4th Fleet’s Bleak 5th Anniversary

by admin on August 1, 2013

Chile AORFourth Fleet, the Fleet responsible for operations in South America, celebrated its fifth anniversary this month.  The party must have been bleak:

Budget cuts hit SOUTHCOM and 4th Fleet hard — initially, all surface-ship deployments to Central and South America, both for Operation Martillo and the Southern Partnership Station, were canceled or cut short for the remainder of fiscal 2013.

There have been no Navy surface assets in SOUTHCOM since May 23, when the high-speed vessel Swift completed a four-month Southern Partnership Station deployment. It’s the first time in decades, officials said, that no Navy surface ships were actively involved in anti-drug patrols under SOUTHCOM.

There are few places where the gulf between American rhetoric and reality have been so obvious than 4th Fleet. Remember those heady days in 2008? When everything seemed possible?

“The Navy, by re-establishing the 4th Fleet, is serious about the countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America, and … we’re very mindful of the 40 percent of U.S. trade that goes on with those countries and the 50 percent of the oil imports from that region,” Stevenson said. “I think that the other navies and coast guards recognize that, and they would view that as a positive step.”

This was a sign to the region that America thought it was important.  South America mattered.

As a government, we initially did a good job of matching rhetoric with resources.  For example, in 2009, we reached into our nearly-depleted store of strategically-critical tankers and handed Chile a spare oiler, which entered the Chilean Armada in 2010.  The intent–at least for the United States–was that the new Chilean oiler would better support increased US naval operations in the Chilean AOR.

But the ships everybody expected aren’t coming.

South America, after a brief renaissance, has been firmly placed on the strategic back-burner. Of late, the US has done nothing but discourage a persistent naval presence in the 4th Fleet AOR.  (Yes, the upcoming 7-month stint by the USS Rentz is good, but when we say that some last-second rejiggering of the budget made the patrol possible, what everyone from drug smugglers to local Navies hear is “wow, so this is where UNITAS sits in terms of US priorities…”)

The subsequent lack of attention can only make the locals feel snubbed, less likely to trust America’s ability to follow-through over the long-term, and more open to influence by other navies who may not have our best interests at heart (Why did Chile, in 2011, choose to buy surplus French amphibious ships rather than America’s surplus LPDs, anyway?).

By failing to fully-engage South America and tend that strategic area where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic, America puts the entire Pacific Pivot strategy at risk.  The 4th Fleet needs ships (They do a good job with what they get–look at how much innovative work they did with the old HSV Swift!), an operational budget to provide persistent presence of USS/USNS hulls, and a mandate to engage the State Department in support of a regional strategy that focuses on supporting emergent national security challenges in the Pacific.

Fourth Fleet is a cost-effective investment in the future security of this Nation.  And it is inexplicable to me that our policymakers seem to have decided–to our detriment–not to invest in it.  I can only hope things will change…So, here’s to the poor under-funded and ship-less Fourth Fleet, and may your sixth anniversary be a better, more high-profile one!

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