U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair M. Harris, attired in his dress white uniform, gingerly navigated the muddy grounds of an apartment complex built in the 1920s to house Army Cavalry officers in Key West.
Navy and Coast Guard personnel from several countries were working together in the heat and humidity. Some were scraping and painting. Others were pressure washing, landscaping and building a walkway to renovate 12 units into affordable housing for Habitat for Humanity.
“Are you volunteers or volun-tolds,” Harris asked Navy personnel who were painting the porch.
The crew responded: “Volunteers, sir.”
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Harris smiled broadly.
The commander of the U.S. Fourth Fleet was in Key West as host of UNITAS, an annual multinational maritime training exercise launched in 1959 to foster maritime security. It has become the largest and longest-running exercise of its type in the Western Hemisphere.
“I was 1 year old when the first UNITAS happened,” Harris said during the opening ceremonies on Monday. “By training together, we become even stronger partners. This is something that is unique among navies, unique among maritime partners. Political waves go in and go out like the tide, but navies remain unified and working together.”
Capt. Neil Adolfo Medina Cepeda, commanding officer of the ARC Antioquia of the Colombian Navy, agreed: “The political environment has changed over the years with the different operations, but the friendship remains the same.”
Before the training exercises begin at sea, participants cultivate friendships by working on community projects and socializing on the main tourist drag of Duval Street during liberty.
This year, for the Atlantic Phase of the 53rd UNITAS, Naval forces from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the United Kingdom are participating with 13 warships, seven helicopters and eight fixed-wing airplanes. Navy personnel from France, Jamaica, Panama and Peru are observers.
Ten of the warships packed the Outer Mole Pier of Key West, an impressive display of military strength that hasn’t been seen in this island city since the early 1970s.
“What a sight to see and behold,” said Capt. Pat Lefere, commander of Naval Air Station Key West.
While in port, the ships’ crews prepared for round-the-clock training, which continues until Friday. Sailors on the Brazilian Navy ship Greenhalgh loaded crates of pineapple, bags of potatoes and boxes of Guinness beer and Johnnie Walker scotch.
The ships, which had traveled a combined 27,000 miles, also were getting filled with more than 100,000 gallons of fuel for the nine days in waters off Key West and in the Western Caribbean.
The participating countries including Brazil, which has the second largest navy in the Americas after the United States, offered public tours of their warships.
Harris said the ongoing cooperation of the Western Hemisphere’s navies contributes to the region’s stability and security.
“The threats really depend on the area that you are in,” Harris said. “We’ve seen worldwide the expansion in missile technology and mine and undersea warfare technology, and that’s global.”
For this region, Harris said, “Our big work is countering the threat of organized crime. That’s the threat of drugs going one way and guns and money coming the other way.”
The training will begin with the countries working together on communication, skills and techniques for missile tracking, drug trafficking interdiction, human smuggling interdiction, electronic warfare, anti-submarine warfare and humanitarian disaster response.
A few days into the exercise, the countries will hold a scrimmage “like in football,” said Capt. Ace Van Wagoner, commander of Destroyer Squadron 40 and mission commander of UNITAS Atlantic. He also was the mission commander of the Pacific Phase of UNITAS, held earlier this year in Peru.
The Brazilians will lead the blue force, which will portray the good guys in the scenario. The Colombians will lead the orange force, pretending to be the bad guys. In another scenario, intelligence will be gathered about arms being smuggled onto a ship that is going into a port, where it will then be transferred to a terrorist organization.
“We will give them a name of the ship and one of our ships will be playing that role,” Van Wagoner said. “This will be practice of communications and reaching back to legal folks to make sure we get the right authorization to board ships.”
Crews will also practice boarding ships, searching for arms or drugs.
During some exercises, the Navies will use live munitions.
“When we do firing events, we do range clearance and make sure nobody is in the hazard pattern,” Van Wagoner said. “That includes compliance with the environmental rules so we’ll be looking for whales, turtles, dolphins.”
Harris chimed in: “To make sure we follow the rules, we’ve got the Coast Guard here with us. We bring our own cops.”