Binding Ties: Air Force Wants Latin America to Be Less Dependent on U.S. Military

By Jean, Grace V. | National Defense, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Binding Ties: Air Force Wants Latin America to Be Less Dependent on U.S. Military


Jean, Grace V., National Defense


SANTIAGO, Chile -- The Air Force is requesting more than $300 million to help modernize the aircraft fleets of four Latin American nations that assist the United States in the war on drugs and in humanitarian missions.

The project also is part of a broader effort to make these countries less dependent on U.S. military support at a time when forces are overstretched by deployments to the Middle East and South Asia.

Officials say $84 million would help jump start efforts to upgrade the airlift, helicopter and interceptor fleets in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

"It's that first line of defense that we're trying to build in Latin America," says Lt. Col. Troy Hewgley, chief of 12th Air Force's theater security cooperation division at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz.

These nations fly aircraft that originally were gifted to them by the United States in the 1970s. But the platforms are aging and need to be replaced because the parts to repair them are no longer readily available. Current reliability rates are only 20 to 25 percent, which means that out of a fleet of five helicopters, only one would be in working order.

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Air Force officials worry that, in the event of a natural disaster or other emergencies, Central American nations would turn to an already-stretched U.S. military for assistance because their own fleets are depleted.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"We don't have time to avoid this problem any longer," says Col. Jim Russell, director of operations for 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern, which works with military forces in Latin America. "What we want to avoid is becoming a surrogate air force for Central America. We are already stretched thin with our own air force, so the more we can do to help them help themselves, the better we are as a nation," he says.

The goal is to fund 16 cargo planes, four for each country. A longer term objective is to purchase 16 multi-mission helicopters, and 16 light interceptor aircraft.

The Air Force estimated the cargo planes would cost $5.5 million each--including five years of maintenance and logistics support.

The airframes under consideration already are in service in different countries throughout Latin America. Officials have narrowed down the choices to the Cessna Caravan and the PZL Skytruck.

"We want partners to step up to the table and share some of these costs with us," Hewgley says. "It's a challenge with these countries, because they're used to the mentality of where it's gifted to them."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Officials are awaiting congressional approval to start funding the program in 2009. "We are very close to getting funding this year. We've got strong support," he says.

Another example of Latin America's dependence on U.S. Air Force support is aerial refueling. Chile, which owns U.S.-made jet fighters, relies on the United States for aerial refueling and for training.

During a three-day exercise with their Chilean counterparts here in April, Air Force personnel practiced not only aerial refueling but also combat rescue and medical evacuations.

In the past two years, Chile has acquired 10 Block 50 F-16s and 18 updated F-16 fighters from the United States and the Royal Netherlands air force, respectively. But because the Chilean air force does not have a boom-capable air refueling aircraft, it must rely on other nations' tankers to maintain its F-16 fighter pilots' aerial refueling skills.

U.S. Air Force tankers in a previous exercise in October helped to qualify those pilots in aerial refueling. Once qualified, fighter pilots must update their currency every 180 days. Air-to-air refueling was the highest priority on the Chilean air force's list, says Russell.

Several Chilean cadets are on board an Air Force KC-135 tanker to observe the refueling operations. …

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