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PANAMAX and UNITAS 2013: Life in the Sequester

These are hard times for the U.S. military, which has been facing not only planned force structure and acquisition cuts, but also the erosion of operations and maintenance funding due to sequestration. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than at the Unified Combatant Commands (CCMDs) like U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Never a lavishly supported or funded CCMD, SOUTHCOM has now found it impossible to completely support its already modest program of training, exercises, and engagement operations with allies across its area of responsibility (AOR). Already SOUTHCOM commander Gen. John F. Kelly, USMC, has had to cancel more than 40 percent of the 1,000+ regional engagements originally planned for 2013. So how does a COCOM commander like Kelly best manage an engagement policy that has been gutted by a congressionally mandated sequester? For Kelly and his SOUTHCOM command staff, salvaging the training and engagements planned for 2013 meant the outright cancellation of some events, and downgrading others:

So how does a COCOM commander like Kelly best manage an engagement policy that has been gutted by a congressionally mandated sequester? For Kelly and his SOUTHCOM command staff, salvaging the training and engagements planned for 2013 meant the outright cancellation of some events, and downgrading others.

•   Cancellation – As mentioned earlier, more than 40 percent of SOUTHCOM’s planned 2013 engagements were canceled outright as soon as sequestration took effect in early 2013. Most of the cancellations involved small engagement teams, ranging from Special Forces soldiers doing professional training for allied military and police forces, to engineers helping build or upgrade schools, hospitals, and other public structures.

PANAMAX 2013

Ecuadorian Army Lt. Col. Daniel Bermudez works with Dominican Republic Army Lt. Col. Miguel Suero to map out counterattack scenarios during a war gaming synchronization in the Coalition Forces Land Component Command cell at PANAMAX 2013, Aug. 15, 2013. More than 160 participants from 18 countries gathered together at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) for a more austere version of the annual exercise that focuses on supporting the Panamanian government in defense of the strategic Panama Canal. PANAMAX 2013 was converted to a tabletop staff event due to sequestration. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Elizabeth Thompson

There were, however, several significant cancellations from the SOUTHCOM engagement schedule in 2013. Certainly most visible was the decision to cancel Operation Continuing Promise, the U.S. Navy’s annual hospital ship cruise through the region. This popular and effective means of showing American interest and commitment in the region is now on hold until sequestration is ended. A similar decision was made regarding the popular special operations forces (SOF) “rodeo” Fuerzas Comando. In addition, SOUTHCOM also cancelled two other major exercises: Freuzas Aliadas Humanitarias (humanitarian/disaster relief response) and Peacekeeping Operations – America.

In an attempt to preserve both the tradition and the intent of PANAMAX, SOUTHCOM has converted the exercise into a headquarters tabletop staff event in Miami, testing the ability of international personnel and systems to deal with an emerging international crisis or contingency.

•   Conversion – Another option that SOUTHCOM is using to preserve its traditional engagement program is to convert some events into tabletop exercises. Perhaps the best example of this in 2013 was the conversion of Fuerzas Aliadas PANAMAX, SOUTHCOM’s annual Panama Canal Zone defense exercise, into a tabletop staff event. PANAMAX is normally run as a large-scale, force-on-force exercise in the Canal Zone itself, and thus is expensive to conduct even in good times. In an attempt to preserve both the tradition and the intent of PANAMAX, SOUTHCOM has converted the exercise into a headquarters tabletop staff event in Miami, testing the ability of international personnel and systems to deal with an emerging international crisis or contingency. While the 2013 edition of PANAMAX did not involve any sort of judging, there remains the possibility of upgrading future events with simulations and models, creating a more dynamic event, possibly even a wargame like Intrinsic Action, the annual U.S. Central Command Title 10 game.

UNITAS 2013

Peruvian Navy Lt. Palao Camogliano, Operations Specialists 2nd Class Royce McGee and Matthew Barnes in the combat information center aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Rentz (FFG 46) confirm the position of a simulated enemy destroyer during war games as part of the annual UNITAS 2013 multinational maritime exercise off the coast of Colombia, Sept. 14, 2013. Despite being scaled down due to the sequester, UNITAS 2013 was still a successful exercise. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker

•   Exercises – In a few cases, and where fiscally possible, SOUTHCOM has attempted to preserve some of the more important and long-standing regional exercises, albeit on a more austere basis, with reduced resources and activities. This was particularly true in this year’s largest, and SOUTHCOM’s oldest ongoing exercise, UNITAS. Normally run as two separate events, one in the Pacific and the other in the Atlantic/Caribbean/Gulf region, UNITAS 2013 was run as a single event from September 8 to 16, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. Hosted in Cartagena, Colombia, UNITAS 2013 was a full-spectrum force on force exercise, with anti-surface warfare (ASUW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-air warfare (AAW), and unconventional warfare (UW) evolutions for participants.

While SOUTHCOM managed to preserve UNITAS 2013, it was hardly the naval pageant that had been conducted in the previous 50+ years.

While SOUTHCOM managed to preserve UNITAS 2013, it was hardly the naval pageant that had been conducted in the previous 50+ years. While only a single U.S. warship, the San Diego-based frigate USS Rentz (FFG 46 – with two Seahawk helicopters embarked) and a flag staff from Destroyer Squadron 40 (DESRON 40) participated, eighteen other vessels from fifteen partner nations, including Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, and the United Kingdom also participated. In addition, the U.S. supported UNITAS 2013 with P-3C patrol planes from Patrol Squadron Ten (VP-10 – “The Red Lancers),” part of Patrol Wing 11 (PATRON 11)) flying three ASW and ASUW support sorties from Barranquilla Airfield in Colombia. Along with live-fire ASUW events with various types of targets, the participants of UNITAS were also able to practice UW skills like at-sea boarding. For all of its imposed fiscal constraints, UNITAS 2013 provided good experiences and information, often about each other, for those lucky enough to take part.

PANAMAX 2013

U.S. Air Force Capt. Andres Munera and Peruvian Navy Cmdr. Rodolfo Ruiz brief the Multi National Forces South cell on medical’s plan of action after a war gaming synchronization at Panamax 2013, Aug. 14, 2013. SOUTHCOM is preparing for further sequester-related belt-tightening heading into 2014. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Elizabeth Thompson

As SOUTHCOM moves into fiscal year 2014, expectations are that the fiscal constraints on training, exercises, and partnership engagements are going to tighten a great deal over those seen in FY13. Given the prevailing atmosphere with respect to fiscal matters in Washington, there is little reason to believe that the current budget crisis is going to be anything but worse. In an exclusive interview recently given to Defense Media Network, when asked about what sort of effect sequestration would have for FY14, Kelly simply answered, “It’s worse. Significantly worse.”

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...