Category Archives: South America

Analysis related to USSOUTHCOM

Tradewinds 2018 and the Caribbean’s Maritime Security Challenges

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The first two phases of the multinational, Caribbean-focused military exercise Tradewinds 2018 took place between 4-21 June. Said maneuvers, sponsored by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), brought together an estimated 1,700 troops from almost two dozen nations. Given the ongoing maritime security challenges that the Greater Caribbean continues to face, these confidence and interoperability-building exercises continue to be very important.

Tradewinds ‘18

The first two phases of Tradewinds 2018 took place in Saint Kitts and Nevis and then in The Bahamas. Phase III, a seminar among regional leaders to discuss the results of the first two phases, occured from 17-19 July in Miami, Florida. The participating nations included the majority of Caribbean states, in addition to Canada, Mexico, the U.S. and extra-hemispheric states like France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Some of the platforms that were deployed include the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr. (WPC-1107); the British RFA Mounts Bay (L3008), a Bay-class auxiliary landing ship dock; Canada’s HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704), a Kingston-class coastal defense vessel; and Mexico’s ARM Oaxaca (PO 161), an Oaxaca-class patrol vessel. As for aerial platforms, these included AS365N3 Panther and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. As SOUTHCOM explains “this year’s focus is on countering transnational organized crime in the region,” apart from other priorities like improving disaster response. Operations at sea including procedures to intercept a non-compliant vessel, and live firing exercises with deck-mounted weapon systems like .50 caliber machine guns and 25 mm cannon.

In general, Caribbean governments and security forces have generally had a positive attitude toward these maneuvers. For example, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis and Minister of National Security the Honourable Dr. Timothy Harris reportedly stated “I have been assured that we can therefore expect training components or injects that reflect real world scenarios so that in the face of a real threat, our security forces and emergency response personnel will be able to coordinate seamlessly and in a manner and time that both meet international standards.” Similarly, Christian J. Ehrlich, an external analyst at the Strategic Research Institute of the Mexican Navy (Instituto de Investigaciones Estratégicas de la Armada de México), explained to the author that Tradewinds will help improve  interoperability between regional navies and coast guards.

Caribbean Threats

The Caribbean’s maritime security challenges are very diverse. They include drug trafficking (Washington’s primary concern), weapons and human trafficking, illegal fishing, not to mention search and rescue operations. These crimes have been extensively recorded, but it is worth noting that some occurred, somewhat ironically, at the same time that Tradewinds was taking place. For example, in mid-June Her Majesty’s Bahamian Ship (HMBS) Durward Knowles, a patrol vessel, intercepted a 50-ft Dominican fishing vessel that was poaching in Bahamian waters. Around the same time, the Dominican Republic chased a speedboat until it stopped in the coast of Pedernales province. Aboard were 351 packets which apparently contained cocaine. A month earlier, in early May, it was the Jamaican Defense Force’s turn to catch a vessel at sea, as a ship reportedly intercepted off the coast of Westmoreland had 764.9 pounds of compressed marijuana.”

Even more, piracy is becoming a noteworthy problem: in 2017 the organization Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) “recorded 71 incidents in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most incidents in the region occurred in territorial waters, with anchored yachts being the primary targets for attackers.” There were also 16 attacks against tankers and three fishing vessels, among other types of ships. A map prepared by OBP shows a cluster of incidents off the coast of Belize, Colombia, Venezuela as well around the islands of Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Map of 2017 incidents by Oceans Beyond Piracy.

Not counted in the report was a late-April 2018 incident along the Guyanese-Surinamese border, where pirates attacked a group of four fishing boats, robbing the crew and killing several of them.

The Status of Caribbean Maritime Forces

Some Caribbean defense forces have attempted to upgrade and expand their maritime fleets in order to take better control of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). For example, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) has cquired several vessels constructed by Damen Shipyard  via the Sandy Bottom Project. These include Damen Stan 3007 and Stan Patrol 4207 patrol vessels as well as one Stan Lander 5612 auxiliary transport, roll on-roll off vessel. Similarly in 2016 the Jamaican Defense Force (JDF)  upgraded its fleet by receiving two new Stan Patrol 4207 from Damen in 2017. That same year, the JDF received two 38-foot SAFE boats and two 37-foot Boston Whaler vessels, donated by the U.S. More recently, in late July 2018, the Barbados Coast Guard commissioned patrol boat Endurance, a 958Y inshore vessel donated by China earlier this year.  The ambitious Sandy Bottom Project notwithstanding, Caribbean defense forces in general have limited defense budgets, hence new platforms, aerial or maritime, are not acquired or modernized regularly. Moreover, the aforementioned examples also highlight the continuous reliance on extra-regional allies  for donations in order to expand the naval inventory of these defense forces.

