really good, first-rate doctors– are in remote locations, and to get there they need aviation, so our helicopters fly them there. Once they land on the ground, they require security, so our joint security forces will secure those elements. To get resupplied, they require our Air Force elements. We’re very unique, the units are very unique with different cultures. No one element from JTF-Bravo can do it all; we maintain a team approach in all our operations.
Diálogo: JTF-Bravo has close relationships with the countries of the Northern Triangle [Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras]. How can you cooperate with them in their fight against T3N?
Col. McKinley: We work closely with the country teams from each U.S. Embassy. For example, we facilitate meetings where we bring in the community of interest and talk to each of the country teams to find out what they are seeing, what their concerns are, and what their major operations are scheduled to be. And then we work together collaboratively on identifying support requirements and finding solutions.
Diálogo: How do you leverage the efforts of SOUTHCOM’s partner nations to stop T3N?
Col. McKinley: From what I have seen during my limited time in command is that our partners are working very well in this area. . Earlier this spring, U.S. Major General Clarence K.K. Chinn, commanding general of U.S. Army South, invited me to sit in on the Regional Leaders Conference. I was the incoming commander at the time as I was still working in Japan. It was good for me to observe and see how well our partners are working together. One thing that we were very impressed with is the countries were communicating very well with one another. In fact, I remember two army chiefs telling the audience how they work together and have each other’s phone number, so they can talk to discuss border synchronization.
What I see is especially in the Northern Tier a lot of collaboration. You’ve seen a lot of collaboration currently with Panama and Colombia, and then you see that through the other nations in Central America. I think where SOUTHCOM can really assist and where we have been focused on is how we as Department of Defense can help enable those relationships and those partnerships.
Diálogo: What is your message to the region as the new JTF-Bravo commander?
Col. McKinley: Our message to the region is that JTF-Bravo is a trusted, ‘go to’ partner in Central America. We look forward to working collaboratively with our partners in addressing current threats to all our nation’s national security challenges.