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Military Rep Builds Bonds in South Africa

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 26, 1999 – For the past four years, Air Force Col. Keith A. Betsch has watched history in the making.

Betsch, an international relations specialist, is the defense and air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, the Republic of South Africa. His job includes coordinating training exchanges and other contacts to promote military- to-military cooperation between the U.S. armed forces and the South African National Defense Force.

The colonel said he's found South Africa to be a "fascinating part of the world." It was particularly so in 1993 when he first considered the assignment.

"The buildup to the election was taking place, Nelson Mandela was about to take office, and the country was going to go through a huge transition," he said. "To be in a country going through this type of internal change -- actually watching history in the making and being part of it -- is extraordinary."

Since arriving in South Africa in August 1995, the colonel has witnessed the transformation of South Africa's armed forces as seven separate defense organizations merged into one. Today, the South African National Defense Force is made up of four arms of service: air force, navy, army and medical. Originally, the newly merged force included 150,000 troops, but it is being drawn down to about 65,000.

U.S. military ties with South Africa have increased steadily since Mandela became South Africa's president in 1994. The two nations formed a defense committee in 1997 as part of the Binational Commission led by Vice President Gore and South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. Once that formal military-to-military link was made, Betsch said, contact between the armed forces skyrocketed. "Last year we supported around a thousand visitors." he said.

Betsch and a joint service team of four officers host technical teams and other U.S. officials visiting South Africa. In February, for example, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, visited Cape Town, the first visit ever by a U.S. defense secretary. Cohen noted during his meetings with South African Defense Minister Joe Modise that the U.S. military can learn much from the South African forces, particularly in the field of demining.

Prior to Cohen's visit, Betsch's staff had hosted, among others, a U.S. Air Force team in South Africa to monitor telemetry from a rocket launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The rocket carried a South African satellite into orbit.

The defense attache's office also coordinates the International Military Exchange Training program that provides funding for South African service members to train at U.S. facilities and vice versa. DoD allocated about $900,000 to South Africa this year for military exchange training. "The first couple of years we had IMET we were not able to spend all the money due to structural problems within South Africa which we have worked very hard with them to overcome," Betsch said.

So far, military exchange training has mainly involved one or two South Africans at a time, Betsch noted, although larger groups of students have been sent to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., to help develop a cadre of people to assist South Africa in its transition to a multiracial democracy. Two South African pilot candidates attended U.S. Air Force pilot training and a South African colonel attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, part of the National Defense University in Washington. South African officers also have graduated from the Army, Navy and Air war colleges.

"They value the IMET program a great deal because, unlike some of the other countries with whom they do this interface, we do it in English," Betsch noted. "The South Africans have very strong ties with Germany, for example, but they discovered that sending their people to schools in Germany is really difficult because they're all taught in German. Everyone here [in South Africa] has at least some English capability, and for the most part, very, very good English capability."

U.S. service members have also trained in South Africa, Betsch added. "In the last year, we've had an Air Force officer graduate from their air staff college and a naval officer graduate from their naval staff college," he said. While the numbers are small, Betsch said, the exchanges demonstrate both nations' intentions to build closer ties.

Betsch's staff also arranges for U.S. trainers to travel to South Africa. U.S. military specialists have conducted training on equal opportunity and the legal aspects of conducting peacekeeping operations. "They can train a larger number of people and have a broader influence than just sending a few students to the states," he said.

Betsch said he hopes to soon coordinate a training exercise involving troops from both nations. "When you get service members on the ground, all the other political things go away," he said. "Soldiers talk to each other. They get together and they get on very well. We have more in common than we have differences and that comes out."

As the military-to-military program between South Africa and the United States expanded, a security assistance officer joined the embassy's attache office staff in May 1998. "A great many of the programs the attaches were doing as additional duties have moved over to the security assistance officer," Betsch said.

Past and present aviation ties also link the two nations, according to Betsch. The South African Second Fighter Squadron, the Flying Cheetahs, flew P-51 and later F-86 aircraft as part of the U.S. 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing in Korea, where several South African pilots earned U.S. Air Medals and Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Last year, some of the former South African squadron mates hosted 30 U.S. members of the 18th Wing during a reunion in Cape Town, Betsch said. "They have a great history with us. They flew with us during the Second World War, and they were right beside us flying F-86s in Korea. The old guys remember."

More recently, the United States gave South Africa five C- 130 aircraft as part of the excess defense articles program. "So there's interface with our C-130 people back in the states at Kelly Air Force Base [Texas]," he said.

The South African museum maintains a vintage U.S. F-86 that South Africa's 2nd Squadron flew with the U.S. 18th Fighter Squadron during the Korean War, Betsch said.

Representing America in a foreign land carries added responsibilities for Betsch's team, particularly in the social realm. The military members serve as U.S. diplomats, he said. "If you don't go to an event, the message is sent that the United States didn't feel this was important enough to come. So it's not that Col. Betsch didn't come, it's that the United States didn't come."

Betsch said being a defense attache also has its intrinsic rewards -- travel, meeting a host of people from other countries and a chance to make a difference. The job involves being deeply involved in national policy decisions, he said.

"You are actually influencing your government's policy and military policy toward the host nation," he said. "They see you, they listen to every word you say and every action you do as an indication of the United States' desires for that country. So you have more influence than you actually recognize."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMilitary officers escort Defense Secretary William S. Cohen (second from right) during a military welcoming ceremony at the Western Province Command, Cape Town, Republic of South Africa. Cohen's visit on Feb. 10, 1999, was the first ever to that country by a U.S. defense secretary. Helene C. Stikkel  
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