Mr. Ehrlich mentions that greater regional cooperation and interoperability is needed in order to make up for a limited number of platforms and personnel, and in order to decrease the region’s dependence on SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Mexican Navy could step up its presence in the Caribbean to help its partners with maritime security, but unfortunately the Mexican Navy seems to be more focused on its Pacific territory.

As a final point, it is important to highlight the troubling scandals regarding regional defense officers that are caught in cahoots with criminals. For example, Colonel Rafael Collado Ureña of the Dominican Republic’s Army, was arrested in mid-2017 in Puerto Rico as he was about to carry out a sale of 12.9 kilograms of cocaine. Around the same time, a member of the Jamaican Defense Force was arrested at Kingston airport as he tried to board a flight to Toronto with 2.8 kilograms of cocaine

Final Thoughts

Exercise Tradewinds 2018 recently concluded, and hopefully the maneuvers and training exercises that Caribbean forces carried out with counterparts such as those from Canada, Mexico, the UK, and the U.S, will be helpful for their future patrol and interdiction operations in their respective EEZs. We can also hope that these ongoing exercises, as well as generally cordial regional diplomatic, trade and defense relations, will lead to greater interoperability between regional forces.

While Tradewinds 2018 can be regarded as a success, these maneuvers will have limited positive impact if Caribbean defense forces do not obtain additional funding for new aerial and naval platforms given the size of the Caribbean Sea. Even more, scandals among security personnel, namely their involvement in criminal activities, stain the reputation of regional defense forces and limit the success of any training operations.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 16, 2018) British ship RFA Mounts Bay (l3008) leads United States Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr (WPC-1107) (center, rear), Mexican Navy ship ARM Oaxaca (PO 161) (center, front), and Canadian Ship HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704) (right), during a formation exercise in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of the Bahamas during the U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercise, Tradewinds 18. (Royal Canadian Navy Photo by Able Seaman John Iglesias/Released)

Taiwanese Navy Friendship Flotilla Visits Latin American and Caribbean Allies

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

A three-ship training flotilla belonging to the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan visited Central American and Caribbean states as Taipei strives to maintain close ties with regional allies. Taiwan regularly sends high-ranking defense officials and flotillas as part of goodwill initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, these initiatives will be even more important as the Dominican Republic announced at the end of April that it would sever relations with Taiwan and establish them with the People’s Republic of China.

 Friendship Flotilla 2018

Taiwan’s friendship flotilla No. 107 (Flotilla de la Amistad in Spanish), is comprised of “Pan Shi, a modern and sleek Fast Combat Support Ship, Pan Chao, an older, U.S.-designed frigate, and Kuen Wing, a more recent, French-made stealth frigate,” according to AFP. There are around 800 personnel on board in total, including an unspecified number of cadets from the ROC Naval Academy who are utilizing the voyage to learn how to operate in the high seas.

The flotilla commenced its training voyage by first visiting the Marshall Islands; while in the Western Hemisphere it visited the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The local and Taiwanese media have covered the visit during each port call. For example, the  Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario has noted that the last time a Taiwanese flotilla visited the Central American country was in 2016 while other outlets mentioned that this is the sixth time that such a visit has occurred.

Meanwhile the Minister of Defense of El Salvador, Munguía Payés, reportedly praised bilateral relations, stating that “the armed forces of El Salvador and of Taiwan are and will always be an important factor not only when it comes to the internal security of our respective nations but also supporters of development and guarantors of democracy.”

