U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South is the only one of U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) component commands to reside within the same headquarters building, allowing for closer interaction and collaboration among the members of both. Diálogo visited Brigadier General Kevin M. Iiams, commander of U.S. Marine Forces, South (MARFORSOUTH), to discuss his role, vision, and mission in the SOUTHCOM Area of Operations, particularly, since having been in the role for just over one year.
Diálogo: What is MARFORSOUTH’s main focus with regards to U.S. Southern Command’s Area of Operations?
Brigadier General Kevin M. Iiams, MARFORSOUTH commander: I look at our focus as establishing peer-level, trust-based relationships with our partners across the region, such that we can really start to broach into some new and diverse relationships with our partners and get after interoperability and teamwork; on what I see to be shared challenges and interests across the region.
Diálogo: What do you expect to achieve or come to fruition specifically during 2017?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: For 2017, I’m looking to improve those relationships, which means I need to do more travel so that I can be with our partner nations and my counterparts across the region and get a better understanding of how they see the region. With that, I think I become a better teammate. It will allow me to have a better operational picture of the region and understand the environment and ultimately how we will be able to better apply what Marine Corps forces we put into theater. Currently we put our Special Purpose MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] into theater on a semi-annual basis. These improving relationships give us an opportunity to put the marines in at the right time and the right place, with the right partners and after the right projects, so that, we’re helping in the theater to establish better rule of law, better governance, and better quality of life for all of our regional partners.
Diálogo: What is the Special Purpose MAGTF’s focus for 2017?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: Our Special Purpose MAGTF will locate in the four countries of northern Central America: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. We already have a small team of about five to seven marines who are in each of these countries year round – our Security Cooperation teams. For the second half of the year, overlaying the time that the hurricane season is most viable, we will put an entire Special Purpose MAGTF – about 294 marines – into Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, as that locale gives us the strategic flexibility to quickly go into the most probable hazard zones for a hurricane impact. With that force going into theater, we’re able to engage with and alongside our partners using our engineering assets and undertake projects throughout the region to help them with their militaries and with their own ability to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief events.
Diálogo: Having been in this role for a little over a year (January 2016), how has your perspective of the region changed from when you came onboard to now?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: I had very little prior experience in Central and South America coming into the position, and I was very excited about getting to learn a new language and meeting new partners. I truly enjoy meeting partners from across the region; the commandants of the partner nation marine corps, the commanders of the infanterías de marina, and our naval counterparts. That has probably been the best thing about this [role]. They have broadened my perspective on the opportunity that this is truly our shared home, and that it will be together, with our diverse perspectives and our common interests, that we can really look at the area and the region, and develop unique and dynamic solutions to get after the real challenges that we have ahead of us.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern or what do you consider the biggest issue facing regional security in the Caribbean, Central and South America?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: I would have to say all of the nefarious actors and groups that work their way through this region and, essentially, the illicit networks that they operate through. They move through, weave through, all of our partner nations affecting their governments. They reduce the ability of those governments to provide good governance for their people, they impact quality of life, and human rights – So what I see as probably our biggest challenge is countering those threat networks, and to do that we are going to have to come together as a region. This is our home and these networks affect all of us. I think that if we look at these challenges as a family, amongst all of our partner nations, and come to the understanding that this is a shared threat to all of us, then with all of our diverse capabilities from all of our partner nations I think we’ll be able to tackle and defeat them.
Diálogo: What is the importance of joint regional collaboration among partner nations and the United States in order to be able to achieve this united front?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: We all need to realize that no one of us is as good or as capable as all of us together. We all bring certain capabilities and qualities that add to the relationship and to the capabilities that we, as a whole, can bring to bear against these shared challenges. This region has some really complex terrain. We have diverse riverine systems, vast littoral areas that open to the ocean and to the Caribbean. We’ve got the Andes Mountains, we’ve got deep, dense jungle, and amongst all of that, we have forces that have developed capabilities that are the best of breed across the entire region. So when we enable our partners to bring those capabilities to the table as part of the team, we all get better –every single one of us. We are better as a team and we will be stronger and more capable against the shared threats in the region.
Diálogo: What regional strategies do you have in place now or do you plan to have in place to achieve this?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: In concert with where SOUTHCOM is moving, we want to increase how much we partner with regional nations. Once again, the strength of our response is going to come from that partnership or the way that we have enabled our partners – so from the MARFORSOUTH perspective, this will be us taking our Security Cooperation teams down range to train our partners, and at the same time, get trained ourselves from our partners as we engage with them. We also want to improve our collective capability to go after the shared threats so that when necessary, we partner together with great interoperability and ensure success.
Diálogo: How do the relationships you build help you strengthen and benefit the collaboration between the U.S. Marine Corps and the partner nations’ marine corps?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: As Adm. [Kurt] Tidd [SOUTHCOM commander] always says, “This is our hemispheric home, all of our hemispheric home.” It has been, and will continue to be our hemispheric home, and we all need to recognize that. I would say that the relationships and the unity run so deep among the people of the Americas. It’s absolutely wonderful to watch and to be a part of. Additionally, if you know marines, there is also a very special bond of trust between marines. In this region, with the vast littoral areas and riverine systems, we have a lot of marine corps that have grown up here. These young marine corps have been embraced by their nations. They see them, and they see utility in having – just as the United States does – soldiers from the sea. We as marines bond together; we see how special it is to be a marine. So when we are able to get together with our partner nation marine corps, there is an immediate level of trust and recognition of capabilities that we then use to very rapidly move into interoperability, collaboration, and operations to get after these threats.
Diálogo: How do you feel that your prior experience in CENTCOM and other areas of operation has prepared you for this role, and what lessons learned have you brought with you to apply to your current role?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: Well, during my time in CENTCOM and then in the Joint Staff within the Pentagon, I got to watch the U.S. Government work on some very dynamic and challenging problems, “wicked” problems if you will, and I saw us utilizing a whole-of-government approach; the interagency, the services, and partner nations to get after these challenges. I am seeing the same thing happen at an international level here in this theater, where all of our partners come in, bringing diverse and sometimes unique capabilities, and we work together so that we have a unified collective approach to tackling very complex problems. I am trying to fold that experience at our national level onto the international scale here with MARFORSOUTH in the SOUTHCOM Area of Operations. Likewise, in my most recent job in the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, I had a great mentor who was the wing commander, and he showed me how to effectively lead large marine formations. That’s a large part of what I do here, and as we put marines into the field, I want to be able to give Adm. Tidd a better appreciation of what these marines can bring to the effort, what we can do with our partners in the region; from humanitarian assistance to disaster relief, and from partnering to enabling. Also in that experience at the 3D Marine Aircraft Wing, I served with great leaders across the MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] that gave me an opportunity to grow as a young general officer, and to experience the gamut of what the Marine Corps can bring as a partner. So, I think that was a very beneficial job for me to be able to see how our command can bring what is the Marine Corps into bringing good to this area of operations.
Diálogo: Is there something in particular you would like to add for our readers in the region?
Brig. Gen. Iiams: I am honored and humbled to be partnering with some of the folks I’ve met in this region – with the military services and with the leaders across the region. I am very much looking forward to another year, maybe two, of operating with them and being on their team. I’m gaining a greater appreciation every day for the diverse perspectives on the AOR, and I am really enjoying the very rich cultures that are the Americas. From north to south, and it’s a wonderful region and a tremendous opportunity to see how we interweave all of our commonality and all of our diversity to bring it all together for good.