South Is Forward

By Rear Admiral Sinclair M. Harris, U.S. Navy

Chile and Colombia work increasingly and effectively with Central American navies in developing their maritime capabilities. This past year bore witness to significant maritime leadership roles among our key partners: Colombia commanded the Combined Maritime Force Component Command (CFMCC) for the 2014 PANAMAX exercise, Peru hosted the 2014 UNITAS exercise, and Chile was Deputy CFMCC Commander for the 2014 Rim of the Pacific Exercise. The first-ever hemispheric CFMCC course was hosted by the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet and was attended by senior officers from every major nation in the region, and has been codified as a biannual venue for key leadership engagement. In 2015, both Brazil and Chile will host phases of an expanded blue-water UNITAS–Atlantic and Pacific. These international training opportunities provide both senior and junior personnel of all participating nations invaluable maritime experience in blue water naval operations.

Peru and Chile have made great progress in developing their humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief capabilities; the result was evident in their effective response to a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Both Colombia and Peru have added brown-water assets produced in Latin America to their fleets in order to extend “whole-of-government” services and access to remote areas only covered by rivers. This demonstrates that both partner navies are involved in extending good governance and focuses on their increased shipbuilding capacity. Brazil has taken delivery of a new ship produced in Colombia, a great example of south-to-south cooperation and increased internal shipbuilding capacity. Most recently, Peru and Chile have been frequent supporters of our Diesel Electric Submarine Initiative program with recurring, significantly long deployments to U.S. training events and a willingness to conduct training events of opportunity during the extended transits in each direction. Brazil and Colombia have participated previously in this and similar programs with further events on the near horizon. This continuing, expanding commitment to a series of bilateral training events has greatly enhanced our training and undersea warfare capability, a Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) priority.

Although some nations in South and Central America disagree over maritime claims (such as the recent International Court of Justice decisions regarding geographic maritime jurisdiction that impacted competing interests of Chile–Peru and Colombia–Nicaragua), they are working out the details in a mature and peaceful manner—an example for the Americas and the rest of the world. From Canada to Chile, we have far more in common than ever before, especially in the maritime domain. Partnering with the navies in this hemisphere will continue to have a positive impact on the economic, social, and financial prosperity of the citizens of the United States and all the Americas.

But the United States is not the only nation that sees the potential of the Americas. There are a growing number of suitors for our hemispheric partners’ attention, cooperation, access, and trade. We can surmise that not all of them have the best interests of the United States or our hemispheric partners in mind; rather they aim to gain a foothold, acquire access, exploit resources, and exert influence by extending transient promises—fiscal, infrastructure, and military. Hence, we must not take our partners for granted. Our most effective counter to Chinese, Russian, and Iranian entreaties remains our level of commitment as a respectful, engaged hemispheric partner helping other nations to develop self-sufficiency.

Bringing Strategy to Life

Few regions of the world better align higher-level strategic guidance with operational design and real-world success than the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility. The Department of Defense guidance, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense of January 2012,” states that we shall:

. . . Seek to be the security partner of choice, pursuing new partnerships with a growing number of nations—including those in Africa and Latin America—whose interests and viewpoints are merging into a common vision of freedom, stability, and prosperity. Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities. 2

This guidance was followed by the DOD Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement of October 2012, which also reiterates and focuses military forces even more in the region by saying, “DOD seeks to be the partner of choice and a key enabler of strong regional defense cooperation in the Western Hemisphere.” 3

Both highlight the importance of small, non-intrusive (e.g., invited) footprint, greater partnership capacity building, and more innovative thinking in all we do. These are natural qualities of the Navy–Marine Corps team and the Coast Guard. The DOD strategy perfectly aligns with the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century and the Maritime Security Cooperation Policy: An Integrated Navy–Marine Corps–Coast Guard Approach released in January 2013. These documents, signed by the service chiefs of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, call for greater emphasis on developing partners and increasing our focus on innovation. Relationships between the majority of nations in the Americas make it the perfect venue to bring these documents to life. And these relationships are strongest between the navies of the Western Hemisphere.

A Theater in the Seam

The growing interest from extra-regional powers such as China, Russia, and Iran have made the SOUTHCOM area of focus a “seam” between the Atlantic and Pacific. This is most evident in the maritime theater: In the last 12 months, both China and Russia have sent surface action groups to “show the flag” in the Western Hemisphere. Russia has proposed stronger cooperation with several nations in Central America. China has proposed a second canal between the seas. Non-state entities also have sought greater influence in the hemisphere mostly to support their nefarious desires by exploiting less-governed areas where illicit traffickers can flourish. The desire to increase ties with Latin America and the Caribbean are largely driven by the same desires that brought seafaring nations here centuries ago: the abundance of natural resources that could sustain the growing demand in the global economy, such as the mining of precious metals, rich fishing grounds, and a seabed with untapped energy resources.

