The U.S. Army can trace its history training with the Colombian Army (COLAR) to more than 60 years ago when U.S. Army Ranger officers developed the Lancero training program for the COLAR in the mid-1950s. Since that time, the initiative has resulted in one of the longest one-on-one professional military relationships with U.S. Army South taking the lead in maintaining the long-lasting partnership; culminating with the first time a COLAR unit conducting bilateral training at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La.; followed by bilateral staff talks between the two armies at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Having arrived to Louisiana in early May, a platoon element of the COLAR’s elite Counternarcotics Brigade integrated with the 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment, South Carolina Army National Guard, as part of rotation 21-08 to conduct tactical infantry operations, exercise interoperability, and strengthen their ability to plan and execute complex maneuver operations.
“JRTC is a crucible environment and is the culmination of a brigade’s training – it requires units who are qualified and capable to go into combat after training at one of the Army’s premier combat training centers,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel R. Walrath, Army South commanding general, during a visit June 8-10 to JRTC with senior Colombian Army leaders. “Army South has many partners in the region, and the Colombian Army is one of the best. We’re very proud and happy for their participation, and we hope to continue to have these types of training events as a continued effort in strengthening our relationship with Colombia.”
Highlighting the professionalism of the Colombians during their first 48 hours in the training area known as “the box,” Sgt. 1st Class Edwin Perez, JRTC observer-controller-trainer, praised the soldiers for their high level of discipline and initiative.
“They start moving, get in position, and are engaged and attuned to what they have to do – when it’s go time, it’s go time for them,” Perez said. “This platoon is very aggressive and gets after the enemy in the attack. Our [U.S. Army] soldiers are observing how disciplined they are and tapping into their tactical knowledge.”
Training with the Colombian Army is nothing new for the 1-118th Infantry Regiment, as the unit went to Tolemaida, Colombia, in 2019 as part of Exercise Together Forward. The exercise allowed the two armies to exchange infantry doctrine while performing squad and platoon situational training scenarios. The South Carolina National Guard and The Republic of Colombia have participated in the State Partnership Program together since 2012, which supports U.S. military security cooperation activities with Colombia.
“My guys have looked forward to training with the Colombians again. It’s been an enjoyable experience for both of us,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Greg Billings. “We paired them with our Alpha Company, and they loved working together. They have performed exceptionally well, and we’re glad to have them in our formations.”
The unit was able to bridge the language barrier by having Spanish-speaking soldiers in its ranks, which also allowed the two armies to integrate seamlessly.
“The Colombians bring a different perspective on varying operations and a fresh look on how to conduct different tactics,” Billings said. “They’ve spent a lot more time in the jungle than we have, and they’ve been a valuable asset to helping us in that regard.”
The trip to JRTC was the first for Maj. Gen. German Lopez, Colombian Army chief of staff for Force Generation, and he viewed his troops’ training with American soldiers as a reflection of their capability and commitment to the partnership with the U.S. Army.
“This is very important for our army to observe, train and learn a lot in order to improve the quality of our units,” Lopez said. “Additionally, with us being here, we want to show the world whose side we’re on. This is the path we want to be on globally and put our army on another level with other armies around the world as one of the best.”
As part of improving interoperability and identifying future training opportunities with their Colombian counterparts, Army South staff held staff talks aimed at providing the COLAR insights concerning specific U.S. Army programs, areas of mutual interest and areas of modernization or reform.
Held in a hybrid manner, the staff talks featured a COLAR delegation led by Lopez at Fort Sam Houston, and the U.S. Army represented by a delegation led by Col. Jeffrey Lopez, Army South Security Cooperation Directorate chief, in Bogota, Colombia. Prior to the executive meeting from June 8-10, the COLAR and ARSOUTH staffs conducted virtual and in-person working groups to develop a five-year bilateral plan for calendar year, 2021-2025.
The five-year plan highlights major objectives of the U.S. and Colombian armies, with Lopez agreeing for COLAR to participate in a JRTC rotation in 2023, as well as hosting or participating in future Southern Vanguard Exercises throughout the region. U.S. Army South and the Colombian Army remained poised to confront the threats of today and continue to develop capabilities and interoperability to address future challenges.
“Our staffs, as part of the staff talks, are working on a long-term plan, and we are proposing that a larger force, a company-size formation, comes back to JRTC in 2023,” Walrath said, addressing Lopez. “We believe that participation in these types of training exercises is the next step in strengthening our partnership with your army. Your soldiers and leaders make us stronger, and we learn from you as well.”
For Perez, learning from the Colombians provides U.S. Army soldiers a chance to up the ante on being the best army in the world.
“One of the takeaways is that if we, the United States Army, are going to call ourselves the best, we have to train hard because other countries are training hard too,” Perez said. “If we’re going to partner with them (Colombians), we want to make sure we bring our best each time we train together.”