Over the past four decades a small outpost in Honduras has housed a mix of U.S. military forces, backed by aid organizations to do a Swiss Army-knife type mission of providing medical assistance, disaster response and military training for Latin American allies.
Joint Task Force Bravo contains between 500 and 1,500 U.S. troops at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, and hosts both permanent active-duty staff and rotating Guard and reserve troops for its regionally focused mission.
Army Col. Steven Barry recently spoke with Army Times about the task force mission and how it fits into the larger U.S. Southern Command focus on Central and South America.
Barry hails from Hamilton, New Jersey, and he is a 1996 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Most of his career has been spent in armor and cavalry units. He has had multiple deployments during his career, including Germany, Macedonia, Kosovo and Iraq.
His most recent operational command was with 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Stryker Squadron, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, at Fort Carson, Colorado, from 2014 to 2015. Between that command and his posting this summer with the task force, he worked as the strategic assessments branch chief and plans integration branch chief on the joint staff, J5 and then as an Army War College fellow at Georgetown University.
The following question-and-answer session was edited for clarity and content.
Q: Can you tell readers about the composition of the task force?
A: There are about 1,500 troops down here now. The task force can grow and shrink depending on what’s happening. Organically we have a staff of about 500 to 600. There is a medical component, aviation battalion and joint security force. Right now, we have three different Army National Guard battalions working throughout the region. We resource them. There are about 300 persons in the main task force corps here to work with partners and in place for disaster response. They’re assigned here all of the time. It’s mostly Army and Air Force and some Marines. Always at least two or three services represented.
Q: You just took over but what are you learning about the task force’s capabilities and mission?
A: We’re here to do multiple things, disaster relief, hurricane, earthquake, security. We use our helicopters to provide relief and mission coordination. A lot of partner nations like that assistance and don’t have those assets. We don’t have the authorities to do lethal or kinetic. We’re more left of that, helping with information sharing with our partners. We have information to help security inside the countries, if authorities are granted by Congress.
An example is last year Panama wanted help with problems with some of the narcotraffickers coming up from Colombia. The task force moved a couple million tons of supplies to establish a bunch of patrol bases, so their patrols could operate and stop narcotrafficking. We have to wait until they ask, hey can you help us do this? If authorities granted by Congress then able to do it. But we are not doing direct counter narcotic.
Q: How did a career armor, cavalry officer get this job?
A: A lot of the task force work is about building relationships, I did a lot of that working on the joint staff. The task force was one of my top choices during the past selection board because it is an operational command. When you look at the past commanders, they were picked for their leadership experience and ability to solve problems. And the Army picks combat arms officers who are used to leading soldiers in operational environments. I have experience on tanks, Bradleys, Strykers and working with helicopters and other aviation. As you sort of leave the tactical realm to the battalion and above level you are a strategic leader.
Q: How does the task force fit in the larger SOUTHCOM mission and responsibilities?
A: We’re the only assigned forces that SOUTHCOM has in the entire area of operations, except at Guantanamo Bay, which is obviously very static and mission based. Due to our location we do offer an ability to cooperate. We’re eyes on the scene for the combatant commander.
We also have relationships with Guatemala. Maintain those relationships. Also, embassies that are down here, how to assist the countries. We meet with those countries face to face and show them what we have to offer. It’s really about what stuff can we provide whether it’s medical or what we can offer in relationships to leverage what we can provide. If we weren’t here it’s hard to see how SOUTHCOM can have relations with partner nations outside of the embassies.
An example that just happened, the [USNS] Comfort had a 14-country engagement plan. Really [U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command] is running the show under the direction of SOUTHCOM. But we were asked to participate with helicopters, moving people and supplies on and off the ships.
Q: What are some of the other components specific to the task force?
A: The Situational Assessment Team is an eight-member crisis response team. They have the communications capabilities that allow the SOUTHCOM commander to put us anywhere from the southern tip of South America to Guatemala or Belize. Having this staff makes us able to go anywhere and gives the team the ability to plug assets in anywhere. They’re the SOUTHCOM commander’s eyes and ears.
Also, the task force includes the Air Force’s 612th Air Base Squadron Fire Department. Twice a year the team brings in partner firefighter teams from across Central America and trains them on our techniques. So, while those airmen are assigned here, they’re getting a chance to practice and train their craft.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.