Taiwan, China, and Latin America

Even with recent advances in naval technology and the ability to resupply at sea, it is still necessary for vessels traveling far from their nation’s territorial waters to be allowed to dock at friendly ports and conduct exercises with friendly naval forces from other nations. The problem is that Taiwan is running out of ports in the Western Hemisphere to dock its naval platforms and engage in constructive naval initiatives with friendly forces as regional governments switch from recognizing Taipei to Beijing. As previously mentioned the DR switched at the end of April, Panama switched in 2017, while Costa Rica did the same a decade ago, in 2007. The DR’s switch is somewhat embarrassing to Taipei, as the flotilla docked in Santo Domingo in mid-April, only to have the Dominican government switch to Beijing two weeks later.

While Beijing is gaining new allies in the Western Hemisphere, Chinese naval presence in Latin America and the Caribbean is pretty limited: a destroyer Shijiazhuang and the supply ship Hongzehu visited Chile in 2009; four years later, destroyer Lanzhou and frigate Liuzhou visited Argentina in 2013. Additionally, China’s Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital ship that is operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has visited the Western Hemisphere as part of “Harmonious Mission 2011” and “Harmonious Mission 2015.” Nevertheless, if more regional governments recognize Beijing (and there are constant rumors about which will be the next country to do so), and as Beijing seeks to project its naval presence well past its borders, there may be a larger Chinese naval presence in the Western Hemisphere in the coming years.

Rear Admiral Wang Fushan (third from right), deputy commander of the North Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy, holds a meeting with officers from the Chilean naval forces aboard the Chinese destroyer Shijiazhuang, in Valparaiso. (News.cn)

The Flotilla in Context

The visit of the three-vessel Taiwanese flotilla in itself is not meaningful as Taiwan does not have bases in the Western Hemisphere, nor does Taipei have some kind of collective security-type defense treaty with regional countries. In other words, this visit does not signify that Taiwan would come to the aid of one of its regional partners, should one of them be attacked by a third party. Hence, the international media has placed the visit in the context of Taipei-Beijing and Taipei-Washington relations; for example Reuters published a piece titled “Taiwan warships drop anchor in Nicaragua amid sinking ties with China,” while the Strait Times titled its own report on the subject, “China demands halt of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as island stresses Central America ties with navy visit.”

Additionally, given ongoing tensions with China, there have been a number of reports about the Taiwanese Navy undergoing  a modernization process to obtain new platforms. There have been similar discussions in Washington regarding what kind of weaponry should the U.S. sell Taiwan. It is worth noting that in 2017 the Taiwanese Navy received two decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates but ongoing Washington-Beijing tensions seem to hint that more modern equipment (including submarine technology) could be sold to Taipei as part of ever-changing geopolitics in Asia.

While the recent visit of a Taiwanese flotilla will not affect Central American or Caribbean geopolitics, its use is more symbolic, as it demonstrates that the Asian nation strives to maintain diplomatic relations with its remaining friends in the Western Hemisphere. Taiwan’s naval diplomacy, unlike similar initiatives by other countries, is not so much about maintaining cordial defense relations, but maintaining diplomatic relations. Countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua still recognize Taiwan, but the recent loss of DR, which occurred right after the flotilla visited the country, is an example that such initiatives, defense and others, must be constant.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Featured Image: Nicaraguan students wave Taiwanese flags to welcome three Taiwanese Navy warships at Corinto port, some 149km north-west of Managua, on April 9, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

Tropical Currents: SOUTHCOM’s 2018 Posture Statement

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which oversees most of Latin America and the Caribbean, has released its 2018 Posture Statement as its commander, Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, testified before the Senate Armed Forces Committee of the 115th U.S. Congress on 15 February. In this commentary, we will discuss some of the major points brought up by the Statement regarding maritime security issues in the Western Hemisphere.

SOUTHCOM as a Low Priority

  • “… the combined impacts of defense spending caps, nine years of continuing resolutions, and insufficient spending in the diplomacy and development arenas make it increasingly difficult to sustain this regional network. Because our global security responsibilities outpace the resources available to meet them, we have had to make a series of tough choices, resulting in compounding second and third order effects. The net result is the perception among our friends—and the palpable anticipation among our competitors—that we no longer stand by our commitments, that we are relinquishing our strategic position, and that we don’t take the challenges in this region seriously.” –Admiral Kurt Tidd
ADM Kurt Tidd testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 15th, 2018. Image Credit: DoD News

Past Posture Statements have, in very straightforward manners, declared that SOUTHCOM is the lowest priority of the Combatant Commands (COCOMs) (see the 2015 Posture Statement), thus it receives limited resources. Part of the reason for this situation is that most Latin American and Caribbean nations that fall under SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility have close and cordial diplomatic relations with the U.S. Moreover, the countries that are at odds with Washington do not pose a traditional military threat to U.S. national security.

