Central Colombia and southern Nevada are vastly different locations.
The terrain, weather and operational environments between each location vary to the extremes. So what drives an air force to briefly trade the jungles of South America for the desert of the American southwest? The answer is world-class, realistic air combat training that can’t be acquired anywhere else.
July 16-27, Colombia became the 29th nation to participate in Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base.
With eight Israel Aerospace Industries Kfir multi-role fighters, and Boeing 707 and 767 tankers, the Colombian air force deployed beyond its borders for the first time to participate in the two-week large force employment exercise.
As part of a 60-aircraft mission package, the Colombian air force supported air interdiction strikes, combat search and rescue operations, SCUD hunts, location of high value targets, and defensive counter-air missions.
“The aircraft are compatible for the missions given to us and doing well here at Nellis,” said Colombian Brig. Gen. Carlos Bueno, commander of the 100-plus-person Colombian contingent participating in Red Flag. “At first, our pilots felt a little intimidated by the size and complexity of the exercise, but they quickly moved beyond that as they saw how they contribute to the overall mission.”
The Colombian air force, which has extensive experience in precision engagement via counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations, primarily supported air-to-ground operations throughout the exercise.
“These guys are good,” said Maj. Mike Culhane, an F-15C pilot from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, RAF Lakenheath, England, and a mission package planner during Red Flag 12-4. “Our plans relied on their precision strike capabilities to take out enemy threats, and they hit their targets on every mission. They were integral to our overall success.”
For the Colombian air force, Red Flag began long before July 16. The country started working with the U.S. Air Force Mission in Colombia to begin planning for the exercise when it was invited to participate in 2011.
“The 12-month program consisted of English language training where the pilots had to score an 85 percent or higher on proficiency tests and a series of flying competency assessments, ” said Col. Hans Palaoro, chief of the U.S. Air Force Mission-Colombia. “They also participated in a series of mini practices in Colombia, then deployed to Kelly Field, Texas, for a final checkout before coming to Nellis.”
Partnering with the Colombian air force via exercises and other activities is a priority for the U.S. Air Force.
“Efforts in the areas of precision strike and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance have paid huge dividends for both countries as we work together to counter drug trafficking and insurgency,” said Col. Michael Reed, chief of Strategy and Plans in the Secretary of the Air Force’s International Affairs division. “We will continue to work with Colombia on a host of air force issues in order to increase our collective security. Colombian air force participation in Red Flag provides a perfect opportunity for us to learn valuable lessons from one another, and will serve to strengthen our strategically important relationship.”
For the Colombians, the feelings are mutual.
“It’s been amazing and great to work with other aircrews and share our stories and combat experience,” Bueno said. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons that will help improve our interoperability with the U.S. Air Force and we hope to return for more exercises in the future.”