US Navy prepares aircraft carrier strike group for “major training exercise”

The (US) Navy will send an aircraft carrier strike group, with four ships, a 60-plane air wing and 6,500 sailors, to Caribbean and South American waters for a major training exercise, it was announced Monday.

Some defense analysts suggested that the unusual two-month-long deployment, set to begin in early April, could be interpreted as a show of force by anti-American governments in Venezuela and Cuba.

The mission was sought by the US Southern Command, which has its headquarters in Miami and is responsible for all military activities in Latin America south of Mexico.

* The Navy was last in the region in force in January 2003, when it used the bombing ranges at the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for the final time.

Led by the aircraft carrier George Washington, the deployment also will include the guided missile cruiser Monterey, guided missile destroyer Stout — all from Norfolk — and the guided missile frigate Underwood, based in Mayport, Fla.

“The presence of a US carrier task force in the Caribbean will definitely be interpreted as some sort of signal by the governments of Cuba and Venezuela,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a pro-defense think tank in Washington.

“If I was sitting in the Venezuela capital looking at this American task force, the message I would be getting is America still is not so distracted by Iraq that it is unable to enforce its interests in the Caribbean,” Thompson said.

The objective of the deployment is to support the Southern Command’s maritime security in its area of responsibility, the Navy said, which includes 32 countries: 19 in Central and South America and 13 in the Caribbean.

The Navy, citing security requirements, declined to say which nations the carrier group would work with or which ports it might visit. “Each ship will make two or three port visits in the region throughout their two-month deployment, but at this time no announcements are being made,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon, a spokesman for the US Southern Command.

Called ‘Partnership of the Americas,’ the exercise will focus on “unconventional threats, such as narco-terrorism and human trafficking, and improving training levels in a variety of mission areas,” the Navy said in a news release.

Stephen Johnson, a former US State Department and senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation, said such training exercises are relatively common in the region for the United States , albeit smaller ones. “It’s a chance to show the flag and let our friends know we care,” he said.

As far as the exercise also sending a message to Latin American countries opposed to US policies, particularly to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, “there is a challenge for us not to be threatening and reignite hostilities in the region,” Johnson said. However, there also is increasing concern Venezuela has begun to amass new weapons – from rifles to helicopters — possibly including Russian Su-27 or Chinese J-10 aircraft .

Tom Baranauskas, a Latin American defence analyst with Forecast International, said Venezuela has plans to procure 138 naval vessels, from small patrol craft to larger ones capable of carrying surface-to-air missiles. It also wants to buy 30 transports and gunship helicopters for the army, he said.

* Venezuela has always announced plans for acquiring new military hardware, even before Chavez came to power in 1998, but couldn’t afford it , he said.

“That was before the oil prices went up,” Baranauskas said. “Now the money is available, and there is a pretty nice pool to buy this stuff from.”

Thompson, with the Lexington Institute, said that although the Caribbean is a natural training area for the United States, “we don’t have a task force there very often because of the political sensitivities.

“So the fact we are doing it now will be interpreted by Castro and Chavez as indicative of some sort of US plan, or initiative, or whatever you want to call it ,” said Thompson, referring to the Venezuelan leader and Cuban President Fidel Castro. He said US military interests in the region “waxes and wanes” depending on the political rhythms.

“Right now, in addition to the persistent irritation of Castro, we have a very anti-American government in Venezuela, and we have a chronic guerrilla insurgency and narcotics problem in Colombia. “Needless to say, the Venezuela issues intersect rather powerfully with our energy dependence.”

Norfolk-based Navy officials said the last time an aircraft carrier was in that region was summer 2004, when the Ronald Reagan sailed around South America after it left Norfolk to join the Pacific Fleet. However, that was a relatively quick trip to get the ship to its new home in San Diego.

The Navy drastically cut back sending its carrier groups, as well as all other warships, to the Caribbean for training when it agreed to abandon the island of Vieques near Puerto Rico in May 2003. Such training activities have since moved to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

Likewise, a yearly exercise in the area, called UNITAS, has been scaled back in recent years. UNITAS is a multinational naval deployment exercise.

Every year since 1960, US Navy ships have circumnavigated the South American continent, participating in maneuvers with local navies.

Lately, however, fewer than four US ships have participated. Instead of an exercise that once lasted as long as six months, it now is relegated to a month or two and is conducted in phases.