In other words, since most governments have good relations with Washington, and the few countries that do not are not going attack the U.S. anytime soon (if ever at all), then there is little reason to assign significant numbers of assets and platforms to SOUTHCOM. Thus, the concern is that, regional allies may interpret this situation as Washington no longer being interested in supporting their own security problems, which include transnational challenges like drug trafficking. SOUTHCOM’s lack of naval platforms is an example of this situation and potential perception.

It will be interesting to see if the Fiscal 2019 defense budget proposed by the Trump administration, which requests USD$686.1 billion, will trickle down to SOUTHCOM, though this seems unlikely given other U.S. military operations elsewhere on the globe. Nevertheless, a 12 December, 2017 story in the Navy Times reports that SOUTHCOM will receive “Littoral Combat Ship and Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport vessels,” which will be of great help for counter-narcotics and assistance operations.

The USCG

  • “I’d like to go on record to express my strong support for the U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts to recapitalize its fleet, especially its medium endurance cutters, which directly support JIATF South-led interdiction operations. As I have stated repeatedly, without U.S. Coast Guard cutters, USSOUTHCOM would have virtually no afloat maritime forces.” –Admiral Kurt Tidd

SOUTHCOM’s naval component, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/Fourth Fleet, relies on platforms that are temporarily assigned. For example, aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73) participated in the 2015 UNITAS exercises, while USS Somerset (LPD 25), USS Chafee (DDG 90) and USCGC Escanaba (WMEC 907) participated in 2017 UNITAS. SOUTHCOM does occasionally get assigned surface platforms, especially Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates prior to their decommissioning, which are deployed to patrol Caribbean waters to combat maritime crimes, particularly drug trafficking, as well as the hospital ship USNS Comfort.

A Coast Guard Cutter BERTHOLF boarding team aboard an Over the Horizon Long-Range Interceptor boat approaches a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel suspected of smuggling 7.5 tons of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Aug. 31, 2015. The seized contraband is worth an estimated $227 million. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

With that said, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is arguably the cornerstone enabler of SOUTHCOM maritime operations, particularly as employed by Joint Inter Agency Task Force South (JIATF-S) in the Greater Caribbean region. Indeed, there is a regular stream of reports about drug smuggling vessels being successfully interdicted by USCG platforms, like USCGC Tahoma (WMEC 908), which successfully interdicted over 1,800 kilograms of cocaine during a two-month tour in 2017. USCG platforms have also carried out humanitarian assistance in the Caribbean region, including, interestingly, in Nicaragua – via USCGC Northland (WMEC-904) in early 2018.

The LCS and SOUTHCOM

  • “I’d also like to express my unqualified support for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which we can leverage for multiple mission sets, including D&M, SOF support, partner nation capacity building, and potentially HA/DR response and medical engagements…My view is that the sooner we can deploy these ships in theater, the greater the impact we can have on interdicting the flow of illicit drugs into our country.”–Admiral Kurt Tidd

Admiral Tidd’s support for the LCS program is not surprising since, as previously mentioned, a number of them will hopefully be deployed to SOUTHCOM this year to help combat maritime crimes. The US Navy has reportedly decided not to re-activate its Perry-class frigates to support SOUTHCOM operations, thus all eyes are on the LCS and the Spearhead-class vessels for these operations.

Medical Diplomacy and HA/DR

  • “From a goodwill and engagement perspective, operational funding for the Navy’s hospital ship COMFORT has been a proven game-changer for USSOUTHCOM. We ask for the COMFORT every other year, but the Navy has been unable to source its employment due to the ship’s maintenance challenges.”
  • “We are working to transition future iterations of UNITAS from a traditional scripted exercise to an actual humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR) capable force that can exercise at sea against real world, unscripted missions.” –Admiral Kurt Tidd

As previously mentioned, USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has participated in several HA/DR operations in the Western Hemisphere in recent years. As the author explains in a 16 January commentary for CIMSEC, “Comfort was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those in need after Hurricane Maria hit the island. The vessel also traveled to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to assist with the relief and support efforts as part of Operation Unified Response.” The platform has also operated in initiatives like Partnership for the Americas and Operation Continuing Promise.

