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4th Fleet returns, gunning for drug smugglers

Apr. 26, 2008 - 08:29AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 26, 2008 - 08:29AM  |  
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Almost 60 years after closing shop, the Navy's 4th Fleet, which oversaw the hunt for German subs in the South Atlantic, is coming back. Only this time, the prey is drug runners in the Caribbean.

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Almost 60 years after closing shop, the Navy's 4th Fleet, which oversaw the hunt for German subs in the South Atlantic, is coming back. Only this time, the prey is drug runners in the Caribbean.

The Navy announced April 24 the re-establishment of 4th Fleet, to be based at Naval Station Mayport, Fla. The command will operate as the naval component of U.S. Southern Command and will have a SEAL at the helm.

Rear Adm. Joseph Kernan, head of Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, Calif., has been chosen to command the new fleet. Kernan will take control of 4th Fleet and the current Naval Forces Southern Command.

Effective July 1, the command will oversee maritime operations in Central and South American waters, similar to the command structure of 5th Fleet, which is also dual-hatted as Naval Forces Central Command, the naval component of U.S. Central Command. With the fleet's creation, sailors can expect to spend more time in that part of the world, not only taking part in counternarcotics operations, but also humanitarian relief and goodwill tours.

"I am thrilled that the secretary of the Navy and [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead] have chosen to stand up the 4th Fleet, with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean," said Adm. James Stavridis, commander of the Miami-based SouthCom, the organization set to benefit most from the new numbered fleet.

"While I am clearly a joint commander in every sense, as an admiral, I am personally very pleased and proud to see the Navy stand up an organization like 4th Fleet to operate with partner nations in the region."

The move excited local lawmakers who hailed the move as key to ensuring more ships will be homeported in Mayport.

"I think this announcement shows the importance of Naval Station Mayport [as a] national security asset," said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. "Locating the headquarters there is a key asset for Southern Command as Mayport is two days closer to the Carribbean and Latin America [than Naval Station Norfolk, Va.]. This positioning is key to having an impact on threats that could come from that region."

Stavridis said the Navy needs 4th Fleet to operate at a higher level than Naval Forces Southern Command does now. That extra layer of support, he said, "would allow a much better and more concerted response to problem sets that range from hurricanes to medical diplomacy to counternarcotics [and] counterterrorism kinds of operations. Speed is very important in all those scenarios."

The fleet, Stavridis said, will be focused on preventing and responding to mass migration of refugees, as has happened in the past from Haiti and Cuba, as well as stopping the flow of illegal drugs and partnering with countries throughout the region.

"We will also seek to build the ability of the 4th Fleet to work with interagency partners like U.S. Department of State, [U.S. Agency for International Development] and Department of Homeland Security," he said.

Numbered fleet commanders have an official role in allocating training and resources.

The standup would not bring new sailors or billets with it to Mayport, said Rear Adm. Jim Stevenson, the current commander of Naval Forces Southern Command, set to retire this summer. However, the command is expected to get a plus-up of 30 billets in 2009, the result of a Fleet Forces Command manpower study a couple of years ago.

"That plus-up was already in the works," Stevenson said. "The reactivation will be done without any additional resources needed."

Being a numbered fleet commander also increases that command's stature in SouthCom — a joint command — by adding what Stavridis calls an "appropriate counterpart" to 12th Air Force and 6th Army.

A SEAL was an unusual choice for the command, but Stavridis called it an "important and expeditionary job."

"He is the right officer for the challenging tasks in the region, and additionally has a strong sense of theater security cooperation and interaction with our partner nations."

Although he's a SEAL, Kernan isn't a stranger to the conventional fleet. As a junior officer, he served aboard the cruiser Horne.

Stavridis said anti-drug operations, humanitarian missions and cooperative training missions are expected to be the new command's primary engagements.

"One particularly important mission for the 4th Fleet will be medical diplomacy, as exemplified by the voyage last summer of [the hospital ship] Comfort, which conducted nearly 400,000 patient encounters during a four-month cruise to 12 countries in the region," Stavridis said.

This year, the amphibious assault ships Boxer and Kearsarge will "return on similar missions in the region this summer," he said, "all under the aegis of 4th Fleet."

Navy Expeditionary Combat Command also could play more of a role in the region as part of what Stevenson calls "soft power" projection.

"We've had Seabees down here the past couple of years, building clinics, digging wells and refurbishing hospitals and schools, and we expect that to continue," Stevenson said. "We've also reworked our training exercises down here to have maritime interdiction operations, diving and small-boat evolutions — things that are more brown-water than our traditionally blue-water operations."

But it's the Navy's riverine warfare commands that could see an even greater role in the coming years in SouthCom.

"There's tremendous river systems in South America where our partner nations are responsible for security," Stevenson said. "As you know, our riverine forces are being ramped up, and in the future, I could see them operating down there in cooperative training missions where our sailors may learn as much from their river forces as they do from us."

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