U.S. 4th Fleet commander, Rear Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, talks about the fleet’s goals and objectives in the Americas. The U.S. 4th Fleet inherited a tough mission in Caribbean, Central and South American waters when the Navy re-established the command in April 2008.
But Rear Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, the fleet’s commander, said the return signals to nations in the Americas that the United States is committed to regional issues and stability.
The admiral, who also commands U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, spoke with DIÁLOGO about the fleet’s future.
*_DIÁLOGO: Why was 4th Fleet re-established?_*
*Admiral Kernan:* The 4th Fleet was re-established for a number of reasons. I think the most important is that it reflects the commitment we have to partnering with a region that is of great importance.
The Americas share many common linkages. We have close cultural connections; more than 15 percent of the U.S. population traces its heritage to the region. There is certainly an economic connection; almost 40 percent of total U.S. trade, imports and exports, flow north and south in the hemisphere and there is a regional security connection. Given the fact we share borders, we share a maritime region and we share a strong heritage and common interests, we should develop those relationships and take advantage of partnering opportunities.
An important way to facilitate cooperation, interaction, maritime security and economic growth — from a 4th Fleet perspective — is to make sure this region has a fleet-level planning staff. The Pacific and European regions, and others, each have fleet-level planning staffs and it is important that the southern region has a similar staff to accomplish these goals. As a numbered fleet, we are now better aligned with other regional naval components and have the opportunity to secure the resources that assist in engagement and relationship building in more ways than before.
I would also comment that the re-establishment supports several of the Navy’s Global Maritime Strategy goals by better employing naval forces forward to expand partnerships. We can share expertise and build trust and interoperability with our partner navies through exercises and other deployments. This includes members of their navies working directly alongside us on each other’s ships. As a fleet, we intend to expand our navalpartnering activities to help promote a safe and secure maritime environment and thwart illegal trafficking, particularly that of drugs. Deterrence of illegal activities of this nature is too massive and complex for any one nation to address alone. I would also reinforce that our participation in activities of this nature will always respect the sovereignty of nations in the region.
I mentioned earlier that the U.S. Navy has historically organized forward presence under a geographic fleet; the reestablishment of 4th Fleet is a logical step in our alignment with other U.S. Navy fleets. What also comes with a fleet is a maritime operations center, which puts in place the means to manage assets in the theater and enables combined maritime domain awareness. This center will not only allow for enhanced command and control, but it will posture us for enhanced operational collaboration and information exchange with regional partners.
*_DIÁLOGO: Why do you think the fleet has come under so much criticism?_*
*Admiral Kernan:* Unfortunately, misperceptions about the intent of 4th Fleet persist in several countries. Our intent is to build partnerships with those nations with which we share common interests and values. Fleets are doing this around the world, and I would argue that the area 4th Fleet operates in is exactly where activities of this nature are extremely beneficial. Whether our activities are humanitarian, partnership-building or countering illegal trafficking, the establishment of 4th Fleet will serve to enhance these activities. We’ll persist in these efforts and hope people understand our true intent by virtue of our actions.
Additionally, one of the major misperceptions is that 4th Fleet would become an expansive force with multiple naval platforms assigned. The 4th Fleet has no permanently assigned ships, aircraft or submarines. The 4th Fleet comes with nothing more than the opportunity for me to garner the resources to expand on those priority missions — counterdrug, humanitarian assistance, disaster response and partnering. So I think the people who believe there is a threat from the 4th Fleet don’t have the facts.
We demonstrate the priorities of 4th Fleet activities each day. We participate in a multitude of regional military-to-military exercises such as UNITAS and PANAMAX. We conduct cooperative, humanitarian deployments such as Continuing Promise, Southern Partnership Station and Partnership of the Americas, and invite partner nations to participate along with us. As an example, medical personnel from Brazil, Canada, France and the Netherlands are working side-by-side with U.S. military medical personnel and U.S. nongovernmental medical teams as part of mission Continuing Promise, aboard the USS Kearsarge. We work closely with our partners and a variety of agencies under Joint Interagency Task Force South conducting counternarcotics operations. These are not threatening activities by 4th Fleet, unless you happen to threaten the peace and security of the region.
