From space to Chile and back


From left, Col James Quinn, Chief, Air Force Space Command Special Program Division, talks with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Simeon Trombitas, U.S. Army South commander at the time, as they exit the Chilean Ministry of Defense building in Santiago, Chile, June 8, 2012. They attended a senior leader engagement with U.S. and key Chilean military leaders. (Courtesy photo)


U.S. Air Force space operators do incredibly important work that provides warfighting capabilities not only for the defense of our nation, but also for our Allies and partners.


While I have been a space operator for most of my career, little did I know a language proficiency test I took more than two decades ago would impact my career as much as it did … as well as assisting the development of the Chilean Air Force’s space element, the first Chilean deployment of F-16s and navy submarines to the U.S., and the procurement and delivery of Mobile Emergency Operations Centers to the Chilean “FEMA” equivalents to help with natural disaster response efforts.


In 2012, I was given the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone as a space operator and serve as Chief of the Security Cooperation Office (SCO) at the U.S. Embassy in Chile. It was an incredibly interesting and eye-opening assignment where I learned how we operate as a “whole of government” from an U.S. Embassy perspective. It was also rewarding because it gave me the ability to have an impact on our bi-lateral relationship with Chile on behalf of the U.S. ambassador and U.S. Southern Command combatant commander. The Chilean armed forces are extremely professional and capable; and brought a lot of capability to the U.S. – Chilean partnership.


One significant difference between space ops and my SCO assignment was transitioning from having defined procedures detailing prescribed processes to learning how to lead an office of 17 U.S. and partner-nation members in a dynamic and often undefined environment while operating almost solely on commander’s intent (versus specific direction). It was challenging, but exciting. Having the ability to establish and shape bi-lateral relationships is a weighty responsibility.


As the SCO chief, I had to represent all U.S. military services, regardless of their parent service affiliation. For example, I quickly found myself advocating for joint U.S. and Chilean Marine training events and had to appropriately understand U.S. Marine mission sets, organizations and capabilities to ensure events and expectations were established correctly.  I had a team of U.S. Army, Navy and Marine service members working for me to assist with building partnership opportunities; but we needed to integrate the priorities and engagement plan of the Combatant Commander with those of the U.S. Ambassador and other international and political considerations from the region.  The position also involved a lot of senior leader engagement, to include hosting the USSOUTHCOM Commander, USSOCOM Commander and senior leadership from across the Departments of Defense and State.


However, not everything I did was completely foreign to me.


Because of my background, I was able to directly engage and establish a very strong relationship with the Chilean Air Force Space element as we developed, planned and executed a U.S.-Chilean Air Force space exchange where senior Chilean space operators and engineers visited the U.S. to see various parts of the Air Force space program. We traveled to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to see launch operations and the space school house where initial training takes place for space operators. We also had an opportunity to go to the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB to familiarize our Chilean partners with space requirements and acquisitions and then concluded with a visit to AFSPC headquarters. One lasting outcome of this exchange is that USSOUTHCOM sponsors the Chilean Air Force space team to attend the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.


While not all career broadening experiences will involve working with partner nations and U.S. ambassadors, these opportunities grow you as an Airman and leader, and, hopefully, allow you to leverage your knowledge and experiences in ways you never imagined. By being willing to look beyond a space operations console, I was able to seize an opportunity to not only see great parts of the world, but to help shape the future of other militaries and strengthen the partnership we have with Chile. My unique position working with space allowed me to also focus on building a partnership with the space component in Chile and establish a close relationship between them and our Air Force. And now that I am back in AFSPC, I bring what I learned in Chile into my every day job here.


Anyone given an opportunity to work within an embassy should quickly grab it up and hold on. It will be an experience of a lifetime. For more information about Regional Affairs Specialists or Political Affairs Specialists (RAS/PAS) opportunities, visit the SAF/IA website through the AF Portal.