Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org)
Lundquist: Tell us a little about yourself and your job here in command of the U.S. Fourth Fleet:
Buck: I’m a VP guy. I spent my career flying P-3 maritime patrol aircraft. Now I find myself in command of the U.S. Fourth Fleet, and furiously learning more and more and more about the surface navy. Fortunately I am predominately surrounded by surface warriors. We have some phenomenal surface expertise on this staff, from my chief of staff and my ops officer on down. I just spent about the last six weeks at sea in the South Pacific Ocean on USS Chafee (DDG 90), USS Louisville (SSN 724), and USS Somerset (LSD 25), doing exercises doing things the way we’re going to fight.
We were down there for two real big exercises – Teamwork South, which is a bilateral that we do with Chile; and then UNITAS, which is a huge exercise that I sponsor each year. It was hosted by Peru this year, with about 19 other nations participating. I was embarked Chafee. It was a fabulous experience, and I was really tempted to stay on her for her 7-month deployment to the South China Sea.
We’ve found a lot of threats in this AOR doing all sorts of nefarious things just below the radar, preying upon the weak institutions of a lot of these countries. So that’s the greatest threat and that’s my greatest operational priority to go after these trans-regional and trans-national networks.
We went kinetic, and shot weapons off that ship eight days in a row. Then concluded it with an 850-marine amphibious landing with U.S. Marines and foreign partner marines on the northern coast of Peru, in the deserts of Peru, in front of the president and minister of defense of Peru. It’s been a terrific experience for us, because you don’t learn until you’re in the environment. So this tour has been the most professionally rewarding experience of my career so far.
Lundquist: How would you characterize the quality and professionalism of our partners down there?
Buck: They’re good, and a couple stand out. I’ll give you an example. I went down to Chile with Vice Admiral Nora Tyson, the Third Fleet commander. We went together, Third Fleet and Fourth Fleet because we’re the support structure to the entire continent on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The first Chilean admiral said to us, “Admirals, we just want you to know that 24/7, 365 days of the year, the Chilean Navy trains in English.” And I’m thinking, that’s 51 percent of the interoperability issue right there, it’s the language barrier. Chile has invested quite heavily in their Navy. It’s the premier military service in their country. A Chilean flag officer will be the Combined Forces Maritime Component Commander (CFMCC) – which is the Navy component to the Joint Task Force – for RIMPAC 2018.
Chile will be the combined maritime force commander for RIMPAC 2018. That’s a big deal. That gives you an idea of how they’re trying to play more on the global maritime stage than just in the Western Hemisphere here. But Adm. Kurt Tidd, the Southern Command commander and myself – we would prefer that these nations continue to look at home, too. You cannot forget about the Western Hemisphere. There are threats here that need all of us to keep our eye on the ball. These transregional and transnational threat networks that are here… it’s predominately, they ply their trade with illicit goods – you know, weapons, money, people, drugs – they ply that trade in the maritime domain. I look at that map right there on my wall and see a lot of water – 29 of the 31 countries in my AOR have a coastline. Paraguay and Bolivia are the only two land-locked nations. So we are very maritime-focused – both the “good guys,” and the “bad guys.” That’s the result of years of classroom training and education ashore understanding the American construct and how we organize, through tabletop and command post exercises, and a lot of operational participation in RIMPAC with warships and sailors and officers. Ultimately they have been invited to be the CFMCC, and it’ll be a yearlong preparation to do that. Chile is organized and training and preparing for great success. So they’ll have a warship or two, but they will also have a two-star admiral that will be CFMCC.
The countries in Central and South America have different economies and abilities to support military infrastructure. But they very much want to contribute. And they’re very proud to contribute. The other thing is I look at the economies in South America, and the economies therefore to be able to support military infrastructure. In the case of Chile, their military is funded by the proceeds of the sale of copper. They have something called the Copper Law that designates that 10 percent of the proceeds of copper exports funds their military. Chile sits on quite a large percentage of the world’s copper reserves, and I’m told that the sale of copper is very healthy.
Lundquist: In addition to the South American navies, I understand you had some other UNITAS participants this year.
Buck: We had people from Malaysia, Spain, and Indonesia. They brought warships; we all shot, and everyone played very well.
Lundquist: What are your operational priorities in Fourth Fleet, and what do you think we need here to support the SOUTHCOM commander in the future?
