eral military exercises that just wrapped up or are under way exemplify U.S. Southern Commandís robust exercise program, one that officials consider integral to regional stability and U.S. national security.
Exercise Tradewinds 2012, which kicked off in Barbados June 15 and continues through the upcoming weekend, is focused on what Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, the Southcom commander, calls the most pressing regional challenge: transnational organized crime.
U.S. Marine Forces South is leading the exercise, which has brought together defense and law enforcement from the United States, Canada and 15 Caribbean countries for the 28th year to enhance their ability to work together against a common threat.
Speaking during opening ceremonies in Bridgetown, Barbados, Marine Corps Col. Michael Ramos, MARFOR-South chief of staff, emphasized the benefit of Exercise Tradewinds to participating nations. “We recognize the value of working together to confront these common security challenges,” he said. “We are truly united through our collaboration and collective efforts to fight terrorism, illicit trafficking and transnational criminality in all forms and in being prepared to effectively respond to natural disasters.”
Another exercise that concluded last week in Colombia, Fuerzas Comando 2012, brought together special operators from 21 regional countries for a grueling counterterrorism and special operations skills competition. That event, sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command South, was designed to promote military-to-military relationships, increase interoperability and improve regional security.
“This is the one forum that we have annually where we can come together as a region and talk about ideas, [about how to] increase our effect, collectively, against these dangerous non-state-actor threats we face,” Navy Rear Adm. Thomas L. Brown II, commander of Special Operations Command South, told American Forces Press Service.
These are just two examples of a broad Southcom exercise program that last year alone included hundreds of training and educational events, 12 major multinational exercises with regional partners and 56 medical readiness training exercises in 13 countries, according to Army Maj. Gen. Gerald W. Ketchum, the command’s director of theater engagement.
“You don’t want to show up on game day for the big game, when you have never practiced together,” Ketchum told American Forces Press Service at the Southcom headquarters here. “And that is really what the exercise program is all about.”
Toward that end, the exercise program centers on four basic pillars: security and illegal migration and illicit trafficking, peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The annual Peacekeeping Operations-Americas exercise that wrapped up last month brought together the United States and 15 partner nations to train in skills needed to serve as peacekeepers in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
U.S. Army South sponsored the four-phase exercise, conducted over the course of three months in Chile and the Dominican Republic in support of the State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative.
U.S. Ambassador to Chile Alejandro Daniel Wolff emphasized the importance of building the skills and interoperability needed for militaries to conduct vital peacekeeping roles. “Exercises like this offer the opportunity to learn from each other and to become more capable in our tasks to create a safer future for everybody,” Wolff said during the May 11 closing ceremony in Santiago.
Other Southcom exercises focus primarily on humanitarian assistance. These efforts, Ketchum explained, give military members an opportunity to use their skills while leaving behind tangible improvements in host nations. Sometimes it’s a new or renovated school, a newly dug well or new building to serve as an emergency operations center in the event of a natural disaster. Other exercises provide training for host-national medical staffs or desperately needed care in local communities.
For example, Army engineers and medical professionals currently deployed to Honduras and Guatemala for Beyond the Horizon 2012 are providing medical, dental and engineering support. Participants in another joint humanitarian exercise, New Horizons 2012, are providing training, free medical care and critical infrastructure in poor areas of Peru.
Officials said the efforts help address critical needs while showing U.S. support and commitment to the region. For many of the participants, the reward is getting to make a visible difference in others’ lives.
"My favorite part of this exercise is seeing the work getting done," said Army 1st Lt. Johnny Robey, commander of the Missouri National Guard’s 1140th Engineer Battalion, supporting Beyond the Horizon 2012 in Honduras. "I enjoy going to the sites and seeing the immediate impact of what we're here to do.”
Among Southcom’s array of multinational security exercises, PANAMAX remains the largest. The annual exercise focuses on supporting the Panamanian government in defense of the strategic Panama Canal.
Eighteen nations participated in last year’s exercise, working to improve the interoperability of their military and civil forces to guarantee safe passage through the canal and ensure its neutrality.
“This is a theme that is embraced by virtually everyone in the region: free and open access to the canal and flow of goods through the Panama Canal,” Ketchum said. “Everyone recognizes that it is clearly something of great value to the entire hemisphere to ensure that.”
Ketchum cited the growing success of the exercise as partners in the region step up to assume major leadership roles. Colombia took on the land component commander role last year, and will retain it during this year’s PANAMAX, in August. “They have embraced this role, and done a wonderful job,” Ketchum said. “Ultimately, that’s good for all of us, because we need interoperability and we need to be able to communicate with each other.”
Meanwhile, Brazil is preparing to assume leadership of the maritime component role during the upcoming PANAMAX, Fraser told Congress earlier this year. Fraser called the move “an important step in strengthening the expanding partnerships in the hemisphere.”
With expansion efforts under way at the Panama Canal that will increase the seaborne traffic it handles, close, regional cooperation will be more critical than ever, Fraser told the Senate Armed Service Committee in March. “I don’t see a direct change to the threat or to the concerns as we look into the future, but our PANAMAX exercise will remain critical to that effort,” he said.
Ketchum said the capabilities built and relationships strengthened through the exercise program have a direct impact on regional stability and U.S. national security.
“We truly believe that it takes an international approach to address the challenges we face in the region, and that these engagements are supporting that effort, he said. “We want to be the security partner of choice, and we look forward to continuing to work with our partner nations in the region.”
(Army Sgt. Sarah E. Lupescu, from the Missouri National Guard; Army Sgt. Alysia Jarmon, from the 65th Public Affairs Operations Center; and Robert Ramon from U.S. Army South contributed to this article.)