Rear Admiral Sean S. Buck, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet (COMUSNAVSO/C4F), has a distinct and unwavering commitment to the maritime forces of the partner nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. His goal is clear: to foster unity and work with each as the maritime partner of choice in order to maintain the security and stability of the Western Hemisphere.
Rear Adm. Buck’s commitment goes beyond his focus on the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) area of operations. In addition to working with partner nations, he is committed to ensuring his own personnel in Florida are 100 percent ready to do their best at all times.
Since assuming command over USNAVSO/USFOURTHFLT in August 2016, the mission and responsibility, as he describes it, is essential for enhancing cooperative maritime security.
Diálogo visited Rear Adm. Buck at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, where he spoke about his military efforts, engagements with SOUTHCOM’s partner nations and the regional security challenges they all face.
Diálogo: What is U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (USNAVSO)/U.S. 4th Fleet’s (FOURTHFLT) main focus with regard to our Area of Responsibility (AOR)?
Rear Adm. Sean S. Buck: Our primary daily focus is to be sure that we maintain our security commitment to partners in our AOR. It’s to ensure they always know that we are steadfast in uniting with them to keep our entire region secure and stable. This focus takes a team effort. I encourage a teaming mentality so that we are able to achieve a high state of readiness and preparedness to respond to any kind of contingency or crises in the AOR; a crisis that may negatively affect our partners and/or possibly pose a risk to our own national security.
Diálogo: What is the focus of your military efforts as commander of USNAVSO?
Rear Adm. Buck: I continue to focus on the military imperatives that Admiral Kurt W. Tidd [SOUTHCOM Commander] has charged all of his team with. These imperatives support our partner nations’ efforts to improve execution of their duties. These four key military imperatives characterize any legitimate military that seeks to gain the trust of the population they serve.
The first imperative is working jointly; having the ability to work among and with sister services and other government agencies within their country for a whole-of-government response. The U.S. military has recognized the importance of working jointly, and I believe it is a critical imperative to demonstrate to our partner militaries and government organizations.
The professionalization of the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps (NCO) is also an important military imperative. We are very proud of how we empower our NCO in the United States military with responsibility and accountability. It is something we share and demonstrate with partners to enable them to be a more effective fighting force.
The age-old imperative of following the principles of human rights is fundamental for successful militaries in our AOR. An operational military will never gain the trust and legitimacy they need from their population if there is any question of their commitment to human rights, or their desire to protect those rights.
The fourth military imperative that we stress is gender integration; the integration of women in our military services across all military occupational specialties.
I have a very good example of that integration; my deputy commander, Rear Admiral Linda R. Wackerman. As a U.S. Navy Reserve Officer, Rear Adm. Wackerman simultaneously juggles the duties of a senior naval leader and aviator, as well as working as a commercial airline pilot. Her valuable experience and professionalism is an asset to our command – I am extremely proud to partner with her in execution of our mission. Demonstrating the effectiveness of gender integration to our partners through our own example enforces the importance of women serving in military forces.
Diálogo: What do you expect to achieve with each country in SOUTHCOM’s AOR you engage with, whether through exercises, key leader engagements, or any other engagement?
Rear Adm. Buck: Most importantly, I expect to earn the trust of our partner nations. It’s the very first thing I think about as I partner either bilaterally or in a multinational group effort. I must demonstrate my commitment to our relationships and reiterate why I want to partner with our counterparts in Central, South America and the Caribbean. We are more effective and achieve higher levels of success when we work alongside each other toward our goals of security, stability, and unity in our hemisphere. The United States chooses not to do it alone. When we work together and leverage our strengths, we will win and prosper together.
I am fairly new as a commander in Mayport; as I go downrange to introduce myself, my focus is to ensure my partners feel they can trust me and trust my team. I hope my efforts encourage them to partner with us. Thus far, I have had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, and Chile. My experiences in those four nations have been wonderful. I was warmly welcomed, and I believe I accomplished my goals there and gained their trust. I built friendships with my counterparts and we have already been able to reach out to wish our partner militaries well and a happy holiday season. It has been exciting so far, so I’m looking forward to the future.
With regard to exercises, the one I am most proud of, and the one that I am solely responsible for is UNITAS. We spread the hosting responsibilities of the exercise around our AOR to have a different host each year. Last year, Panama was the host; it was the first time a Central America nation has hosted UNITAS in 67 years. We did that to ensure we build confidence and the capacity to lead multinational operations across all of our partners in Latin America. We also participate in TRADEWINDS to increase the capabilities and capacities of our Caribbean-nation friends. All the exercises are very important, either on a bilateral or multilateral level, where we invite not only the nations from our AOR but also other Pacific, European, or African countries to come [take part], as the global nature of the threats these days are transnational and transregional; they originate from all over the globe.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern in terms of regional security in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean?