It could be argued that Comfort should be permanently assigned to Fourth Fleet so that it could be deployed more regularly to the region, but logistics, the ship’s age, and the fact that there is only one other hospital ship in the fleet, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19), make this highly unlikely.

It is worth noting that after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in 2016, Comfort was not deployed to the Caribbean island, but rather USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) and USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19), which provided humanitarian relief. Given recurring natural disasters, the general lack of inter-state warfare (maritime or not) in the region, and not being able to deploy the Comfort with much regularity, it makes sense that future multinational naval exercises, such as UNITAS, focus on disaster response so that regional countries can also provide relief services quickly when the next disaster occurs.

China and Russia

  • China, Russia, and Iran are courting some of our most strategically important Latin American and Caribbean partners and supporting authoritarian, anti-American regimes.”
  • “Expanded port and logistics access in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela provide Russia with persistent, pernicious presence, including more frequent maritime intelligence collection and visible force projection in the Western Hemisphere.”
  • “China’s commercial and diplomatic advances move it closer to its larger strategic goal of reshaping global economic and governance architectures… Increased reach to key global access points like Panama create commercial and security vulnerabilities for the United States…”–Admiral Kurt Tidd

China and Russia’s presence in Latin American and Caribbean waters is quite limited. The most significant deployment, in terms of numbers, occurred in 2008, when a small Russian fleet traveled to Caribbean waters to carry out military exercises with Venezuela – some of the vessels included “nuclear-powered Peter the Great cruiser and anti-submarine warship Admiral Chebanenko.” Nevertheless there have been some recent incidents, like in 2017, when intelligence ship Viktor Leonov docked in Havana, Cuba, and also traversed international waters off the East Coast of the U.S.

Russian AGI Viktor Leonov enters the bay in Havana, Cuba,on March 24, 2015. Image credit: Desmond Boylan / AP, file

Meanwhile, China is known in the region for the 2011 and 2015 deployment of its hospital ship Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital vessel. There have also been sporadic visits of Chinese warships to the region, like the 2013 visit to Argentina, Brazil and Chile of destroyer Lanzhou, frigate Liuzhou and supply ship Boyanghu.

It is conceivable that, in a more challenging scenario, Chinese warships could be invited by Latin American and Caribbean states to participate in naval exercises in the region, particularly as most of them have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, not the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan). The Posture Statement’s reference to the Panama Canal is likely tied to the fact that the government of Panama switched from having relations with Taiwan to China in 2017.

Maritime Crime

  • “Criminal networks move drugs and engage in a wide array of illegal activity, including weapons trafficking, chemical importation, poppy and coca cultivation, fentanyl smuggling, and illegal mining.”
  • “Naval Special Operations Forces in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama are now among the most competent and responsive counternarcotic (CN) units in Central America, integrating with air assets, effectively responding to JIATF South “cues,” and executing numerous joint and individual interdiction operations”
  • “We also supported our partners in the Dominican Republic to improve maritime interdiction in the Caribbean through the establishment of a Joint Task Force that combined SOF-trained CN units with Dominican naval aircraft.”
  • “We see great opportunity to build on the multinational cooperation that characterizes these international interdiction efforts, especially the successful inter-institutional coordination of last year’s Operation KRAKEN, in which the United States, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica targeted illicit maritime pathways in the Central American littorals.”–Admiral Kurt Tidd
Drugs produced and imported into South America follow numerous routes through the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific (not depicted) in order to get to market in the United States. Image credit: The Economist

Over the past year, U.S. platforms, whether from the Navy or Coast Guard, have successfully interdicted several vessels in Caribbean waters carrying narcoticsAdditionally, U.S. allies in Central America and the Caribbean are modernizing and expanding their naval forces. Fortunately, they have also enjoyed successes, for example the naval force of El Salvador’s seizure of over 700kg of cocaine aboard a suspicious vessel in January 2018.

Certainly, and tragically, these accomplishments are only slowing down the flow of drugs from south to north, as production continues in the former and there is still a market for drugs in the latter. The successes of SOUTHCOM and its regional allies against drug trafficking must go hand-in-hand with more comprehensive strategies to address this problem.