Buck: My operational priorities fall right in line with how Admiral Tidd is leading us and how he has written his theater strategy. He knows Fourth Fleet. He had this job, and sat in that seat right there. He’s leading us on a new journey. We’ve had a single commodity strategy for 40 years or more, stopping the illicit flow of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs coming up from South America north toward the U.S. We’re dealing with so many trans-regional and trans-national threat networks that definitely don’t abide by geographic or U.S.-defined combatant command boundaries. They absolutely have no morality. These networks that the druggies have built over decades are also trafficking in weapons, people, money, and now even gold and timber using these same network paths. Most of these routes are in the maritime domain using the same type of conveyances, such as fishing vessels, go-fasts, pangas, container ships, semi-submersibles and submarines. We have phenomenal algorithms and software to break down the key nodes of a network find the high value individuals and study their pattern of life. We get to know who their friends are, where they shop, where they worship, where they go to school, where their wives go, where their children go, how their friends come to their house. We build out that spider web of that network, and do the nodal analysis to figure out how and when to take a high-value individual off the net, or we break down part of the network such as the financial aspect of an organization – and do counter-threat financing. And you begin to strangle them. We’ve found a lot of threats in this AOR doing all sorts of nefarious things just below the radar, preying upon the weak institutions of a lot of these countries. So that’s the greatest threat and that’s my greatest operational priority to go after these trans-regional and trans-national networks. They don’t abide by or share our values of democracy or the rule of law, and they create enough chaos and enough confusion so that they can ply their trade and continue to ultimately break down regional security, which affects the U.S. Our security is dependent on the security down south. We have some big challenges in Asia and the Middle East and elsewhere, and our leadership depends on U.S. Southern Command and Fourth Fleet to protect America’s southern approaches. So we have our eye on that ball. There another threat, and that’s Mother Nature. I’m also here to be a first responder with U.S. Navy assets to respond when any of our partners are in need down south for humanitarian assistance or disaster relief. That’s a very big mission set. It’s not “if,” it’s “when.” There will be hurricanes every season, as well as devastating earthquakes, and active volcanoes. We have many reasons to come to the aid of our southern partners when they’re in need of assistance, so it’s a big part of my focus.
SOUTHCOM doesn’t enjoy a lot of naval resources. We don’t have a lot of Navy assets to make port visits and show the flag. So that job falls to me much of the time.
The third priority is to support regional security and stability and strengthening partnerships. When I present myself downrange to meet the senior leadership of our partner navies, I am there to present myself and my credentials to win their trust and respect, and to be sure they understand that the United States and the U.S. Navy desires to be, and is committed to be, a partner of choice. So that’s my third priority, is to strengthen relationships downrange. My wife is able to join me sometimes. In the Latin American culture, family is a big deal. When we sit and talk about our families and get to know one another personally, it’s a way to gradually build that trust. SOUTHCOM doesn’t enjoy a lot of naval resources. We don’t have a lot of Navy assets to make port visits and show the flag. So that job falls to me much of the time. Fortunately, Latin America currently is enjoying its most peaceful time in modern history, and that’s a good thing. Many of these countries have had wars and insurrections. But for the most part they are peacefully coexisting right now. They’re all very focused on their own internal problems. They have gang warfare and internal strife. I would suggest to you a big threat in Latin America is internal corruption, which can complicate any assistance we try to provide them. It’s discouraging, but it takes a constant effort from us to continue to help them get over that. But right now, I LOVE looking at that map and thinking about those countries, and who I’ve met, and realize that they’re enjoying relative peace. We’re not spilling blood in the SOUTHCOM AOR from external threats. They need to solve it for themselves in a lot of cases.
So those are my three priorities: taking down the threat networks; providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief response when needed; and strengthening partnerships down south. That’s my role as Commander of Naval Forces Southern Command in the Fourth Fleet.
Lundquist: Do you keep one eye on Venezuela?
Buck: Absolutely. If we have nefarious activity that’s breaking down the governmental institutions in a country, or a natural disaster, these can create a mass migration problem. A big part of our focus is responding to a mass migration. It could come from a Caribbean nation, or instability in Venezuela could start a mass migration to its border with Colombia, which is just coming out of a 52-year long civil war. We want Colombia’s nascent peace process to succeed – and if they were suddenly crushed with tens of thousands of fleeing Venezuelans, that’s not good. We definitely have our eye on the ball in Venezuela.
Lundquist: What are some of your operational assets to address those challenges?
