At the second North American Defense Ministerial, with his counterparts from Canada and Mexico, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged a quick start to trilateral work on continental threat assessment and cybersecurity, and closer work among the three nations on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The secretary also offered to host the next defense ministerial in Washington in 2016 to continue the important trilateral dialogue.
Meeting in Mexico City April 24 during his first forum with Canadian Defense Minister Rob Nicholson and Mexico’Secretary of National Defense General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda and Naval Secretary Admiral Vidal Francisco Soberón Sanz, Hagel observed in prepared remarks that a dynamic defense partnership that builds on successes and shared interests, and respects sovereignty concerns, will create a more resilient North America.
“Our presence here today and our commitment to advancing our defense partnership is a recognition that together we can more effectively address the complex security threats facing our countries,” the secretary said during the ministerial plenary session.
Beginning with common challenges, Hagel said the ministers should support a Canadian proposal to produce a digest of collective defense activities and policies.
Similar to an effort begun after the inaugural 2012 North American Defense Ministerial to develop an updated continental threat assessment, he added, such a digest could provide a starting point to coordinate efforts to avoid duplication and maximize scarce resources.
The initial effort to develop a continental threat assessment was a good start to identifying common threats and interests, the secretary said.
“There is merit to updating that assessment to reflect current and future threats and deepen our understanding of our security challenges. I propose that we establish a working group to provide principals an updated, nonbinding, continental threat assessment within a year after this ministerial,” Hagel said. “It’s something we can assess when we next meet at the ministerial level.”
Cybersecurity is another common challenge that knows no borders, the secretary said.
Each U.S. defense institution works individually to address potential cyber threats, he said, adding that the Defense Department has worked to elevate the importance of cybersecurity in the National Security Strategy.
In its recently released Quadrennial Defense Review, the department said it would dedicate more resources to cybersecurity, Hagel noted.
“While our defense institutions do not have the lead in our respective countries for cybersecurity, we all share a common interest in [protecting] military communications,” the secretary said. “I propose that we establish a cyber working group to identify potential opportunities to work together to share best practices and lessons learned.”
On humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, Hagel said natural disasters also recognize no national borders and defense institutions provide critical support to lead civilian agencies under such circumstances.
“Each of our nations faces constrained defense budgets [but] the demand for military support to civilian agencies continues to increase as we experience more frequent and larger-scale natural disasters,” the secretary said.
“This was a key … subject of discussion at the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or] ASEAN Defense Ministers meeting I attended earlier this month in Hawaii. We are making important progress with our Southeast Asian partners in coordinating military responses to disasters,” Hagel told the ministers, “and I am pleased that we are beginning to do the same in our hemisphere.”
Recalling relief efforts after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2004 Indonesian 9.1-magnitude earthquake whose Indian Ocean tsunami killed as many as 230,000 people, the secretary said these natural disasters demonstrate the challenges any one country faces in trying to meet enormous demands for humanitarian assistance in the wake of such events.
The capabilities and experience militaries collectively bring in response to natural disasters can’t be overstated, he added.
“I would like to see our three countries work more closely together in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Hagel said.
“We should commit to focusing attention on developing our capacity to coordinate, with a goal of maximizing our resources,” the secretary added. “This is an area that would benefit from establishment of a permanent working group tasked with identifying areas of cooperation and implementing coordination protocols as we move forward.”
During their meetings, the ministers agreed with a working group determination that combating transnational crime at the strategic level is best addressed by the security group under the North American Leaders Summit process.
But, Hagel said, “We need to ensure that coordination at the tactical and operational levels continues.”
A Canadian proposal to establish and serve as the initial chair of a permanent secretariat was an important step toward institutionalizing the North American Defense Ministerial, Hagel said.
As members of a regional organization, the secretary said, the ministers should work individually to strengthen hemispheric forums such as the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Defense Board, an international committee of defense officials who develop collaborative approaches on defense and security issues facing North, Central and South American countries, and the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas, created in 1995 to provide a forum of debate for Northern Hemisphere countries.
“The upcoming October conference of defense ministers in Peru will address hemispheric defense cooperation in key areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, and military health,” Hagel added.
After the meeting, in comments to the press, Hagel said, “These kinds of dialogues and conferences are important for many reasons but especially important it gives the ministers themselves an opportunity to personally exchange ideas and thoughts about our world, about our common interests and about our common challenges.”
The secretary said he and the other ministers have tasked their defense agencies to go forward and put together plans and programs based on initiatives agreed to during the meeting.
After the ministerial, Hagel joined Zepeda and Sanz at a somber wreath-laying ceremony for some of the 250,000 Mexican citizens who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II.
The memorial to El Escuadron 201 in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park celebrates the 36 experienced combat pilots and the 250 or so electricians, mechanics, radiomen and armament specialists who made up the ground crew of Mexican Fighter Squadron 201, called the Aztec Eagles, who fought alongside U.S. troops in the last months of World War II in Europe.
The squadron left Mexico for the United States in July 1944 and received five months or more of training at facilities around the country. It was the first time Mexican troops had been trained for overseas combat.
The 300 volunteers of the Aztec Eagles were attached to the U.S. Army Air Forces 5th Air Force's 58th Fighter Group during the liberation of the main Philippine island of Luzon in the summer of 1945.
The pilots flew P-47D “Thunderbolt” single-seat fighter aircraft, carrying out tactical air-support missions, according to a 2003 American Forces Press Service article and interview with former Aztec Eagles pilot, retired Mexican air force Colonel Carlos Garduno, who said the pilots flew close-air support missions for American and Filipino infantry troops on the ground.
The Aztec Eagles flew 59 combat missions, totaling more than 1,290 hours of flight time, participating in the allied effort to bomb Luzon and Formosa, now Taiwan, to push the Japanese out of those islands.
Immediately after the wreath-laying ceremony, Hagel told a press gathering that the memorial is “a pretty special monument to a country that participated with the allies, with the United States, in World War II.”
He added, “[It was] a brave thing that Mexico did. The service rendered, represented by this memorial, should be remembered.”
The secretary said he was honored to be part of the ceremony and shared a personal connection to the Aztec Eagles and their service to the nation.
“I know what memorials mean to countries and how they reflect their history and their sacrifices, Hagel said. “In fact, the 201st … that represented the expeditionary force of Mexico was attached to an Army Air Corps unit in the Pacific that my father served in, in World War II, with the 13th Army Air Corps.
“So I have some family and special recognition as to what this unit meant and also a personal appreciation,” he continued. “And on behalf of the United States I want to thank the country of Mexico for their contributions to all of our efforts in World War II.”