U.S. officials have expressed concern in recent months that growing influence in the southern hemisphere from countries such as Russia and China may sideline regional stability. As a result, they are aiming to broaden military partnerships and alliances.
Before his departure Dec. 31, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signaled the need to expand relationships with several nations in South America, becoming the first defense secretary since Chuck Hagel in 2014 to visit the region last August. (Ash Carter traveled to the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago for the 12th Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas in 2016, a meeting that focused on increased cooperation during natural disasters.)
During his trip to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, Mattis said the U.S. is "looking to expand partnerships where it's mutually beneficial."
"We see Latin America as our neighbor. Some people say we don't pay much attention to it. That is certainly not the case in the military," he said at the time.
But with Mattis gone, will the Pentagon still make an effort to keep Latin American countries close? One expert recommends focusing on exercises conducted by the services in cooperation with other nations and their armed forces to monitor results.
"While we don't see major exercises a la U.S.-NATO, there are many initiatives that do take place," said W. Alejandro Sanchez, a contributor to the Center for International Maritime Security, specializing in Latin American and Caribbean national security issues.
"The U.S. enjoys generally pleasant and friendly relations -- diplomatic, trade, tourism, defense -- with most Latin American and Caribbean states, with the few exceptions," said Sanchez, who also is a member of the Forum on the Arms Trade.
The Air Force participated in the 20th Air and Space Fair in Santiago, Chile, last April, a biennial international air show that is the largest in Latin America, said Maj. Joost Verduyn, spokesman for Air Forces Southern Command.
According to Verduyn, the F-22 Raptor demo team and the Air Force Academy's Wings of Blue parachute team performed during the show, while two F-35 Lightning IIs, a B-52 Stratofortress, a KC-10 Extender, a KC-135 Stratotanker, a C-17 Globemaster III and a C-130 Hercules were flown in as static displays.
"This marked the first time an F-35 landed in Latin America with the F-35s, F-22s and a Chilean F-16 conducting a formation flight while arriving to the air show," Verduyn said in a recent email.
Here are a few more examples of U.S. participation in the region:
- In July, the Colombian Air Force participated in Red Flag 18-3, the U.S. Air Force's premier air-to-air combat training exercise, with six IAI Kfir fighter jets and their 767 Multi-Mission Tanker Transport Jupiter aircraft, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The 767 MMTT Jupiter refueled U.S. Navy EA-18 Growlers during the exercise, marking the first time the aircraft had refueled U.S. aircraft.
- Also in July, a three-month training and humanitarian exercise called New Horizons wrapped up in Meteti, Panama. The U.S. Air Force led a joint team conducting engineering and medical training in Panama. Medical teams saw more than 7,200 patients and conducted 315 eye and ear surgeries.
- Twelve partner nations' air force members went to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, to participate in the U.S. Southern Command exercise PANAMAX in August. The annual exercise focuses on building interoperability between countries, enabling quick response to emerging situations.
- An Air Force C-130 and C-17 participated in "Angel de los Andes," a Colombian-hosted international search-and-rescue exercise in September 2018. The two aircraft, along with 90 U.S. airmen, traveled to Colombia to participate in the exercise alongside airmen from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Panama, Peru and Uruguay. The exercise focused on responding to natural disaster scenarios, as well as practicing search-and-rescue techniques.
- F-16 Fighting Falcons and a KC-135 Stratotanker participated in CRUZEX, a Brazilian-hosted air-to-air combat exercise in November. Roughly 130 U.S. airmen went to Brazil to participate in the exercise and worked alongside airmen from Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Peru, Portugal and Uruguay.
"Nearly every week of the year, the 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) and the U.S. Air Force are conducting smaller subject matter expert exchanges across Central and South America and the Caribbean," Verduyn said of the efforts.
Also in 2018, the Pentagon sent the hospital ship USNS Comfort to Colombia's northwestern port city of Turbo to aid Venezuelan refugees who had fled political turmoil and economic hardship. Roughly one million refugees have migrated to Colombia in the onset of the crisis, which began in 2010.
The number of exercises may not have grown from year to year, but the number of countries and service members participating in them is on the rise, Verduyn said.
"What has been increasing is the participation in these exercises," he said. "The air show in Chile earlier [last] year was highlighted by the F-35, and the U.S. Air Force sent more aircraft to participate in the show than it had before. U.S. and partner nation participation in exercises in South America also continue to grow."
But if the U.S. military truly wants to expand its reach in South America to garner influence before its adversaries accomplish their goals, it should bolster its funding toward the Southern Command region, argued Sanchez.
"Over the years that I've followed Southern Command, various posture statements acknowledge that SOUTHCOM is the lowest priority command," he said.
Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, who recently relinquished command of U.S. Southern Command to Adm. Craig Faller, put it bluntly in a posture statement before Congress in 2016, Sanchez said.
"Because no nation in the region poses a direct, conventional military threat to the United States, Latin America tends to rank fairly low on force allocation priorities," Sanchez said, quoting Tidd.
While Mattis gave additional visibility to Southern Command during his tenure, "there was no visible increase to SOUTHCOM's budget or assets," Sanchez added.
"The Navy didn't [even] give them those decommissioned frigates as they requested to combat drug trafficking in the Caribbean," he said. "So while the departure of Mattis is important, his tenure did not really change US-SOUTHCOM-Latin American-Caribbean relations.
"If I ever hear the next SecDef openly lobbying for a greater budget or allocation of assets to SOUTHCOM, then I will say that things are changing," Sanchez said.