Final Thoughts

  • “We seek to mobilize and organize the unique strengths of each of our partners and Allies, to expand information sharing and collaboration, and to align security, development, and capacity building activities that allow us to translate short-term successes into long-term gains, sustained by an adaptive and inclusive regional security network.”–Admiral Kurt Tidd

In spite of being the lowest priority COCOM, SOUTHCOM has achieved various successes in maritime security in recent years, including a plethora of successful interdictions of suspicious vessels that were transporting contraband, particularly drugs. Humanitarian missions via USNS Comfort and other vessels are also a great achievement toward strengthening relations with regional states and exercising soft power.

SOUTHCOM benefits from the fact that most Latin American and Caribbean nations have cordial relations with the U.S. and would actually welcome greater U.S. defense assistance. Obviously, SOUTHCOM cannot do everything itself, hence it is important for it to promote the professionalism and modernization of the naval forces of partner nations. (While this commentary has focused on SOUTHCOM’s operations, other branches of the U.S. government, namely the State Department, should continue to work together with this COCOM to promote U.S. national interests in a region full of U.S. partners.)

SOUTHCOM’s 2018 Posture Statement demonstrates that while the U.S. continues to enjoy a network of allies in the Western Hemisphere, there are plenty of clear and present dangers and concerns that warrant greater support from Washington for this region.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: A U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces Airman with Special Operations Command South secures an airfield with Panamanian security force counterparts Feb. 1, 2018, during a culmination exercise in Colon, Panama. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Osvaldo Equite/RELEASED)

The Significance of U.S. and Chinese Hospital Ship Deployments to Latin America

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has become a regular visitor of Latin American and Caribbean waters as it often carries out humanitarian operations in those regions. Mostly recently, it was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those affected by Hurricane Maria. Furthermore, there is now an extra-regional hospital ship which is also traveling to these areas, namely China’s Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital ship that is operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Given that the governments these two platforms belong to are experiencing growing national security tensions it is necessary to discuss their activities and put this medical diplomacy in its proper geopolitical context.

This commentary is a continuation of an essay that the author drafted for CIMSEC titled “The uses of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet;” and draws from an analysis by CAPT John C. Devlin (ret.) and CDR John J. Devlin titled “Aligning HA/DR Mission Parameters with U.S. Navy Maritime Strategy.”

USNS Comfort

We will not supply an exhaustive list of Comfort’s operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but will rather provide some highlights. Most recently, as previously mentioned, Comfort was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those in need after Hurricane Maria hit the island. The vessel also traveled to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to assist with the relief and support efforts as part of Operation Unified Response.

Additionally, Comfort has been deployed to the region as part of initiatives like the Partnership for the Americas and Operation Continuing Promise. Countries that were visited during these voyages include Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Peru, among others.

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) (U.S. Navy photo)

It is worth noting that Comfort is a large vessel, with a length of 894 feet and a beam of 105 feet, the same as its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) – the two are converted San Clemente-class super tankers. According to the U.S. Navy,  each platform “contain[s] 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants,” along with helicopter decks. Hence, the vessel is able to provide for vast numbers of patients simultaneously with different services. For example, according to the magazine Dialogo, some 19,000 patients were treated by Comfort personnel when the vessel docked in Belize and Guatemala as part of Continuing Promise 2015.

Peace Ark

As for Peace Ark, the Chinese vessel is newer than Comfort, as the former was commissioned in 2008 while the latter was commissioned in 1987 – a two decade difference. The newer vessel reportedly measures 583 feet in length and displaces 10,000 tons fully loaded, and fields a Z-9 helicopter. It also has 300 beds for patients, eight operating rooms and 20 intensive care units. When deployed, its crew is made up of up to 328 plus 100 medical personnel.

In a 2014 article by USNI News, Peace Ark’s Senior Captain Sun Tao declared, “other than internal organ transplant …or any kind of heart disease treatment, [Peace Ark] can pretty much do any kind of treatment.” The article goes on to note that “This includes, perhaps not surprisingly, traditional Chinese medicine. A room onboard Peace Ark is specifically reserved for the ancient therapies of cupping, massage, and acupuncture.” 

