Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

“We Are the Partner of Choice”

The new commander of the 12th Air Force, Air Forces Southern Command engages with Latin America as equal partners.
Geraldine Cook/ Diálogo | 22 December 2016

Lieutenant General Mark D. Kelly objective is to be an equal partner with Latin American. (Photo: Geraldine Cook)

Lieutenant General Mark D. Kelly assumed command over the 12th Air Force, Air Combat Command and Air Forces Southern (AFSOUTH), U.S. Southern Command at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Tucson, Arizona, in October 2016. As such, Lt. Gen. Kelly oversees seven active duty wings and one direct reporting unit for contingency operations and 15 gained Air Reserve Component units totaling more than 360 aircraft and 20,300 Airmen. As the air and space component to U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Air Forces Southern conducts security cooperation and provides air, space, and cyberspace capabilities throughout the 31 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean.

After almost two months in his new position, Lt. Gen. Kelly spoke with Diálogo during the Central American Air Chiefs Conference, which took place on December 12th-13th, about his new role and the challenges he faces.

Diálogo: What is the importance of you hosting the Central American Air Chiefs Conference at the 12th Air Force headquarters?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: It provides the Air Chiefs a venue and some dedicated time to get together and realize that they have very common challenges in the region, they sometimes have common solutions, they have common ideas they can share with each other. It provides them a location where they feel free to talk to each other, to the AFSOUTH staff, to me, to their National Guard State Partners, so really, the best thing about us hosting it here is that it provides them a forum that is away from all their home nations and where they are all on equal footing, equal status. It doesn't matter if the Air Chief is a four-star general or a captain: they all have the same challenges.

Diálogo: What message do you want to send each of the countries of the visiting Air Chiefs during this year’s event?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: Probably the biggest message we want to send them is precisely that we want to be an equal partner with them and be there when they want us to be there, because we don’t want to be there if we are not helpful. I also want to convey to them that although sometimes the perception is that smaller air forces, smaller nations look to bigger air forces and bigger nations to learn, however we learn from them too. We learn as much from our partners as they learn from us. Our U.S. Air Force is getting smaller, and we are learning to work with the assets and the people that we have. We have great airmen in our partner countries; they have been working as smaller air forces and smaller groups of airmen, and they are doing phenomenal job, so we have a lot to learn from them as well.

Diálogo: With only a couple of months on the job, what is the focus of your military efforts as Commander of the 12th Air Force?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: My focus pretty much mirrors SOUTHCOM commander, U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt Tidd’s. He articulates a strategy for the region that helps us and helps our partners. As he has said in his meetings, we want to be able to collectively work the security challenges that are common to everybody. Whether it is an earthquake or a hurricane, we have to respond rapidly and get there quickly. As the Air Chiefs said in the conference, the transregional, transnational threat networks (T3N) don’t care about political borders, so all our partner nation Air Chiefs face the same challenges. We want to be their partner of choice, and that doesn’t mean we mind if they work with other people, but part of being the partner of choice is being the partner of convenience, because we have the same issues we can share solutions to these challenges.

Diálogo: What kind of results do you expect to come to fruition and what results have you seen so far in your time working in this area? How have these changed your original vision on what you expected to aim for and achieve in the future?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: This is a big area, and I have only had the opportunity to visit two of our partners, Colombia and Chile, so the ability to bring all of them here allows me to engage with all of our great partners. I not only get the opportunity to talk to all of them face to face, but they get an opportunity to talk to each other, and to their state partners from the Air National Guard, which often brings a lot of the airmen, resources, and aircraft to the joint exercises and air shows. They respond rapidly to their needs and build those relationships that they have, so this provides a venue to work with all of them. There is also an entity which was represented here by primarily one officer, the Secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs, so having all these players here together helps execute any future interactions just by having people talking. We don’t want the first time an Air Chief calls me to be because he is having an emergency and using the System of Cooperation among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA) to get aid; we want it to be a relationship in which he calls me after I already visited his country and he has already visited mine, so we already know each other when the time comes.

The expectations from the beginning haven’t changed much; we are keen on just getting the countries to work together. Everybody has differences; with every partnership –it doesn’t matter who it is– there is going to be points of convergence, divergence and friction. We want to work on the points of convergence. For example, we have our partner from Nicaragua visiting for the Central American Air Chiefs Conference, and we are very proud to have them here. We haven’t done a lot with Nicaragua, so we are keen on engaging with them on aspects that benefit them, so that is one of the main messages I have for our Nicaraguan friends today. We want to do stuff that benefits their Air Force. We will be there for them as many times as they want us there.