Buck: I don’t have too many assigned or allocated forces as the Fourth Fleet commander. I have two direct reports. I have the commander of Destroyer Squadron 40, which has the command and control authority, but without permanently assigned ships. They use resources that are temporarily assigned to execute some of our mission sets. I also have assigned to me Cooperative Security Location Comalapa in the country of El Salvador. The CSL operates from a Salvadoran airbase where we have operated with P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, and we are transitioning to the P-8 Poseidon MPA. That’s how I support JIATF South’s detection and monitoring mission counter-narcotics work from the air. So those are my two direct reports as the Fourth Fleet Commander: a destroyer squadron and a Cooperative Security Location with MPA. I then enjoy taking operational control of naval assets – ships, aircraft, submarines, and expeditionary forces such as Seabees or medical teams that operate in the AOR, and I have OPCON of them while they’re here. Some of those deployments are sporadic, and some have a more constant presence downrange.
Lundquist: What is your area of responsibility?
Buck: The Caribbean, Central America, short of Mexico, and Latin South and south to the Antarctic. Northern Command is responsible for Mexico, and Adm. Phil Davidson, who is Fleet Forces Command, is the naval component commander for NORTHCOM.
Lundquist: But you exercise with the Mexican Navy.
Buck: We just concluded Panamax, an annual exercise in which we practice the defense and protection of the Panama Canal. The Mexican Navy was here. And they participate in UNITAS – they brought a warship. Mexico is always invited to be a part of what we do in the SOUTHCOM AOR, as well as to the north. They took part in Dawn Blitz, a big amphibious exercise conducted by Third Fleet. They also patrol in the Caribbean with us. But the direct relationship with Mexico falls under Admiral Davidson.
Lundquist: You mentioned HA/DR, and building capacity to be able to respond to disasters. That gets into your various theater security cooperation (TSC) initiatives, sending ships, Seabees; medical or veterinary or dental civil action teams; or using platforms like the EPF. How do you do that here?
Buck: One of our longstanding operations is called Continuing Promise. It’s the humanitarian mission that we do each year, and we’re pretty proud of it. We go downrange and we bring to bear medical, dental, nursing and veterinarian assistance to countries in need. We used to do that through the presence of one of our hospital ships – the Comfort, or amphibious ships USS Boxer (LHD 4), USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) and USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). Adm. Tidd wants to continue to deliver that good will downrange because it definitely helps with our effort to be known as the “partner of choice.” And there is a constant need. We now have had to learn how to deliver that and scale that to a different platform. Periodically, I’ll be given the use of a big deck amphib ship. What I’m depending on currently, and for the foreseeable future, is an EPF. Last year, for the very first time we used the USNS Spearhead as the ship assigned to my AOR. We used it for the first time in Continuing Promise ’17. We manned it up with doctors, nurses, dentists and veterinarians, water makers, Seabees, and people that can help construct or repair school houses or hospitals. We’ve become very expeditionary. Instead of bringing the patients aboard the large hospital ship with massive capacity – surgical rooms, overnight stays and the ability to do more sophisticated surgeries that require follow-up, we now have Spearhead. It was supposed to be a combat ferry for the Army, now it’s operated for the Navy by Military Sealift Command. Although we’re experimenting with adaptive force packages, we’re learning how to use our fleet of EPFs in many innovative ways. Seventh Fleet is using EPF for Pacific Partnership, and Sixth Fleet has used EPF for Africa Partnership Station. We have tested out the adaptive force packages for delivering medical and humanitarian goodwill. The adaptive force packages are modular, and EPF is built for modularity. You just have a prioritization scheme of what you need, because the capacity is limited.
We will continue to be as innovative and experiment as much as we can to figure out how to use EPF as an ISR platform, and also a fast responder and continue to play in the humanitarian disaster relief response effort. I’d like EPF to be a part of the counter-narcotics detection and monitoring mission for JIATF South.
EPF delivers us to a small expeditionary base we set up, a “tent city,” for two weeks per country. And the country teams that are downrange help to get the word out that we’re coming, and people in need line up in droves. We’ll visit a particular area of the country that our country team and the State Department that is in most need, suitable from a force protection standpoint so that my medical providers do not come into harm’s way. Otherwise I would need even a much robust security perimeter. We want to help people in need while at the same time training our doctors, nurses, and dentists how to care for patients in remote expeditionary harsh environments. Our medical providers love the mission because they’re able to deal with challenges in the jungle environment like zika, malaria, chikungunya and dengue fever that they normally don’t get to work with back in the states. We need our Navy medicine team to practice expeditionary medicine, and train as they’re going to fight. That’s the value of Continuing Promise.
Lundquist: Do you also have a telemedicine capability for reach back?
Buck: That whole reach back is a HUGE force multiplier. I witnessed it in Honduras, with a VTC back to, to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, and they were asking some questions because they had a patient showing some signs of something that they’d never thought in the world they’d see and they needed a little bit more expertise.
