The U.S. Navy and its Central and South American allies have been conducting the combined UNITAS exercise nearly every year since 1960, but it’s prettyrare that a ship as large as an aircraft carrier participates in UNITAS because it’s much larger than most of the ships the other navies operate

But tThis year, as part of a three-carrier swap, the aircraftcarrier George Washington was able to participated while circumnavigating South America on its her way back to Norfolk for a her planned mid-life refueling availability.

In fact, the George Washington was the last aircraft carrier to participate in UNITAS, in 2008. Unitaswas, you guessed it, the George Washington in 2008. At the time, GW was heading in the other direction en routeon the herway to Japan for a forward deployment to be the forward deployed carrier. She has operated from the Japan for the past seven years.

But officials from the U.S. 4th FourthFleet says that the GW’s participation in the exercise is unique. andAlong with benefiting the crew andas well as the battle group, as well as Destroyer Squadron and Air Wing staffs and assets, it’s alsoinvaluable training for ourallies, who rarely see a ship of this size and capability. 

"This year's UNITAS exercise was unique in that the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group was able to participate which brought an opportunity to engage our partner nation navies at a higher level of interoperability," said Capt. Ryan Tillotson, the director of the U.S. 4th FourthFleet’s Maritime Operations Center, which is also part of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command

UNITAS — which means "unity" in Latin Spanish — is conducted each year in two phases, one in the Pacific Ocean and one in the Atlantic. 

This year’s Pacific phase was hosted by Chile from Oct. 14-25. Participating nations were from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, and the United States. 

This year, along with the GW, the her air wing and strike group staff of thethe destroyers Chafee and McFaul and as well as the oilers Bighorn and Guadalupe played roles as well

Guadalupe supported the Pacific side of the transit, while Bighorn and McFaul aresupported onlyon the Atlantic side.

"This year's combined training consisted of a variety of maritime scenarios designed to test command and control of forces at sea.

The training’s focus was to promote tactical interoperability — the ability for multiple navies to come together and work as one force, according to Rear Adm. Lisa Franchetti, Carrier Strike Group 9Nine commander.

As with most exercises, there is an international scenario and this year it was to pull together ships and aircraft from five different nations to support a United Nations Resolution."

"Interoperability is not about the size of ships, it's really about each ship being able to communicate, coordinate, and use its resources to support the mission," Franchetti said. "Every ship had something to contribute – during the course of the exercise we conducted Maritime ISR, ASW, ASUW, Air Defense, and Maritime Interdiction Operations."

The combined task force was led by a Brazilian admiral, who was hosted onboard GW during the exercise, giving him the full benefit of that ship’s command and control capabilities. 

"Having the strike group aboard enabled the Brazilian Navy to serve as the Task Force Commander, while CSG-9 supported him as the Task Group Commander, enabling us to better execute duties under the Combined Warfare Commander concept – a key UNITAS training objective," Franchetti said.

Also During the exercise, Carrier Air Wing 2 Two conducted a seven7-day bi-lateral air exercise with the Brazilian Air Force, Franchetti said. Iit was an opportunity for U.S. aviators to train with dissimilar aircraft — always a welcome opportunity, she said. 

"During the exercise we embarked liaison officers from Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Mexico to strengthen our coordination with the participating ships and coordinate the bi-lat [air exercise] with the Brazilian Air Force," she said.  "Each told me that having the chance to work with the carrier and being part of this exercise was an amazing and unforgettable experience."

Tillotson said that the 2016 iteration will be hosted by Panama this coming September, and the U.S. participation will be at the opposite end of the size spectrum.

"The U.S. will utilize USNS Spearhead as the command and control platform for U.S. participating forces," he said.

For many years, Southern Command and 4th Fleet were a routine deployment for Perry Class frigates, the last of which left the active Navy at the end of September. Filling the gap left by those workhorses has required some scheduling  creativity, he said.

Which ships will participate in Unitas as well as the routine counter-drug operations in the area is now changing as a result and the use of George Washington in this exercise is an example, officials say of how and which U.S. ships will operate in the southern Americas for the time being.

"We look at scheduling our international exercises by scheduling them around current operational tasking that takes ships through our area of operations rather than focusing only on conducting the exercise at the same time each year," Tillotson said. "By adding a few extra weeks to an already scheduled [GW] transit around the South American continent, we are able to provide the most capable assets to the multinational exercise while minimizing the impact on Navy's worldwide warfighting commitments."