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News | Sept. 29, 2023

U.S. and Colombia Soar Together: Ángel de los Andes and Relámpago VII Bolster Interoperability

By Jennifer Whitaker 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern)

The U.S. military recently teamed up with the Colombian Aerospace Force to showcase bilateral cooperation and a commitment to enhancing military readiness in the Ángel de los Andes and Relámpago VIII exercises, hosted in Colombia in August and September 2023. Teams from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Space Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines trained alongside their Colombian counterparts to reinforce the thriving partnership between the two nations.

U.S. Air Force Col. Matthew Vollkommer, 612th Air Operations Center commander, served as exercise director for Ángel de los Andes and Relámpago VIII. He said holding the exercises concurrently gave units the chance to practice executing multiple missions simultaneously, better aligning with how militaries must operate in the real world.

“We developed a strong bond,” he said. “Anytime you’re thinking about crisis response, it helps to know the people you’re working with. You develop a deeper sense of trust that will lead to success.”

Vollkommer said that the exercise was successful due in large part to most of the combined forces being located together in Palenquero, allowing them to develop trusting relationships. He pointed to the hospitality of the Colombian hosts as a force multiplier in building the camaraderie that the teams needed to exercise well together.

“The most valuable things that happened with interoperability didn’t happen during execution,” Vollkommer said. “It was actually during the planning and debrief of what was executed,” with both nations sharing valuable lessons learned.

While the two exercises happened concurrently, they had distinct missions. Ángel de los Andes was focused on joint humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and combat search and rescue training, while exercise Relámpago VIII focused on training defensive counteroperations and air sovereignty. It is one of the largest and most complex air combat exercises in Latin America, said Florida Air National Guard Lt. Col. Daniel Schiller, F-15 pilot and chief of safety at the 125th Fighter Wing. 

“It’s good for us to share tactics and techniques with each other to learn from each other,” Schiller said. “We have very different mission sets, the F-15 to the KFIR, but there’s still a lot of commonality and similarities between the two air frames…so it’s easy for us to fly in the same airspace and operate as a cohesive team to achieve a common goal.”  

As an aeromedical evacuation training exercise, Ángel de los Andes aimed to save lives. During the exercise’s simulated earthquake scenario, U.S. C-17 and HH-60 aircraft flew alongside Colombian helicopters, transporting and treating 50 patients in a large-scale recovery effort.

In another exercise scenario, combined teams of special forces parachuted into simulated enemy territory to rescue friendly troops from danger. Flying aboard an HH-60 helicopter, a Colombian and U.S. crew worked side-by-side, conducting river rescues, overcoming difficult terrain, and breaking through the language barrier to succeed in their mission, said Colombian AF Maj. César Trivino, a UH-60 helicopter pilot who participated in Ángel de los Andes.

With scenarios unfolding in multiple locations throughout Colombia, overhead imagery was key to assuring safe and accurate exercise missions. The Air Forces Southern space team partnered with U.S. Space Command’s Joint Task Force-Space Defense Commercial Operations cell for Space Domain Awareness to provide overhead imagery of helicopter landing zones, satellite overflight information and space weather prognostics to aid in decision-making, planning and execution.

Vollkommer congratulated the Colombian Aerospace Force on making a “grand strategic statement” in recognizing the importance of space to all aspects of military operations and national sovereignty.

“Space isn’t an afterthought,” he said.   

Colombian AF Maj. Gen. Carlos Silva Rueda, Colombian AF second commander, said that by integrating capabilities, the two nations strengthen ties of friendship and cooperation.  

“We have a 200-year tradition of mutual support with [the U.S.], and here we are at the tip of the spear of military technology and operational capabilities,” Rueda said.

U.S. Air Force Col. John B. Creel, 12 Air Force (Air Forces Southern) deputy commander, expressed how critical this partnership for our future success.

“Our partnership is great,” said Creel. “If you’re great partners in peacetime, when there is a security issue that comes up later, you’re ready to help each other right away.”

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