Handshakes on the High Seas

September 2010
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


A Salvadoran sailor rides a U.S. Navy boat near the High Speed Vessel (HSV) 2 Swift during a boarding team officer and visit, board, search and seizure subject matter expert exchange for Southern Partnership Station (SPS) 2010. The SPS is a deployment of various specialty platforms to the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Navy program aims to solidify peace and partnerships to protect the maritime environment south of the United States.

The U.S. Navy is investing significant time and effort to secure the waters that surround Latin America and the Caribbean, but not through force or interdiction. Instead, the military branch is embracing the idea that “together we can do more” by reaching out to countries in the area. This effort involves exchanging information and delivering necessary aid through an annual event designed to improve relations among nations. By participating in these activities, personnel forge long-lasting connections and provide immediate help to those who need it.

Southern Partnership Station (SPS) 2010 marked the fourth year that sailors boarded specialty platforms and set off across the ocean to work with counterparts in nations that fall under the U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM’s) area of responsibility. U.S. Fleet Forces Command initially directs the various resources for SPS based on current requirements. Once the resources are in the SOUTHCOM area of operations, the U.S. Fourth Fleet, which exercises operational control of assigned forces in that region, manages them. The commander of the Fourth Fleet is dual-hatted, also serving as the commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (NAVSO), which helps to coordinate the event each year.

The platforms this year include High Speed Vessel (HSV), Oceanographic, Navy Diver and Amphibious. Each platform visits various ports to perform its own specific training and information-exchange roles. The missions include activities such as martial arts, leadership, land navigation, marksmanship, port security, boarding officer and teams, joint military surveys, oceanographic, hydrographic, bathymetric and technical demonstrations. Part of each trip also involves spending enough time in port to assist local communities that want help through activities such as making repairs to an orphanage. As part of the relationship building and outreach efforts, U.S. personnel participating in SPS meet with dignitaries and officials in the various ports. Because each platform carries out its own agendas, schedules for the different missions vary.

The first version of SPS took place in 2007 and was the pilot for the Global Fleet Station (GFS) concept, a maritime security cooperation initiative aimed at strengthening global partnerships through training and cooperation activities. The activity that year involved only one platform, the HSV 2 Swift, and was called the GFS. Now, SPS is SOUTHCOM’s name for the GFS. The concept fits in well with aims of SOUTHCOM to build relationships with the nations in its region through dialogue, interaction and idea exchange. The GFS is not limited to nations in Latin America and the Caribbean. U.S. Africa Command, for example, runs Africa Partnership Station, its embodiment of the concept.

Cmdr. Timothy Veschio, USN, who works in the Fourth Fleet/NAVSO Future Plans office, plans the HSV missions and co-plans the oceanographic missions. In the latter, the countries’ oceanographic personnel sail together to survey coastlines and perform topographic functions. For one exercise this year, Brazil, Colombia and the United States partnered to enable representatives from each country to ride on each other’s ships and to carry out demonstrations. “The water is your demonstration classroom,” Cmdr. Veschio says.

The Swift served as the HSV platform again during this year’s exercise, taking advantage of partnerships with the private sector. Civilian contract mariners working for a company under charter to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command operate and navigate the vessel. A Marine Corps Training and Advisory Group (MCTAG) also deployed with the Swift to engage in partnering with other countries’ marines. A MCTAG consists of approximately seven Marines led by an officer. In 2010, the Swift was scheduled to visit Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Suriname, Barbados, Guyana and Guatemala.

In some situations, the U.S. forces worked only with representatives from the nation where the vessel pulled into port, but in other cases U.S. personnel worked with multiple partners. In Barbados, for example, they worked with the seven-nation Regional Security System headquartered on the island. The function of that organization is to ensure the stability and well-being of the Eastern Caribbean through mutual cooperation to achieve social and economic development and to maintain the principles of democracy, liberty of the individual and rule of law. For most of the stops, the HSV mission carried out two-week visits with two days of travel between ports.

The choice of the Swift as the HSV platform has several purposes in addition to its speed. “It’s kind of iconic,” Cmdr. Veschio says. The notable look of the large gray catamaran sitting up out of the water with its sharply angled front pointing into the distance catches the interest of partner nations and makes it easily recognizable. It also is designed with plenty of storage room—the commander describes it with the word “ferry”—so sailors can transport goods and equipment to their different ports of call.


