PANAMA CITY — Air force leaders from 19 nations in the Western Hemisphere met in Panama City June 18-22 for the 58th Conference of American Air Chiefs (CONJEFAMER, per its Spanish acronym). At the annual meeting, these unidos aliados, or united, allied nations, build partnerships among air forces, discuss their collective mission and vision, and plan future exercises, continuing a 50-plus year history of cooperation and goodwill across the Americas.
The System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA), the conference’s sponsoring organization, was established in 1961 and promotes the exchange of experiences, knowledge and training among member nations to strengthen cooperative capabilities in North and South America. One of SICOFAA’s most visible and impactful roles is Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR).
“These conferences are of great strategic importance because they coordinate, in a precise way, humanitarian aid in cases of natural disasters. The system integrates capabilities, communications and the vital human resources that we have in each country to assist during humanitarian disasters,” said Gen. Carlos Eduardo Bueno, Colombian Air Force commander.
The frequency of natural disasters is increasing, thus HA/DR is a 24/7/365 concern that requires constant vigilance, and no nation, including the U.S., has the resources or capability to handle a large scale response alone, said Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly, 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) commander, who represented the U.S. Air Force at the conference.
“When a nation is hit with a natural disaster they are the least capable of and most responsible for handling their own internal affairs,” he said.
Much of the value of CONJEFAMER comes from the relationships built among air chiefs that makes cooperation easier when a rapid response is needed. “The fact that our air forces work together and that the air chiefs know each other and train together makes it possible to respond quicker and more effectively,” Kelly said.
At the conference, the group recapped its HA/DR missions from the past year, including responses to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the earthquake in central Mexico in September 2017, and massive flooding in Peru in addition to the ongoing response to the eruption of the Volcán de Fuego volcano in Guatemala that began June 3.
It is via these response operations that they most powerfully impact the people of the Americas. “Through SICOFAA, the air forces all over the region maintain the ability to integrate their communication in order to prioritize the best way to help the people in most need,” said Gen. Jorge Robles Mella, commander-in-chief of the Chilean Air Force.
This year, the council voted to move Jamaica from an observing nation to a voting member, making them the 21st member nation of SICOFAA and further cementing the organization’s presence in the Caribbean.
“I’m very humbled and honored that the members saw it fit to add us to this organization,” said Jamaica Chief of Defence Staff Maj. Gen. Rocky Meade. He said his country’s membership means the most in their ability to play a role in HA/DR and that it will give Jamaica future opportunities to call on SICOFAA collectively, rather than nations individually, for support following a natural disaster.
Despite having vastly different populations, geographies, climates, cultures and resources, the 21 member nations share a common desire to keep improving their ability to quickly integrate forces and respond to contingencies, suggesting the organization will continue to thrive.
“My vision for the future of SICOFAA is that we as member nations can reach an understanding much faster. When it is necessary for us to act in response to whatever possibility, the response will be that much faster, more fluid and more timely,” said Divisional Gen. Miguel Enrique Vallín, Mexican Air Force commander.
A similar conviction was echoed by other commanders. “The vision of SICOFAA is clear, to remain united. Every time I attend this meeting, there are always innovative initiatives, but the secret is maintaining friendships and building lines of communication so organizations like SICOFAA will be here for many years to come,” Bueno said.
Long-term, Lt. Gen. Kelly suggested forming a standing HA/DR joint task force that is continuously ready to rapidly deploy forces following a natural disaster, further reducing response times.
The prevailing theme evident at this year’s event in Panama was partnership – mutual support and cooperation among the nations of the Americas to amplify their collective capabilities.
“The 21 air forces gathered here are acting to benefit each and every one of our citizens. Like our motto, ‘United, Allied,’ we are all for one and one for all,” said Gen. Luis Eduardo Ruiz, vice commander of the National Air and Naval Service of Panama.
SICOFAA holds the conference in a different nation each year. Last year, leaders met in Natal, Brazil, and next year they will convene in San Salvador, El Salvador, with the event co-hosted by the U.S. and El Salvador. In addition to the countries represented by the aforementioned air chiefs, this year's attendees were Canada, Bolivia, Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Honduras.