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U.S. Air Force gunship trains in Chile alongside Bullfighter, Chilean, US JTACs

  • Published
  • 1st Special Operations Wing

In the mountains of Chile, amidst Exercise Southern Star 23, an unexpected reunion took place. A Spanish Joint Terminal Attack Controller, known as Bullfighter, came across familiar voices while touring a Ghostrider gunship near Antofagasta. As it turns out, Bullfighter had collaborated with the AC-130J crew from the 1st Special Operations Wing just a year ago in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

The serendipity of encountering former comrades in a different part of the world during a training exercise left Bullfighter astounded. Reflecting on their previous real-world operations, the meeting in Chile showcased the fruits of their past collaboration.

Throughout the week, Bullfighter joined other JTACs from the United States, Chile, and Spain in honing their tactics, techniques, and procedures, all while engaging in simulated calls for fire.

“It shows how important it is to make connections,” said Capt. Lauren Flores, the combat systems officer with the 73rd Special Operations Squadron and the unmistakable voice Bullfighter recognized. Despite being in two different locations across the globe, their shared experience from nearly a year ago remained vivid, allowing them to seamlessly continue their collaboration during Southern Star.

Exercise Southern Star 23 is an annual special operations forces exercise led by Chile and scheduled to take place from July 24 to Aug. 10, 2023. The training event, organized by Special Operations Command South, aims to strengthen relationships between partner forces, enhance integration, and enable asymmetric capabilities.

"It also demonstrates the significance of establishing relationships early and frequently," added Capt. Katherine Isaksson, 73rd SOS, AC-130J Ghostrider pilot. "Maintaining those partnerships is equally, if not more important, to our mission here."

Exercise Southern Star 23 offers participants the opportunity to engage in a challenging training exercise, fostering experience, cooperation, and teamwork while developing processes for a rapid response to regional crises.

According to Isaksson and Flores, the training experience in Chile has already proven beneficial, with valuable learning points and enthusiastic participation from all involved. They also noted that the training was particularly unique as the Chilean JTACs had never worked with a gunship.

"One of the team leads here received a model gunship from his grandfather a long time ago," Isaksson shared. "He had never seen one in person, and we had the chance to share that moment with him and our crew, which was fantastic."

Despite the language barrier between some Airmen and their Chilean counterparts, the training has been enjoyable and rewarding, according to Flores.

"Everyone has shown remarkable improvement," Flores said. "Both sides have been enthusiastic and eager to learn. The overall excitement is palpable."

Flores noted significant improvements even within the first few days of training alone.

"This training is valuable for us because we don't always operate with Americans or native English speakers; it helps train our ears," Flores added. "This is an essential part of Chilean JTACs receiving the necessary training. They have already shown considerable proficiency growth in this short amount of time."

Understanding the NATO standard is crucial for all Allies and partners to know, familiarize themselves with, and eventually become proficient enough to use in real-world situations.

"The Chilean JTACs have limited experience with calls for fire using this platform and within NATO standards," Isaksson explained. "At Cerro Moreno, they primarily work with F-16s. It's not the same as working and experiencing the extensive support we can provide."

"If we were to ever collaborate with Chile on a global scale, these training experiences would prove invaluable," Isaksson emphasized. "Each of us would have gained extensive experience and a deeper understanding of our collective capabilities. It has been a rewarding experience."

The gunship aircrew were not the only teams gaining hands-on experience with their Chilean partners. Maintenance, support, and explosive ordnance teams also had meaningful exchanges. U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command members were fully integrated, providing support throughout the exercise.

Staff Sgt. John Santiago Perez, an electrical environmental systems technician with the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Squadron, effectively utilized his native language, Spanish, to aid in accomplishing the mission during Southern Star.

"As one of the few Spanish speakers in my unit, I had numerous opportunities to communicate with the Chilean Armed Forces members to fulfill our mission and maintenance requirements," Santiago shared.

A simple example was coordinating a gunship refuel on the flightline, where Santiago's Spanish language proficiency allowed for efficient communication and timing.

"Much of our support came from the local Chilean Armed Forces, and some of them only spoke Spanish. I was grateful to be able to converse with them and contribute to the team," added Santiago, who is originally from Puerto Rico, noting that communication has been straightforward.

Santiago's language skills also extended beyond mission requirements as the team explored local restaurants and shops.

"The food in Chile is fantastic, so we tried everything when dining at nearby restaurants," Santiago mentioned. "We also enjoyed the food here on base; their empanadas, in particular, are amazing!"

Developing strong relationships with allies and partners is a crucial aspect of being a successful member of any multinational coalition. Southern Star has exemplified their ability to do so in an effective and meaningful manner.
These robust collaborations are fundamental to achieving success in global military operations. By drawing from the lessons learned during their experience in Chile, the U.S. and Chilean Armed Forces will enhance their future cooperation, accomplishing more with fewer resources and ensuring effective exchanges. The United States, Chile, and their numerous partners across Latin America and the Caribbean maintain excellent multilateral relations and are fully committed to security cooperation. This exercise serves as a testament to their unwavering dedication to collaborative efforts in this domain.