Brig. Gen. Douglas Lowrey, commander of the Security Assistance Command, and six staff members, traveled to Colombia to engage in one of the most wide-sweeping key leader engagements for the USASAC team since the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Understanding the high priority of Colombian military capabilities to Central and South American regional stability, Lowrey brought along foreign military sales experts from USASAC’s SOUTHCOM division and the central case manager from USASAC-New Cumberland.
Lowrey was invited to Colombia by Colombian Vice Minister of Defense for Strategy and Planning Jairo Garcia Guerrero during a November 2020 meeting at Sierra Army Depot. Guerrero was in the U.S. inspecting excess M1117 Armored Security Vehicles, which were no longer needed by the U.S. Army and being stored in the dry desert of southern California.
“Seeing him here, having this conversation, and meeting our capabilities is very important for us,” Guerrero said after the arrival of the delegation to Bogota. “We cannot have a USASAC relationship outside a strategic relationship, so that’s why the context is so important for us, that’s why we invited him. This is not about cases, this is about the realities and challenges on the ground that will be very good for him to make decisions about the FMS cases we have.”
Hosted by Guerrero, and the commander of the Colombian Army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, the USASAC team traveled by planes, vans and buses, over a four-day period, to observe training, live-fire demonstrations, riverine boat operations, Cavalry and motorcycle operations, aviation and maintenance facilities, simulators, and classroom instruction.
“The main reason we came down here is to strengthen our relationships with our partners and allies, and Colombia is a very important strategic partner in South America,” Lowrey said.
“Not only that, all of us that traveled down here gained a much better understanding of the conditions, and the environment, that the training, services and equipment, that we are providing to the Colombian Army, operates in. So we get to see that firsthand, not on a piece of paper.”
Col. George Crockatt, the regional director responsible for FMS sales to SOUTHCOM, knew that traveling to Colombia, even with the difficulties of operating under strict COVID-19 restrictions, was necessary to understand the challenges the Colombian military face, and the context in which they operate.
“There is only so much that can be done with video-teleconferencing,” Crockatt said. “Looking at someone on a small screen can only get you so far, emails or the phone can only get you so far, and you need to be able to see body language, the tone of their voice and the sincerity in their eyes.”
Over the past year, modern technology has given the USASAC workforce many tools to communicate quicker and more efficiently. When working with foreign partners and allies on complicated FMS cases, not being in the same room can be a disadvantage as nonverbal language, context and cultural sensitivities are difficult to see and understand over a small computer screen.
“Being face-to-face is the critical piece,” Crockatt said. “By working side-by-side you get to see the ‘ah-ha’ moment. I never really got that on VTC. Plus, presence alone sends a message to our partners, that they are important.”
In the end, the 2,000-mile trip was all about using foreign military sales and training to build partner capacity, support combatant commanders’ engagement strategies and strengthen relationships with allies like Colombia.
“The visit of Brig. Gen. Lowrey gives me peace of mind after he visited our many military cantons, where the USASAC team could see with direct perception, how we work in each of these military cantons,” Zapateiro said. “The logistics support brigade, in combined weapons, task forces, the strategic part of our armored vehicles, in the artillery fires (in La Guajira) and the aviation school and air assault division on the Tolemaida air base. This visit marks a milestone in the history of our National Army.”
In the first visit from a USASAC commander since 2012, Lowrey and his team participated in multiple socially distanced briefings, meetings, capability demonstrations, and sidebar conversations with senior Colombian military and Ministry of Defense officials.
“My biggest takeaway is that the relationship is strong, and will remain strong,” Lowrey said. “I will also take away a new perspective of the country of Colombia, it has blown me away. The Colombian Army, in my opinion, is one of the best armies I have ever observed. They are disciplined, well-trained and resourceful.”
One of the key benefits of U.S. efforts to build international communities for security assistance and cooperation is the interoperability and long-standing relationships by partners and allies over the course of many military careers. Zapateiro passionately spoke about the years of working with the U.S. Army as a young Special Forces officer, and the benefit to himself and his army.
“This allows the two countries to be partners, partners throughout the history of our armies and to continue to strengthen this friendship, to continue the strengthening of this alliance that we have built for many years,” he said. “Our aim is security and hemispheric defense, so to global security – as we have said in all the symposia and seminars – there will always be the flag of Colombia and the flag of the United States.”