A U.S. Navy diver and Regional Security System divers conduct a visual inspection of a mooring buoy off the coast of Antigua as part of SPS 2010.

One program taking advantage of that cargo space is Project Handclasp, a Navy effort with a civilian component that delivers donated materials to countries that can use them. Though the project operates in many places around the globe, it takes advantage of the partnership building of the SPS to further its cause. Each year, Project Handclasp uses the extra space aboard the SPS platforms to transport its supplies to various locations in Latin America.

The project takes the idea of relationship building beyond military-to-military or even government-to-government engagement. Private organizations and public agencies donate the new or used materials to Project Handclasp, which then employs Navy assets to move them to countries that need assistance. A civilian board of directors helps to solicit donations. According to Cmdr. Lewis Preddy, USN, the coordinator for Project Handclasp at Fourth Fleet, multiple platforms are participating in this work. The offerings add to the main objective of information exchange between regional partners. “Gifts in kind are always a secondary mission,” Cmdr. Preddy says.

These gifts take many forms from basics, such as medical supplies, to the unexpected. “It kind of runs the gamut of stuff,” the commander explains. A June drop-off involved an out-of-the-ordinary donation when SPS sailors delivered two fire trucks to Nicaragua. The Navy loaded the two vehicles onto the Swift and unloaded them in the Central American country where they were badly needed. “That’s the kind of opportunity we can leverage through SPS,” Cmdr. Preddy says. He adds that the Swift provides an excellent asset to Project Handclasp because it is small enough to pull up right along the pier even at some of the more remote ports. This allows medical supplies to be forklifted off the vessel or fire trucks to drive right off the ship and onto the pier.

Sometimes after a deployment, project personnel learn of other items that are needed, and they try to accommodate those needs in the future. In certain cases, requested items are expensive and difficult to come by, such as a portable hyperbaric chamber. But, Cmdr. Preddy explains, people in the United States are so desirous to give what they can and what will help that Project Handclasp tries to meet every request. The SPS will help the project enlarge its outreach because through it, the commander says, “We are going to visit partner nations a lot more than we used to.”

He believes that the SPS not only benefits Project Handclasp, but also makes a big impact overall. “I wish I’d designed the program,” Cmdr. Preddy says, adding that, “We love doing these SPS missions.” He describes the SPS as an excellent chance to build relationships over a period of years and to establish familiarity among members of different armed forces as they train side by side. Though he admits that politics is involved in everything, he says the SPS is not interested in politics. Instead, the focus is on creating friendships.

In 2010, those strong relationships came into play in more than an exercise or information-exchange environment. When an earthquake struck Haiti in January, SPS assets were diverted there to assist the response efforts. According to Cmdr. Veschio, part of the idea behind the SPS and working with other nations is to be prepared for disaster response. In Haiti, the platforms delivered supplies and provided support as necessary before resuming their regularly scheduled port stops.

One of those vessels was the last Navy ship to depart Haiti, according to Cmdr. Butch Bornt, USN, planner for Navy Diver SPS and Amphibious SPS. The USNS Grasp, the platform for the Navy Diver SPS mission, and her divers played a major role in the recovery efforts at the Port-au-Prince port facilities. After completing efforts in Haiti, the dive team performed a month-long engagement in the Lesser Antilles and then another month-long mission in Mexico. After wrapping up there, the ship traveled to Panama to conduct dive operations with divers from several Latin American countries in the exercise PANAMAX 2010.

The Amphibious platform the USS New Orleans also supported an exercise during its deployment. The ship and her sailors traveled to Peru to participate in Southern Exchange 2010. Other port stops for the vessel included Mexico, Peru and Colombia, where crew members conducted Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) engagements with personnel from those countries. TSC military activities involve foreign nations and are intended to shape the operational environment in peacetime.

Though the SPS is largely a Navy effort, programs and personnel are not restricted to the sea service or the Marine Corps. The Navy works with the other military branches as appropriate to carry out its objectives. The Grasp, for example, hosted Army divers during its first few months of the SPS. In the past, Air Force foreign area officers provided language and culture expertise. Interpreters from other services also have participated in the SPS. Cmdr. Veschio says next year the station might include Army veterinarians or medical specialists. Aspects of the SPS also work with country teams and embassies to coordinate activities.

U.S. Southern Command: www.southcom.mil
NAVSO/Fourth Fleet: www.public.navy.mil/comusnavso-c4f/Pages/default.aspx

Regional Security System: www.rss.org.bb


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