|Photo: U.S.-Mexico Border. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.|
Northcom Pursues Closer Engagement With Mexico
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Jan. 22, 2013 - With a U.S. defense strategy focused heavily on the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, officials at U.S. Northern Command here are enthusiastically advancing engagement to the United States' immediate southern border.
Mexico, which has long focused its military internally, is increasingly receptive to building a closer bilateral relationship with the U.S. military, Army Maj. Gen. Francis G. Mahon, Northcom's director for strategy, plans and policy, told American Forces Press Service.
"During the past two to three years, as the Mexican army and Mexican navy have taken on a larger role beyond internal security issues, our relationship with them has really grown and expanded through security cooperation," Mahon said. "They have opened up to us and said, 'Let's start working closer and closer together.'"
That's good news for the United States, he said, because the United States and Mexico share a 2,000-mile border and are intertwined culturally as well as economically. What happens in Mexico matters to the United States -- in terms of trade, immigration and, of particular concern here at Northcom, U.S. national security, he said.
Closer military-to-military cooperation will enable the U.S. and Mexican militaries to share best practices as they collaborate in tackling common challenges, Mahon said. They will be able to deal more effectively with threats such as transnational organized crime, while increasing their ability to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response throughout the region.
Mexico's constitution explicitly prohibits foreign forces from operating on Mexican soil. But as SEDENA and SEMAR, Mexico's army and navy, respectively, shed their internal focus, they are becoming increasingly open to combined training and subject matter expert exchanges, Mahon said.
The Merida Initiative opened the door to increased engagement in 2007, with the United States providing funding and equipment to help Mexican law enforcement fight drug cartels and related criminal elements.
Five years later, the United States expanded the mission to include other efforts that contribute to security. Today, the Merida framework includes disrupting organized crime, training state and local police, supporting judicial reforms, promoting legal cross-border commerce while stopping illicit shipments and building strong communities that discourage criminal activity.
The bottom line -- for the Merida Initiative and for all other theater security cooperation -- is about building partnership capacity, Mahon said.
"The end state for Mexico, from our perspective, is that we are their strategic partner of choice in the region, and they are a regional partner who can then assist other nations in the region or respond to other crises in the region, for example through humanitarian assistance or disaster relief," he said.
The Mexicans, for example, are modernizing their aviation platforms. Northcom worked with them, through the State Department, to help upgrade their RC-26 aircraft and acquire UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for SEMAR, he said. The United States also is helping Mexico buy C-130J Hercules aircraft through the foreign military sales program, along with the logistics capabilities required to maintain these latest-generation cargo aircraft, Mahon said.
But Mexico's interest in bilateral cooperation extends beyond equipment.
As Mexican military leaders evaluate their current missions and plan for the future, they are looking to the U.S. military for ideas and techniques that would be useful to them. Members of Marine Forces North, Northcom's Marine Corps component, are conducting junior noncommissioned officer training for SEMAR at Camp Pendleton, Calif., a step toward helping Mexico to establish its own NCO academy, Mahon said.
Mahon hopes to establish a similar relationship between the U.S. and Mexican armies. To promote that effort, members of the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colo., demonstrated various military techniques while hosting senior SEDENA leaders last year.
Last spring, Northcom sponsored a group of Mexican military doctors to observe their American counterparts medically evacuating wounded warriors from Afghanistan. The Mexican group traveled from Afghanistan to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and ultimately, to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. From this experience, the Mexicans may draw ideas on how to improve their field medicine capacity, Mahon said.
"I believe their objective, in the long run, is to change their medical process," he said. "Their hope is to institutionalize something better than what they have now, which is basically soldier first aid, without the benefits of combat lifesavers or intermediate evacuation care capability."
Meanwhile, as the Mexican government transforms its judicial system into an adversarial framework like that used in the United States, U.S. judge advocate general staff are working with Mexican lawyers to integrate this new construct into the Mexican military legal system.
"The scope and breadth of things we are doing with our Mexican partners is very wide. It's everything from techniques to planning skills to support for disaster operations," Mahon said.
The next big step -- one that Mahon said he hopes Northcom will be able to take with Mexico in 2013 -- will be the start of bilateral exercises.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief has been a good starting place, Mahon said, noting that Mexico is earthquake-prone and also provided relief after Haiti's 2010 earthquake.
Mexican military leaders participated in several tabletop exercises last year through the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The scenarios, which centered on earthquakes and pandemic outbreaks, incorporated not only the U.S. and Mexican militaries, but also their interagency partners, Mahon said.
Mexico also sent observers last spring to Northcom's Ardent Sentry, a major exercise that tests the command's processes for supporting civil authorities in the event of a natural disaster or pandemic. "We hope to integrate that into future exercises that can benefit not only both countries, but also others in the region," Mahon said.
This month, U.S. and Mexican military officials will chart new ground as they begin planning their first bilateral air defense exercise, expected to take place later this year, he said. As envisioned, the exercise's scenario will involve a rogue aircraft that flies from the United States into Mexico. U.S. interceptor aircraft scrambled by North American Aerospace Defense Command will shadow the aircraft until it enters Mexican airspace, then will transfer the mission to the Mexican air force.
The scenario, similar to the Amalgam Eagle exercise conducted last year with Russia, will help both militaries exercise the procedures they would need to follow during a real-life situation, Mahon said.
"From a command and control aspect, it will address how we coordinate between the U.S. and Mexican air forces as an aircraft that we have concerns about crosses the border," he said. "It also will help address their ability to generate plans, find the aircraft and intercept."
With two Mexican officers assigned to the Northcom headquarters to help coordinate these initiatives and increasing receptiveness from Mexico, Mahon said, he sees plenty of opportunity for more exchanges and combined training.
"It's all about getting comfortable with each other and hopefully, advancing in the relationship," he said. "It would be wonderful, someday, to take a Mexican company to the National Training Center to train with an American battalion or brigade.
"That sounds visionary, but we regularly conduct combined training with other allies and partners. There is no reason we can't get it going with our Mexican partners," he said. "I think our vision, working with Mexico, is that they become more of a regional strategic partner and more of an outward-looking military. I think they're moving in that direction."