However, the opportunities present in the Western Hemisphere are far more than purely economic. No part of the world has a better demographic trend than the Americas. Latin America and the Caribbean are in a very good place, with the median age in Central America and the Caribbean at 30 and even younger at 27.8 in South America, compared to 35 in the United States and approaching 40 in Europe. The importance of the economic linkages between the United States and Latin America are significant and growing. There are 11 free-trade agreements (not counting Canada) with our partners in the hemisphere. As President Barack Obama said on 14 January 2014, “Latin America represents an incredible opportunity for the United States, especially when it comes to my top priority as President: creating good, middle-class jobs. Right now, over 40 percent of our exports go to the Americas.” 4

Progress in education and literacy, the influential and accepted role of women in governance, dedicated efforts in almost all nations to representative elections and democracy, and a growing middle class are all positive trends in much of the Americas, and there is good reason to believe it will continue. Our national leadership remains committed: As Vice President Joe Biden said, “. . . For the first time . . . it’s possible . . . to envision an Americas that is middle class, secure, and democratic from northern Canada to the tip of Chile and everything in between. There’s much work to be done, but that is within reach.” 5

Challenges Along the Way

While a slew of positive trends exist in Latin America, the region continues to have significant challenges with crime and corruption. Central America is in a fight for its sovereignty and existence, enduring per capita homicide and violent crime rates that are among the globe’s highest. Fueled by funds from illicit trafficking in drugs, guns, and people, corruption and weak government institutions are common problems in many parts of the Americas.

While it seems that this is all about drugs, it is not. The real issue is instability and lack of governance. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, provided a clear and concise synopsis of the situation with his analysis of the “Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas.” He indicated that the report notes that countries with a higher consumption of drugs in the hemisphere are not suffering the highest levels of violence and homicides. Instead, the preponderance of violence occurs in drug-transit countries, especially in parts of Central America and the Caribbean, where the consumption of illegal substances such as cocaine is relatively low compared to other countries in the region. 6

Drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) outgun, outmaneuver, and co-opt military and police forces—especially in the less-governed regions where a central government has little presence—and flourish in the border zones. Too often untold are the examples of incredible bravery by the local populace, especially the police and the military, that support their governments’ efforts to bring stability and safety. Progress has been elusive and easily reversed, but history is being rewritten as governments and their people fight to address these challenges.

For example, the international interagency counter-illicit-trafficking mission, Operation Martillo, is a hemispheric commitment made by 14 nations to fight transnational criminal organizations. Entering its fourth year, Martillo (“hammer” in Spanish) has denied drug traffickers $8 billion in potential revenue. As this success squeezes DTOs, their efforts to react induce new vulnerabilities that can be anticipated and intercepted by Martillo forces. More important, success invites renewed effort and participation by the area nations already committed to this fight, by other hemispheric partners that recognize that good governance everywhere is susceptible to DTOs that seek growth, and by allies in Europe that aim to address a drug problem at the source of trafficking. These new efforts, backed by U.S. expertise and presence, can make a difference.

Disease and other health issues are also significant concerns in the region. Dengue, malaria, and other maladies have been successfully combatted in major cities but remain a threat in too many rural and impoverished areas. The nexus of hemispheric efforts to address public-health issues has been the multinational work at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU-6), headquartered in Peru. This facility, staffed by many nations in the region and leveraging U.S. advances, serves a research and education purpose akin to the Atlanta-based U.S. Center for Disease Control and has been significant in building the inherent capacity of our partners across Latin America and the Caribbean to address the most serious medical challenges.

Tenets of the Navy

When most consider the CNO’s tenets (Warfighting First, Operate Forward, Be Ready), it may be in the context of our operations in the Western Pacific or the Middle East. And for good reason: These are the foci of our national and military strategy. Inherently, though, our Navy’s tenets fully apply to the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility and the 4th Fleet.

As with other combatant commands, there is a demand for naval presence in the air and seas of SOUTHCOM. General John Kelly, the commander of SOUTHCOM, clearly articulated this in his recent testimony before Congress and in a press briefing at the Pentagon: “I don’t [always] need a warship. I need a ship, something that floats, with a helicopter,” he said. “We think it takes 16 . . . to accomplish the mission.” 7 The platforms required in 4th Fleet and SOUTHCOM are not the same as those required in other regions. High-end warfighting platforms such as submarines, carriers, and big-deck amphibious ships are needed in the episodic transits coordinated with the Pacific Fleet and Fleet Forces Command to meet our security-cooperation activities and train with partner-nation naval units. The recent transit of the USS America (LHA-6), with MV-22 Ospreys embarked and operating between land and sea, will be one of a continuing series of using vessels of opportunity (transits and homeport rotation) to circumnavigate the region and enhance our interoperability, mutual skills, and commitment.