Diálogo: How has your prior experience prepared you for this role? And what lessons learned did you bring with you to this role?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: I have a lot experience with humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, partnership building in many areas of the world, mostly in the Pacific and in the Middle East, so in countries through the U.S. Pacific Command’s area of responsibility (AOR) in Afghanistan and Iraq. What I haven’t done is traveled a lot until recently in SOUTHCOM’s area of cooperation, but no matter where you are in the world, if you treat people with dignity and respect, and if you engage them as equals, you can resolve almost anything, so it doesn’t matter if I am talking to a villager or tribal elder in Afghanistan or talking to a very, very well established Air Chief. The first step is getting to know him and respect what he has done in his career, in serving his own nation, and they want the same thing. Again, whether you talk to a tribal chief in Afghanistan or whether you talk to somebody in the Pacific or you talk with one of these great airmen, they want a better life for their families; they want to represent their air forces well; they want to represent their nations well, and they are looking for peace and stability where they live.

The nice thing about this Air Chief visit is that the rank of the Air Chief doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if their air force is 1,400; 14,000; or 140,000 strong. What matters is the challenges that each Air Chief has because they are all the same, including the U.S. Air Force. We are all working long hours and long days. Like us, our partners don’t have enough people or resources or airplanes to do what they need to do. We want to make sure we treat the position of the person with dignity and respect because they are working with the same challenges as we are.

Diálogo: What is your biggest concern in terms of regional security in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: I think we do very well in the partnership capacity building effort. I think we do very well being the partner of choice. I think we almost can’t do too much in the transregional transnational threat network. Every one of the Air Chiefs is concerned about that, whether it’s a gang or cartel. They are all interconnected, so my biggest concern is that the challenges of the global economy, the changing climate, and the competition of resources all feed these networks. It has become more and more difficult to turn the corner.

Diálogo: How are the security concerns in SOUTHCOM’s AOR, and –specifically to this conference– in Central America and the Caribbean, unique and different from those in the Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) AOR which you have supported?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: They don’t change much from USPACOM’s AOR; they are pretty similar. For example, if I am working with Bangladesh, or with Thailand, or with any of those countries, we want to be the partner the choice over there. We want to be able to respond rapidly when a tsunami hits Japan or Thailand, but we are most concerned about transregional and transnational threat networks. It is really the same. I will say my experience in Iraq or Afghanistan is different because it’s obviously very, very kinetic in the sense that the terrorist footprint within Afghanistan and Iraq is obviously an incredible threat to the existence of their host governments.

Diálogo: What is the importance of the System of Cooperation among the American Air Forces --SICOFAA?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: I am a huge fan of SICOFAA. Using a humanitarian aid/disaster relief effort example during an event like an earthquake or tsunami that happens anywhere in the globe, normally what has to happen before we can do any planning, have any discussion, or provide any relief, it has to come as a request from a host nation around the globe. SICOFAA is unique in the sense that it is not a political body. They have a constructed framework and a format –that is the key– to start coordination at the same time as the diplomatic channels are being worked, so it provides the member air forces with a legal framework to start planning and making preparations to provide relief efforts while the diplomatic efforts are going on. It speeds the relief effort. We understand that the air forces that are members of SICOFAA have shared challenges, so we work toward sharing solutions and a shared understanding of how we are going to get there under SICOFAA’s framework.

Diálogo: What is your main goal as commander?

Lt. Gen. Kelly: My main goal, whether it be with my U.S. Air Force airmen in the bases in Idaho, here in Arizona, or in New Mexico, or those who are deployed in the Middle East, or from my great partners in SOUTHCOM, is if we can end the day, the week, the month, and the year with the same number of airmen, families, dignities, and careers intact, it is a good day, a good week, a good month, a good year. I owe it to my airmen in the north and my airmen friends in the south to help them with that. Whether I do so by visiting them, sending experts down to help them with logistics, maintenance, and other efforts or holding conferences like this, if we can help our partner nation Air Chiefs achieve a better life, a better air force, and a better standing for their nation it will be a success for us here.

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