Lundquist: Do you also embark some NGO (non-governmental organization) doctors and medical staff for these operations?
Buck: Absolutely! We’re blessed by a lot of NGO organizations. They bring doctors, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, and participate in subject matter expert exchanges we call SMEEs. Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. There’s a fine balance on providing medical care: you come in and you provide unbelievably good U.S. standard medical care and you help a lot of people – you fix a lot of things that have gone untreated for too long, and you build a lot of goodwill. But we don’t want to put their local doctor out of business, and wipe out what little organic medical capability that village or that town has. We want to build the trust of the local population for their local medical providers to help them. So we find there’s a real fine balance between providing medical services, or loading EPF up with a doctors, nurses, dentists and vets, and provide those SME exchanges at their local hospital or their clinic, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and maybe we share better technique or a better tool so that we leave behind the instruments and the knowledge, but let the local doctor do the work. We want the people to see that their doctors are competent, they should trust them, and when we leave after two or three weeks, we don’t want the local population to wait until we come back next year. That defeats the purpose. And I’m very proud of how we do that.
We want to contribute to a more stable, regional viewpoint of the people that they believe and trust in their government, and they’re healthier, and they’re stronger to take care of themselves and not let nefarious actors come in and take over. We capture that balance.
Lundquist: How has the EPF worked out for you?
Buck: It’s worked out pretty well. It’s obviously a smaller footprint in capacity and capability than a hospital ship for that adaptive force package. We’re also able to experiment with adaptive force packages that bring all sorts of neat capability. As an ISR platform, it’s very fast, so it can get people to and from the fight. I would suggest to you that it has some sea-keeping limitations, such as in the Caribbean, where we get heavy sea states. Would I rather have an 1100-foot hospital ship that doesn’t have seakeeping problem? Sure. Would I rather have a big deck amphib, would I rather have a U.S. destroyer? Sure. But I will use what I get. I’m very appreciative of having the EPF.
It’s height above the water line is unique, and it has certain limitations on which ports it can come pier side, and where we can provide adequate force protection? And then what’s the need of the local population? And we have not exhausted the list of where we can go, so there will always be a good use. We’re about to get the USNS Burlington home-ported here at Mayport. So I’m working with one EPF now, Spearhead, and in late ’18, early ’19, I’m gonna begin to have the good graces of two EPFs. And we will continue to be as innovative and experiment as much as we can to figure out how to use EPF as an ISR platform, and also a fast responder and continue to play in the humanitarian disaster relief response effort. I’d like EPF to be a part of the counter-narcotics detection and monitoring mission for JIATF South.
Spearhead operates out of Key West for logistical re-supply and maintenance. When we get down to Central America – like Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama – where we deliver this humanitarian goodwill, we will stop and sit off the coast of Honduras and have Joint Task Force Bravo – our big Army footprint in Honduras – do all their helicopter deck-landing quals on Spearhead to maintain the readiness of JTF Bravo, and they’re very appreciative of that. When we had the Marine Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SP-MAGTF) down here with their whole helicopter component did all their DLQs on Spearhead.
Lundquist: Do you do a lot of research test and development and evaluation?
Buck: We are known as a “theater of innovation” for the Navy. The Office of Naval Research (ONR), Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and Naval Research Laboratory are down here all the time. We do a lot of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) work – on the PCs and EPF, on all my platforms. We’re continually trying to figure out, “Okay, we got these vessels, here’s some new stuff. How does this help?” And I love helping out in that world of innovation.
Lundquist: You have instilled that culture for innovation within your staff and your subordinate commands. How do you encourage them to come up with ideas and solutions–not just the technology, but tactics, techniques, procedures, doctrine?
Buck: So I’m blessed with a permanent representation from ONR and CNA. I have a science advisor and I have a CNA field rep, and then I have one assigned officer for a core of three that make up my ‘innovation cell’ who drive all this on a day-to-day basis. That’s what they come to work to do–to find out what’s out there; who may want to come in; who we’d like to ask to come in; and work through that to operationally plan and execute the tests. And that has percolated throughout my command very easily because we got nothing else. So we are all very welcoming to that. I didn’t have to create that culture – it created itself out of a need, out of a dearth of resources.
We’re closely tied into JIATF South. And I have a full common operational picture of every Coast Guard asset here – air, on the sea – we work very closely with them. My Navy is white hulls with orange stripes.
Lundquist: Do you deal with the U.S. Coast Guard?
