This is the third in a three-part series on the U.S. Southern Command.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Tech. Sgt. Tony Graziani barely speaks any Spanish, but he didn’t see that as a problem while trying to refuel Chilean F-16s at 20,000 feet.

“I know up, down, left and right in Spanish, and that’s pretty much all I need,” the boom operator from Arizona’s 161st Air Refueling Wing said. “Other than that, it’s the same job we always do. It doesn’t matter who we’re refueling.”

But for the Chilean pilots, this month’s NEWEN exercise was a critical training opportunity. The country purchased more than 40 F-16s from the U.S. and the Netherlands over the last year, but is still looking to add air-to-air refueling capabilities to the force.

Gen. Jorge Rojas Avila, commander of the Chilean Air Force units involved in the NEWEN exercise, said the work with U.S. refuelers will not only keep his pilots up to date but also showed the strategic value of the tankers, aiding in Chilean military leaders’ push to further modernize their fleet.

SOUTHCOM Air Force officials said they have made working with regional aviation commanders on training their airmen and building up the countries’ fleets a priority this year.

While Chile boasts one of the most modern air forces in South America, many of the U.S. allies in the region bought their military aircraft in the 1970s, officials said.

In January, U.S. officials announced plans to work with El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala through the new Regional Aircraft Modernization Program. Col. Jim Russell, Air Forces Southern director of operations, said the goal is to get those countries’ fleets — and possible others in the future — up to par on basic transport and logistical needs.

The five-year RAMP plan will total about $300 million, but has courted controversy. While the first two phases focus on cargo planes and medium-utility lift helicopters, the third and final phase is the purchase of and training on “interceptor platforms,” language that has raised concerns among regional powers.

Russell said the goal there is for small, counternarcotics planes, not larger fighters like Chile’s F-16s.

But more significant, he said, is the effect a more stable, efficient joint air force could have in the region. Without one, humanitarian missions, basic military transport and international training exercises are all difficult if not impossible.

Meanwhile, Air Forces Southern has scheduled a number of exercises with more advanced militaries in the region — the goal of building relationships between U.S. airmen and their foreign counterparts.

U.S. crews spent three days alternating between hook-ups with Air Force fighters and Chilean jets as part of the NEWEN exercise. In another mission, Chilean pararescuemen took flight with U.S. jumpers, and U.S. medical personnel worked on the ground with Chilean medics on combat first aid and community outreach.

In addition, SOUTHCOM annually hosts a Panama Canal exercise dealing with regional response to possible terrorist attacks on the shipping route, with at least 15 nations taking part this year.

Avila said the joint missions are a good opportunity for the Chileans to compare themselves to the region’s top Air Force.

“But most important for us is trust,” he said. “Every relationship is built up from there. [Our airmen] meet the U.S. airmen, learn from them, and look forward to working with them in the future.”

Stripes’ Rick Vasquez contributed to this story.

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