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Team set to improve Latin American airspace management

  • Published
  • By Chuck Paone
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The U.S. Southern Command officials could begin conducting site selection surveys as early as next month for a regional coordination center that would help synchronize airspace management among Latin American nations.

Airspace management includes both civil air traffic control services and military air sovereignty missions.

The coordination center is one of several recommendations resulting from both individual nation and regional studies conducted by Electronic Systems Center officials here. The studies found that the Central and South American countries would all benefit significantly from enhanced radar control and coordination, and especially from efforts to improve military and civil air traffic coordination.

U.S. interests in the region, including SOUTHCOM's ability to operate and exercise there, underscore the importance of Defense Department participation, as well as the more basic benefit of enhanced safety and security.

"If we make their skies safer, we make our skies safer," said Steve Wallingford, an air traffic control engineer with ESC's International Operations Division, which has led the effort so far.

"Imagine being able to identify all aircraft flying throughout the region," said Manny Lindo, the deputy director of the office. "You increase safety, reduce risk, reduce criminal activity and improve air access across the board, thereby enhancing economic development in the region."

This vision, which represents a substantial leap from the status quo, is attractive to all stable governments in the region, he said, noting a common interest in air safety, air security, and economic development, and adding that most now see the destabilizing effect of drug activity.

Even those governments not closely aligned with the U.S. have shown interest in these efforts, said Milan Jackson, another key member of the ESC team. "They aren't playing quite as actively, but they're not shutting us out, either."

DOD officials called on ESC's International Operations Division because of its prior experience in analyzing and proposing solutions to resolve air traffic management deficiencies in other parts of the world. That experience dates to efforts during the 1990s to bring Eastern European nations' airspace management capabilities in line with NATO standards and extends to present-day efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Their work efforts have varied depending upon requirements. In Central and South America, they've conducted studies at a relatively high level compared to those done in the former Warsaw Pact nations. However, some similarities were immediately apparent.

As in Eastern Europe, there's a big disconnect between military and civil air traffic monitoring. In Latin America, an air traffic governing body called COCESNA (translated into English as the Central American Corporation for Air Navigation Services) maintains radar control of known air traffic above 19,500 feet. As planes descend, however, there is very little radar control through the landing phase. Pilots and controllers are thus forced to rely on so-called procedural control, using manual instrumentation and voice communication.

Many planes also traverse Latin American air space without functioning transponders, and without first filing a flight plan.

"There's always a concern for separating what can be seen from what presently cannot be seen, " Mr. Wallingford said.

All of these conditions result in a less-than-optimal flight safety environment and fail to allow comprehensive identification of all regional air traffic. By providing some additional radars - both long-range tracking radars, and air traffic control radars - and integrating their feeds, as well as existing ones, into a common operating picture at a regional coordination center, those problems can be alleviated.

These efforts will take time and money, some of which may come from the U.S., through the individual nations, and potentially the International Development Bank. COCESNA and the International Civil Aviation Organization are also anticipated sources.

"Just bringing the nations together and helping them understand the needs are critical first steps," Mr. Jackson said. Last August, a combined SOUTHCOM, 12th Air Force and ESC team brought representatives from several of the countries and their air traffic control organizations to a contractor facility in Minnesota. There they got to see a full-scale mock-up of a coordination center and view a simulated common operating picture.
"In some cases, the countries were fighting with one another during their recent history, and still they saw the value in doing this," Mr. Wallingford said. That recognition and resultant spirit of cooperation is what makes those involved in the early stages of this work optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit.

Eight nations have signed a letter of intent to work together and agreed to participate in the Central American coordination center to be known by the acronym SRVA, stemming from the Spanish language equivalent.

"These countries all know there's a great need to move forward with these plans, and ESC is glad to have helped get them started on this progressive path," Mr. Jackson said.