A recent example of a representative 4th Fleet activity was our disaster-response support in Haiti. Every ship that goes into the theater is prepared to support disaster-response efforts in some capacity. It is a core mission of 4th Fleet. We specifically planned the Kearsarge deployment during the hurricane season and we equipped her to be able to quickly transition from her primary mission of humanitarian assistance to disaster relief.
Unfortunately, such a disaster occurred. Within 48 hours of receiving the request for support, the Kearsarge was able to move from Colombia — a planned humanitarian assistance visit — to Haiti, and immediately help the disaster-response efforts. We had the necessary air and maritime mobility assets and medical professionals on board to deliver life-saving supplies and care. The Kearsarge was able to deliver 3.3 million pounds of food, water and other aid, and medical teams from the ship were able to provide health care and assessments to devastated Haitian communities. These types of missions are perfectively consistent with what 4th Fleet was intended to do.
*_DIÁLOGO: How does your special operations experience prepare you for what you’re doing now?_*
*Admiral Kernan:* The special operations community and the Navy place great value on respect for diversity and culture. We often achieve success in our operations by gaining an understanding of the local culture and building partnerships through that knowledge. We’re doing it in Iraq, engaging and working alongside the Iraqis in pursuit of peace, security and prosperity. It requires face-to-face engagement on a recurring basis to
build trust and confidence, and demonstrate we do not intend to impose ourselves, but to collaborate to achieve success. We learn languages and study cultures, all to this common end.
Although the South and Central American and Caribbean regions are not engaged in hostilities, the principles of partnership and cooperation still apply. Close cooperation and engagement will preserve security and stability and we will do it alongside the nations of the region. This approach is consistent with the Navy’s Global Maritime Strategy.
*_DIÁLOGO: Do you use foreign liaison officers in the 4th Fleet’s day-to-day operations?_*
*Admiral Kernan:* Absolutely. Foreign liaison officers play a key role in the day-to-day operations here. We have liaison officers from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru on staff. They are a critical conduit for us to better understand — certainly the navies of their respective nations — all aspects of their countries.
Their feedback on our operations, objectives and methods of engagement are critical to our planning and actions. I seek and encourage their honest and candid perspective. Let me know what you think we should be doing, what we do right or wrong and how we can better partner with your nations. They are key contributors to what we do here. They are as valued as advisors as any on my staff.
*_DIÁLOGO: What do you think has been the biggest takeaway from the exercises the United States conducts with partner nations? Obviously, PANAMAX is the biggest exercise. But what do countries really get out of it?_*
*Admiral Kernan:* I think the biggest takeaway is the value of the opportunity to work together and improve inoperability. The fundamental principals of naval maritime operations are fairly similar. But it is the specific tactics, techniques, and command and control procedures that require training together to master. The result of these exercises is that we learn from each other and then work together more effectively.
Take PANAMAX for example. What was done this year and what will occur in the future is to have a different partner nation assume key leadership positions in the Combined Force Maritime Component Command. Task groups and the operations, intelligence, logistics, plans and the communications departments were each led by a different partner nation. This command structure really helped foster the exchange of ideas and best practices. In the end, the key takeaway was the mutual exchange of information and collaboration. This not only strengthened our ability to operate together, but also built personal and professional respect and friendships. If we are ever asked by the government of Panama to come together as a multinational force to protect the Panama Canal, we will be prepared.
After PANAMAX, we decided to build a combined-force, collective-standard operating procedure that will institutionalize the way we operate with each other. This will provide us a manual we can build on and improve from year to year. It will be useful for any of the countries working together within the region.
*_DIÁLOGO: If there was one message about the 4th Fleet that you really want people to take away, what would it be?_*
*Admiral Kernan:* I’d like people to pay attention to what the 4th Fleet is actually doing in the region and use that to define our purpose.