Buck. Yes, sir! God bless the United States Coast Guard. I can’t say that loud enough. They are, essentially, the U.S. Naval presence in the Caribbean right now. The Coast Guard, under the leadership of the commandant, has chosen to completely lean into Central, South America, and the Caribbean. They are ALL IN. When we do get U.S. Navy platforms, as you know, we’re not a law enforcement service. We support; we’re not the supported. But when you put a law enforcement detachment on my aircraft, or my ship, or my submarine, we become a law enforcement platform and it’s very powerful. We can find, detect, monitor, and vector in the Coast Guard for the end game; or we can put the Coast Guard law enforcement DET on our platform and we become the end game. And they’re really good at what they do. They’re really, really good at what they do.
Lundquist: There are something like nine Coast Guard cutters down in the AOR. When you get your morning ops brief, do you know where they all are?
Buck: Every one. Yes, sir. We’re closely tied into JIATF South. And I have a full common operational picture of every Coast Guard asset here – air, on the sea – we work very closely with them. My Navy is white hulls with orange stripes. JIATF South in Key West is commanded by a two-star Coast Guard admiral, and Admiral Tidd’s operations officer – his J3 – is a two-star Coast Guard admiral. The Coast Guard is very present in prominent positions here in the AOR. In fact, Coast Guard cutters come in and out here of the basin all the time. Some of them call this their ‘home port.’ They’re in an out all the time, every single day.
Lundquist: How do you support JIATF South or how do they support you? What’s the relationship there?
Buck: I have the operational control (OPCON) of the naval assets, and they will take tactical control (TACON) for specific missions. They execute the operations here in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific. We’re probably in communications ten times a day with JIATF South. I have a liaison officer from my team, permanently attached to JIATF South at Key West who is my “reach” – reach in and reach back. It is the best example of inter-agency task force cooperation that we have in this country, and it’s the envy of every country around the world how well we display whole of government inter-agency work to get after a military problem.
Our small yet high performing team is so hungry for stuff, and we realize that we have to plan well and make sure that we make good use of what we’re given.
Lundquist: Do you have a Maritime Operations Center (MOC) here?
Buck: I do. This fleet operates under the MHQ concept – the Maritime Headquarters MOC. I would suggest that we are, next to Fifth Fleet, probably the purest model of that concept. We have completely adopted it in spades. We don’t have the absolute full complement of capability of a MOC. For example, I don’t have a fires cell because I don’t need one right now. I can import that help if I needed it. I think we’re appropriately manned to the mission sets that I have with my MHQ MOC.
Lundquist: What didn’t I ask you that you want to say about your people?
Buck: The United States Fourth Fleet is a small, yet high-performing team, and we punch above our weight. My sailors are very competent, they’re very skilled, they’re very aware, dedicated, and passionate, and I think we’ve made a huge difference in this AOR. I got the Navy to commit a P-8 Poseidon aircraft, the USS Chafee, the USS Louisville, and the USS Somerset, to the two exercises way south – to Chile, to Teamwork South in Chile and UNITAS out of Lima, Peru. We got some high-end stuff. During Teamwork South our P-8 conducted a live-firing of a Harpoon for a SINK-EX and shot a ship at sea. They gave me an SSN to come down to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chilean Submarine Force, and then conducted ASW missions for seven days. Chafee is on deployment, and supposed to go to South China Sea, but we had Chafee for 45 days to do the exercises in this AOR before they went west, and they gave me Somerset with complete load out of all her enablers, including 350 U.S. Marines. And I returned those ships and those Sailors better than I received them. That I gave them warfighting training readiness. I ended up giving many of those units four times the readiness than they would have gotten at home. And it was noted by Navy leadership. I will always do my best to enable our Navy to go fight the fight elsewhere in the world if they can come to my AOR and operate in my exercises. And we crushed it. We kicked ass. We hope Navy leadership will send us more. We’ve got the USS Wasp (LHD 1) coming around doing a homeport change from Norfolk to Sasebo, Japan. She is bringing the first F-35 capability to the western Pacific. She’s gonna go circumnavigate South America on her way to Sasebo. The U.S. Navy has given her to me for about 35 days to operate in the AOR. I will do my best to partner with all the partner nations down here with a big, big-deck amphibious assault ship.
Lundquist: Will she have the aircraft embarked?
Buck: She won’t have very many enablers. But what I can bring is I can bring partner nation helicopters to come land on her deck, and riders to learn about command and control. We can do PASSEXs with partner nation warships. Next year I’m getting the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) for about 100 to 110 days. We’re doing the planning effort now of how we will properly employ her across all of our mission sets, and give her back to the U.S. Navy with more readiness than she came with. Our small yet high performing team is so hungry for stuff, and we realize that we have to plan well and make sure that we make good use of what we’re given.