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Southern Command Builds Latin American Capacity Through NCOs

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

MIAMI, Feb. 6, 2009 – The nation’s senior military officer emphasized the importance of Latin America to U.S. security interests yesterday, and U.S. Southern Command’s top noncommissioned officer is busy promoting that effort where the rubber hits the road: within the NCO ranks.

The days of “looking east and west more than north and south” to promote U.S. security are gone, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said yesterday at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “We need to pay more attention to our neighbors and the security issues and the economic issues that are associated with not just Mexico, but with [all of] Latin America.”

Navy Adm. James Stavridis, Southcom’s commander, and his staff work tirelessly to promote security cooperation Stavridis called critical to security, stability and prosperity in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

A big part of that equation is helping partner nations build capacity within their militaries so they’re better able to confront threats ranging from illicit trafficking to narco-terrorism.

As Southcom’s top NCO, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael M. Balch supports that effort by helping militaries maximize what for many was a virtually untapped capability: their NCO corps.

The concept of a professional NCO corps wasn’t always universally embraced in the region, he conceded. Some countries feared that it would undermine officers’ authority over enlistees and conscripts. But Balch and his predecessors, along with the Southcom staff, pointed to the U.S. military as an example of the strengths NCOs can bring to the force.

“If you want to have a strong military, you have to have a strong noncommissioned officer corps,” Balch said he explains during visits through the region. “The noncommissioned officer corps doesn’t take power from the officer corps. It complements the officer corps so you can accomplish things together.”

No country within Latin America demonstrates that complement as convincingly as Colombia.

“If you go back and look at Colombia in the mid-90s, it was a state in crisis,” Balch said. The drug trade and guerilla insurgencies such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia terrorist group, or FARC, had taken siege. President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002, promising to apply military pressure to crack down on the FARC and other outlawed groups.

But at the time, Colombia’s NCO corps had little authority and played only a minimal role in preparing and leading troops. Gen. Carlos Ospina, Colombia’s defense chief at the time, turned to Southcom for help.

The Colombians created the new rank of command sergeant major, and U.S. Army Special Forces troops helped set up a pilot sergeants major course to train them. The instruction didn’t focus on tactical-level skills such as weapons firing and maintenance and map-reading. “Those skills are pretty fundamental to the military,” Bacher said.

“As you transition to higher levels of leadership, the question becomes: ‘How do you become an asset and a multiplier to your military institution, your command and your commander?’” he said.

“So we are trying to teach senior NCOs the skill set to become stronger noncommissioned officers, to complement the officer corps, to then in turn help make the army stronger overall,” he said. “What we are doing is really focused at the operational and strategic level, rather than the tactical level, of leadership in managing and leading forces.”

The initial course proved so successful that the Colombians eventually took it over themselves. With ongoing support and mentorship from Southcom, the Colombian military runs two 11-week classes every year.

Hoping to build on this success when he joined the command in 2004, Balch encouraged the Colombians to expand the course to include Colombian navy, marine and air force NCOs. From there, he helped Colombia involve other countries.

“We took the course and made it joint, and then went back and asked if they would be willing to invite international partners to attend the course,” he said.

Today, every 45-member class includes three to four NCOs from Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras or other partner nations.

The dynamic brought an unanticipated bonus, Balch said. Partner nations hand-picked their best, brightest and most experienced NCOs to send to Colombia’s course. The Colombians reciprocated by raising their own standards -- bringing new prestige to its NCO corps and the program overall.

“So it was a win-win for everyone,” Balch said.

The Colombians experienced a dramatic improvement in their NCO corps. “And they have a lot of good reason to want to improve their NCO corps,” Balch said. “They are a nation that has been at war for a long time. On any given day, the Colombian army is led by hundreds and hundreds of platoons that don’t have platoon leaders. So the strength in their NCO corps has been vitally important to them.”

Meanwhile, the Colombian army made major reforms as it improved its effectiveness against the FARC.

“Through planned assistance, we began to help them build their capabilities, and they have been highly successful,” Balch said. “Colombia is the finest example of a nation helping itself. They have really helped themselves, and they are in a better way than they have been in many, many years. They are on the verge of success.”

Meanwhile, international students who attended Colombia’s sergeants major course took the concepts they learned back to their own militaries. This, Balch said, created a ripple effect throughout the region.

For example, Honduras started its own senior NCO academy, modeled after Colombia’s, to develop its NCOs. The Ecuadoran defense minister was so impressed with what he heard that he created a senior enlisted advisor position on his staff to focus on NCO issues.

Southcom continued offering assistance and support to countries that requested it, and sponsoring conferences and other forums to promote NCO professionalization.

U.S. Army South will sponsor the fifth annual conference for senior enlisted leaders of Caribbean and Central and South American armies in June in Santiago, Chile, Balch said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has provided NCO development in Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago and Honduras. A session at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras that delivered leadership training to NCOs from 16 countries proved “very, very successful,” Balch said.

Relationships forged through these courses and conferences -- but more importantly, the professional leadership skills they provide -- go a long way toward training and professionalizing a new breed of NCOs, Balch said.

“Colombia is probably the model of how to accomplish U.S. government objectives without the employment of a force on force,” he said. “We work very hard on building partnership capacity in the NCO corps in the region, and it’s been very successful.”

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Navy Adm. Mike Mullen
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael M. Balch

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U.S. Southern Command

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