Medical workers treat mock wounded people during an exercise aboard the Chinese navy hospital ship Peace Ark Sept. 15, 2010. The ship on Wednesday arrived in the Gulf of Aden to provide medical service for the Chinese escort fleet, as its first overseas medical mission. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Because the Chinese vessel has also been deployed throughout Asia and Africa in the last decade, Peace Ark has traveled significantly fewer times than Comfort to Latin America and the Caribbean. Its first tour was “Harmonious Mission 2011, a 105 day trip in which the platform visited Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. The platform returned to the region in 2015, visiting countries like Barbados, Mexico, and Peru.

Significance

At a local level, the arrivals of these vessels are a welcomed development as they provide medical services that local populations may not be able to obtain otherwise from their local governments. Thus, it probably matters very little to the inhabitants of these areas whether a hospital ship flies either a U.S. or Chinese flag, as long as they provide health services that are needed. Indeed, articles published by Latin American and Caribbean media outlets that reported visits by either Comfort or Peace Ark included generally positive statements by local authorities and patients.

At a geopolitical level, these hospital ships carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HA/DR) that are in line with their respective navy’s overall strategies of aiding populations in need. Moreover, and unsurprisingly, these visits help to boost up the image of the nation deploying the platform in the eyes of the hosting government and population. For example, a 2011 article by Mercopress that discussed Peace Ark’s arrival to Jamaica had the following statement “the mission is part of a global campaign by Beijing to portray its rapidly growing military as a responsible power.” Similarly, the aforementioned CIMSEC article states that HA/DR operations “are a vital part of U.S. Navy maritime strategy by ensuring regional stability through building partner nation capacity and expanding our sphere of influence.”

While an exhaustive analysis of each nation that Comfort visits is beyond the objectives of this commentary, it is worth noting that the countries it regularly visits are those that the U.S. has good relations with, though there has been one notable exception. In 2011 Comfort docked in Manta, Ecuador: this is was a significant visit as then-President Rafael Correa was known for his anti-Washington rhetoric and for having ordered the shutdown of the U.S. military facilities in Ecuador in 2009. Thus, it is somewhat bizarre that President Correa would authorize a (unarmed) U.S. ship to enter his country’s territorial waters. It would be interesting if the government of Venezuela would similarly allow Comfort to dock in Venezuela’s coast, given the problematic situation of the country’s health system. Nevertheless, the tense bilateral relations make it highly unlikely that Caracas would authorize such a visit, or that Washington would offer it in the first place.

Moreover, as far as the author can determine, Peace Ark has only visited countries whose governments recognize the People’s Republic of China and not the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan). It will important to monitor if future Peace Ark deployments include countries that still maintain relations with Taipei, as Beijing may be looking to obtain the recognition of Taiwan’s last remaining allies in the region – the latest nation to switch sides was Panama in mid-2017.

Ultimately, setting aside the geopolitical motivations for the deployment of these vessels, the humanitarian activities that they carry out ensures that both Comfort and Peace Ark will continue to be welcomed across the Latin America and the Caribbean as future harsh climate events will require greater humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

In 2017 alone, regional navies had to carry out major relief operations. Case in point, the Peruvian Navy (Marina de Guerra del Peru) deployed several platforms to the country’s northern regions to provide assistance after torrential rains hit many areas. Similarly, the Colombian Navy (Armada de Colombia) has deployed offshore patrol vessels to transport humanitarian aid to areas hit by floods. Even more, the Honduran Navy (Fuerza Naval) has acquired a multipurpose vessel, Gracias a Dios, to combat maritime drug trafficking and to provide assistance to coastal communities. In other words, humanitarian assistance has been a key component of naval strategies, and its importance will only increase in the near future, meaning that support from allies will remain a necessity for many Latin American and Caribbean states.

Final Thoughts

USNS Comfort and China’s Peace Ark have carried out commendable humanitarian work throughout many coastal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean as their tours in these regions have helped individuals who would otherwise have trouble accessing medical services. These humanitarian assistance deployments will continue to be necessary in both the short- and long-term. As for the geopolitical value of such deployments, they are a non-dangerous and effective example of “soft power” via which both Beijing and Washington utilize to maintain and improve their image in these regions.

Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: This a Chinese hospital ship. Called the Peace Ark, this ship is under the command of the Chinese Navy. (Photo by Jake Burghart)