BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Military and civilian leaders from 11 nations met Aug. 28-29 in Buenos Aires, Argentina to take part in the 2018 South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC).
This year marks the first time Argentina has hosted the South America-focused conference, a forum for dialogue among the region’s chiefs of defense, facilitating the exchange of ideas, experiences, and perspectives on security and defense issues, and promoting cooperative approaches to regional security. The two-day conference included presentations, moderated roundtables, bilateral and multilateral meetings, and plenary sessions.
The Chief of Defense of Argentina’s Armed Forces’, Gen. Bari del Valle Sosa and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) commander, U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, co-hosted this year’s SOUTHDEC.
Joining Argentina and the U.S. were leaders and officials from Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Perú, and Spain, who is taking part in SOUTHDEC for the first time.
The participating nations chose “South American Contributions to Global Peace” as this year’s theme.
“This opportunity will allow us to consolidate the much-needed military ties between our countries with the aim of addressing and identifying common and integral solutions to the challenges associated with global peace,” Sosa said, as he welcomed the delegations.
Ten of the nations participating in SOUTHDEC support more than a dozen UN-sponsored missions, including the ongoing justice support mission in Haiti and verification mission in Colombia.
To help partner nations build capacity in international peacekeeping, the U.S. State Department implements the Global Peace Operations Initiative in close partnership with the Department of Defense. Under this initiative, the U.S. has provided training, equipment and advisory assistance to help 39 partner countries develop and employ 67 critical enablers, such as engineering, aviation, medical, and counter-improvised explosive device capabilities. According the U.S. State Department, 70 percent of those partner capacities have deployed to UN and African Union peace operations or are scheduled to do so.
SOUTHDEC participants also discussed how the region’s militaries support missions led by other government agencies, often to help citizens experiencing hardships or following large-scale emergencies.
When disaster strikes, military troops, aircraft, ships and vehicles are often among the first capabilities requested and deployed to help save lives and alleviate human suffering in the immediate aftermath of the resulting tragedies.
After devastating hurricanes that left thousands of victims in their wake, SOUTHCOM rapidly deployed joint task forces to Haiti in 2016 and to St. Martin and Dominica in 2017, where they supported U.S. foreign disaster assistance missions led by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Military engineers and medics also routinely support government-led humanitarian assistance missions, helping citizens in need and selflessly using their skills to aid others.
One example of such a mission is the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS COMFORT (T-AH 20). In the fall, it will deploy to Central America and South America to begin a humanitarian mission. Military medical personnel embarked on the ship will work alongside regional partners to provide medical assistance based on needs identified by each host nation.
“The Comfort symbolizes our enduring pledge to the citizens of this hemisphere and what can be accomplished when partners work together to aid people in need,” Tidd said.
Colombia is among the countries USNS Comfort will visit. The Colombian government requested U.S. support to relieve pressure on its national health system resulting from increased population flows out of neighboring Venezuela.
“...there are many more ways we will honor this promise, by creating new opportunities to enhance the interoperability of our hemisphere’s forces and strengthen the bonds of trust between our nations,” Tidd added. “SOUTHDEC is the perfect forum to identify these opportunities, together.”
This year’s SOUTHDEC was Tidd’s third, and he recalled the commonality that brings the participating nations together.
“I look out across this room, and I’m inspired by what I see,” he said. “I see a group of professionals, representing many different nations, from many different backgrounds, shaped by many different experiences, and yet united in our joint responsibility as defenders of the inter-American values.”
Describing those shared values, Tidd also touched on the important relationships that have allowed them to use the SOUTHDEC to advance shared goals.
“At the heart of every mission, we find respect for human rights, the rule of law, and peace,” he observed. “At the heart of every friendship, we find the bonds of democracy, the love of freedom that’s found in the hearts of our people, and the enormous trust that our people place in us, and our profession.”
On the margins of the forum, some participants briefly discussed the growing influence of China -- a nation whose government views on democracy and individual freedoms contrast with those embraced by much of the Western Hemisphere.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis raised this point, reference China and Russia, as he traveled to the region, underscoring U.S. relations in the region remain strong in spite of their growing influence.
“...We have had zero impact by any Russian or Chinese involvement in the region, none whatsoever. The trust has been a long time building, and that trust will not be shaken,” he said.
Tidd remained in Argentina after SOUTHDEC and traveled to Puerto Belgrano Naval Base Aug. 30, where he visited the country’s Maritime Operations Center.
In 2017, the center led an internationally-supported search for the crew of the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan. The mission is an example of how partner militaries can also be mobilized to help each other when their peers are in peril.