Warships ( Ticonderoga -class guided-missile cruisers and guided-missile destroyers) deploying to the region when available bring the traditional advantages of the retiring guided-missile frigates (helos, unmanned aerial vehicles, fuel capacity to allow long legs, multi-mission sensors, and boats that can extend beyond the horizon for tasking). Much of the daily requirement to support 4th Fleet lines of operation (maritime security, security cooperation, and contingency operations), though, can be handled with smaller combatants such as the littoral combat ship, joint high speed vessels (JHSVs), patrol craft, riverine/coastal patrol boats, hospital ships, and even black hulls that serve as afloat forward-staging bases. Maritime-patrol aircraft play a key role as well. These ships and aircraft already ply their trade in supporting Operation Martillo training with partner navies and nations to build capacity, and supporting U.S. diplomatic efforts.

People matter as much as platforms to accomplish our mission. Construction battalions, medical engagements, fleet survey teams, and other oceanographic, hydrographic, and bathymetric assets also play an integral role in conveying our desire to be the “partner of choice” in the Americas. JHSVs, Military Sealift Command vessels, and the recurring deployments of the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) afford an opportunity to bring these people and their skills to the region in cost-effective, high-profile missions. In 2015 alone, JHSVs and the Comfort will bring hundreds of military and civilian experts in preventive medicine, dentistry, veterinary services, force-protection training, agriculture, and construction to almost 20 partner nations in just one deployment for each.

Innovation remains our national and naval culture, and 4th Fleet is the ideal venue to test and operate new concepts and technology. SOUTHCOM waters are conducive to testing in an operational environment for eventual use elsewhere. Go-fast boats and pangas have profiles as challenging as fast-inshore-attack craft/fast-attack craft. Fully submersible vessels, semi-submersible self-propelled vessels, and diesel submarines operate in this area of responsibility and are just as difficult to target here as they are in other parts of the world. There is much to learn about littoral and riverine operations, as our partners in this region have been fighting in these environments for some time.

In 4th Fleet, we too consider “Warfighting First,” but ours is an irregular and asymmetric war against the corruption fed by illicit trafficking organizations. It is a kinetic fight against the instability and insecurity that comes from the illicit transport of narcotics, guns, money, and people. The fight in SOUTHCOM is at the lower end of military operations, but it is as complex as in any other part of the world. Our fight is one that is joint-, interagency-, and coalition-centric, just as is true in other regions, and requires our units to “Operate Forward.” We are also called on to “Be Ready” in the waters of SOUTHCOM for natural disasters and to enforce U.S. policy in the event of mass migration.

Also, as in other regions, each nation in our hemisphere must cope with a fiscal environment that limits resources. The need to combine maritime forces to preserve these resources and guarantee a continuous presence has never been greater. The future of the SOUTHCOM AOR is a combined maritime force (CMF), the standard from which missions, operations, and exercises are executed, and will be coalition-led and manned. This has been done before, is happening now, and will continue in the future—just not yet codified as a CMF concept of operations. The baseline is five decades of cooperation through the annual UNITAS exercise and the Inter-American Naval Telecommunications Network, a communication infrastructure that spans from Canada to the southern tip of South America. It continues with multilateral work in PANAMAX at sea and ashore, in multiple and growing leadership venues, in bilateral and multilateral training, and through the dozens of real-world, exercise, and training events cited previously. Our goal as partners is to minimize common threats, both natural and man-made, through shared efforts; and most important through shared values and a deep-seeded desire for greater relationships and naval capabilities.

The Chief of Naval Operations often displays a map of the world with bow ties or gate valves marking the main chokepoints and trade routes we protect. He titles this slide “Operate Forward.” Given the ever-increasing capability, capacity, and willingness of our partners in Latin America to do more in the maritime domain here and around the world, and given the increasing importance of a Panama Canal expanding in global capacity, we must understand that South is Forward, too.

1. José Higuera, “Fleet Modernization Drives Requirements Across South America,” Defense News , 25 March 2014, .

2. Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense,” 3 January 2012, .

3. Department of Defense, “Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement,” October 2012, .

4. Remarks of President Barack Obama, Weekly Address, Mexico City, Mexico, 4 May 2013, .

5. “Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden on Asia-Pacific Policy,” George Washington University, Washington, D.C., 19 July 2013, .

6. Organization of American States, “Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas,” May 2013, .

7. Claudette Roulo, “More Ships Equal More Drugs Seized, SOUTHCOM Commander Says,” American Forces Press Service , 14 March 2014,,-SOUT... .

Rear Admiral Harris served as Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet from June 2012 to April 2014. He currently serves as the Vice Director for Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff.


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