U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James A. Aiken Jr., commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. Fourth Fleet (USNAVSO/4THFLT) is committed to work with the maritime forces of Latin American and Caribbean partner nations to enhance the security and stability of the Western Hemisphere.
Rear Adm. Aiken spoke with Diálogo about his engagements with SOUTHCOM’s partner nations and the regional security challenges they all face.
Diálogo: What is your main focus as commander of USNAVSO/4THFLT?
U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James A. Aiken Jr., commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/ U.S. Fourth Fleet: The main focus of 4THFLT or NAVSO is to build partnerships. We realize the value of working together as a team with our partners and allies in Central and South America, so we want to dedicate our time, our energy, our resources to that end.
Diálogo: What kind of results are you aiming for this coming year, considering the COVID-19 environment?
Rear Adm. Aiken: We really want to try to operationalize our forces this year and operationalize our work with our partners. Right now, certainly COVID has been a challenge but one of the things we want to do is we want to still be able to do all the things that we’ve done in the past and not let COVID interfere with us. We’re going to be wise in the actions that we take. One of the things that I would highlight is the UNITAS [exercise] we did in 2021 with Peru; it was significant, nearly 20 countries participated, and we were just right in the throes of finishing or not finishing by the latter part of the pandemic and there were a lot of challenges. One of the things that we were able to do working with our partners and allies was just to still execute this mission, on land, in the air, and on the sea.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern with respect to regional maritime security?
Rear Adm. Aiken: We have some malign actors, some people who are not part of the neighborhood who want to try to influence in our neighborhood. I think when we work together, we can accomplish amazing things. I think that there are people who don’t want us to work together, and that’s probably one of my biggest frustrations.
Diálogo: How does USNAVSO/4THFLT cooperate with navies of the region to counter maritime security threats?
Rear Adm. Aiken: I think this is one of the things that I’m most proud of is the fact that we have built relationships; we’ve built skills; we’ve built partnerships on the seas. I heard a number of years ago from the head of the Ukrainian Navy that “the land divides us, but the sea unites us” and I think that really gets at your question — the fact that we can work together, we can share information and knowledge to get after some of the security threats that we all face.
Diálogo: What kind of exchanges does USNAVSO/4THFLT carry out with partner nations to build up sea control, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance capabilities of their naval forces?
Rear Adm. Aiken: We pursue a number of things here at USNAVSO combined with SOUTHCOM to build those things that we talked about. Specifically, we do exercises such as UNITAS, Brazil will host that in 2022, and right now Colombia is scheduled to host that in 2023. We also do Caraibes with a number of nations from both sides of the Atlantic, which is a humanitarian assistance disaster relief exercise. We do PANAMAX, which is an exercise for the defense of the Panama Canal, and we do Tradewinds as well. We also conduct maritime staff talks, which is an opportunity for us to talk navy to navy and get after the specific things and the challenges that we have to work on. We also do what are called “passing exercises,” which is an opportunity for us to build some sort of a skill bilaterally and multilaterally with different nations. We do some humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and maritime interdiction type exercises that give us the opportunity to practice, so that when something does happen, like it happened last year [2021 earthquake] in Haiti or with the hurricanes in previous years, we’ll have a team together that will be able to respond.
Diálogo: How can USNAVSO/4THFLT help regional naval forces to strengthen their ability to synchronize operations and intelligence in the maritime domain?
Rear Adm. Aiken: I think the most important thing that we can do is that we can build trust with our partners. We have to work together; we have to understand who our partners are, what’s important to them, what their priorities are, and then, I think that there’re some tools that we can use, tools like CENTRIXS and SeaVision. We also can go back to those exercises where we rebuild skillsets that allow us to grow together and to learn together at the same time.
Diálogo: Do you think that countries of the region should beef up naval capabilities to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing?
Rear Adm. Aiken: I think the most important thing in this situation is to address the illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. It’s not really my part to say specifically if a country should increase the amount of money that they spend on it. I think we just have to recognize that it’s a problem that affects our economy, it affects all of us long term because of the supply. I think we have to dedicate the right resources in order to get after that challenge.