Air force alliance in the hemisphere can confront common challenges as one | Opinion

The U.S. Air Force is part of a hemispheric coalition to combat drug trafficking, violence and other problems.
The U.S. Air Force is part of a hemispheric coalition to combat drug trafficking, violence and other problems. Getty Images

Our neighbors in Central and South America have a long history of partnership with the U.S. military, whether as allies in overseas conflicts or helping provide security in our own back yard. Despite occasional disagreements, we have forged meaningful ties on issues ranging from disaster relief to the importance of regional economic development and military training.

This week, we will renew those ties in El Salvador at the annual Conference of Chiefs of the American Air Forces — known by the Spanish acronym CONJEFAMER. It’s a gathering of air force military leaders from across the Americas. Though not well-known, the group is critical in helping to enhance security in our hemisphere and tackle emerging challenges.

One of the foremost is the increasingly aggressive posture of Russia and China. In recent years, the Chinese in particular have tried to extend their influence into the Americas with infrastructure projects in a number of Latin American countries — 17 of 31 Latin American nations have joined China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to provide infrastructure around the world.

For its part, Russia continues to influence a handful of countries in the region, including Cuba and Venezuela. The shifting geopolitical balance comes at a time of uncertainty in many areas of Central and South America, which battle the influence of the narcotics trade, brutal levels of violence and, in a few cases, corrupt leadership.

Although not widely known, an organization called SICOFAA is another vehicle for cementing regional alliances. SICOFAA is the Spanish acronym for the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces. It is a voluntary, nonpolitical organization designed to promote cooperation, and we are reaping benefits. Its 21 members are working on a range of initiatives, from joint flying exercises to honing our ability to respond the natural disasters across the hemisphere.

The work that we do shoulder to shoulder is noteworthy and growing more important each year. We joined together to tackle humanitarian crises such as the Haiti earthquake and other regional calamities. We are working on a range of initiatives to include intelligence sharing, efforts to counter Chinese influence and programs to promote democratic reforms with a larger goal of tackling the hemisphere’s most urgent problems.

Many Latin American countries have been staunch allies for decades. El Salvador and Brazil, for example, have a long history of contributing to international military engagements overseas. For many years, our partners in the hemisphere have sent airmen to our country to train and further their education at our schools, including Air University and the Air Force Academy.

It is this spirit of cooperation and mutual trust that will help us address the most urgent problems in the Americas, from crime to mass migration and drug smuggling. We will continue to counter security threats by further strengthening our partnerships, sharing information in the space and cyber domains and by providing critical intelligence to one another.

The personal relationships that the air chiefs have developed, along with the operational know-how, have been invaluable. Our air forces are looking to the future, planning ways to build air power capabilities across the region and build bridges to sister services to promote security throughout the Americas.

The challenges remain difficult, but our resolve in tackling them is firm.

Gen. David Goldfein is the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.