Rear Adm. Buck: There are two things that I am pretty worried about, that keep me up at night. First, I am concerned about terrorist networks leveraging the existing illicit drug trade routes that have been around for a long time to flow money, weapons, foreign terrorists, drugs, etc. through our partner nations and into the southern part of the United States. It seems to be too easy to use these pathways that drug cartels have been using for decades – these networks are a serious threat to regional security and require multinational efforts to thwart them.
Second, I have concerns about the breakdown of governance in any of our partner nations that could lead to a mass migration of people. Mass migration, as well as natural disasters, could cause a disruption and threaten our regional stability and negatively impact our prosperity. We share common interests and goals with the people of Latin America – I worry that successful threat networks, unsuccessful governance or any variety of natural disaster could have a devastating impact on the peace, security and stability we work so hard to achieve in our homelands.
Diálogo: Having been in the position of Commander for six months (since August 2016), how has your perspective of the AOR changed since you first assumed command?
Rear Adm. Buck: It hasn’t changed significantly. I have some prior experience in this AOR. My first six months have brought me a deeper respect for our partners, their capabilities, strengths, and friendship, and more specifically, a better knowledge of who they are, what they do, and what their navies are capable of doing. So [there hasn’t been] a huge change in my perspective, just a deepening of my respect and knowledge.
Diálogo: How has/does the relationship you help build benefit the collaboration between the U.S. Navy and those of our regional partner nations?
Rear Adm. Buck: The collaboration is getting much stronger, as well as the individual military capacities of the United States and our partners. I think the biggest indicator of how much stronger it’s getting is the ownership each of our partners’ take for their own security, prosperity, and stability. In years past, my predecessors used to get a lot of phone calls to request assistance when something bad happened in our area of operations. What I am seeing now is fewer phone calls; when a crisis happens in a partner nation, they are responding and assisting their populations more effectively than in the past. This is an exciting development because it shows an increase in confidence - our efforts to build capacity, enhance preparedness and stress military imperatives are having a positive effect. We are seeing that, and I am very happy with it. We will continue to be prepared to respond if we are asked, and we always volunteer to serve in a consulting or advisory role. We will continue to exercise with them, but it’s great to see our counterparts take as much ownership as they do these days.
Diálogo: What kind of results do you expect to come to fruition for 2017, and what results have you seen so far in your time working with this AOR?
Rear Adm. Buck: I have three major accomplishments I’d like to make happen in 2017. First, I want to complete key leader engagements with every partner nation in the AOR; a chance to introduce myself, meet them and an opportunity to develop mutual trust. This is achieved by visiting their nations or inviting them here to Mayport and learning about our respective maritime forces.
Second, for my USNAVSO/FOURTHFLT team, I want to increase our operational preparedness for rapid response. This is a critical skill we must be able to execute when our partners or our own nation are counting on our support or advice if a disaster strikes.
Third, I aim to enhance the complexity and sophistication of our exercises, such as PANAMAX and UNITAS. We get better by actual at-sea operations; challenging ourselves and our partners to operate together and build our repertoire of maritime skills. We can’t become complacent by just exercising ashore. The threats to our stability and security are evolving, so we need to be on top of our game and ready for any scenario. We do this by sharing knowledge and improving our multinational cooperation.
Diálogo: How has your prior experience prepared you for this role? And what lessons learned did you bring with you to this role, especially after serving as the JS J5 Chief of Staff, assisting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his role as principal military adviser to the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense?
Rear Adm. Buck: My past experience has laid the foundation for success in my new role. I am a maritime patrol aviator. I have many years of operational experience, flying our detection and monitoring missions in the counter-narcotics mission set. My time on the Joint Staff gave me a greater appreciation of the geopolitical issues that are going on in the AOR as well as the political-military relationships. My time in the Pentagon, specifically on the Joint Staff and J5, gave me a solid education on the importance of partnerships and a greater appreciation for the varying cultures of the world.
Diálogo: Anything you’d like to add for our regional readers?
Rear Adm. Buck: I’d like to remind them of my command’s motto: “Unity, security, and stability.” That is my strategic focus in commanding USNAVSO/FOURTHFLT; to improve the unity of my own team and my team with our partners, and to ensure the security and stability of our entire region. I hope when they see our logo, it serves as a reminder of that commitment and a reminder of what we stand for.