Marines and sailors go ashore in Florida during the 2012 Partnership of the Americas exercise. Marines embarked with the amphibious assault ship America will participate in this year's version of the multinational exercise in Chile. (Cpl. Tyler Thornhill/Marine Corps)
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Sailors and Marines take custody of the Navy's newest amphib America on April 10 in Pascagoula, Miss. They'll sail it around South America in July. (MC1 Lewis Hunsaker/Navy)
Marines will help test a new Navy amphibious assault ship’s capabilities on its maiden transit from the ship yard in Mississippi all the way around South America to its new home in the Pacific — and they’ll make several stops to engage with military partners along the way.
A company of Marines will form Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Southern Command, and will sail aboard the precommissioned amphibious assault ship America. The first of the America-class amphibs will head from the shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to California to join the Pacific Fleet.
“We’re going to embark a Special-Purpose MAGTF, with some [MV-22 Ospreys] and Marines, and go around South America and do some engagement work with our regular enduring partners and kind of show off what we’ve got here,” Brig. Gen. David Coffman commander of Marine Corps Forces South, told Marine Corps Times.
SPMAGTF-SOUTH will comprise about 250 Marines who will join a crew of 1,100 sailors for the transit, said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Cody, a spokesman with the Navy’s 4th Fleet. They’re expected to depart around July and the full trip will take about two months.
The America is a landing helicopter assault ship, built to increase the aviation capacity of future big deck amphibs. The series replaces the outdated Tarawa-class ship, and they’re optimized for Ospreys and the soon-to-be-fielded F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
“This is a no well-deck version of the LHA, so there’s a lot of interest in what’s different about it, how we’re going to employ it and what its capabilities and limitations are,” Coffman said. “We’re just happy to get a first shot at it and put a little Marine air-ground task force flavor on there and get some Marine aviation aboard.”
Cape Horn, off the southern tip of South America, is known for its rough seas. There, just south of Chile and Argentina, they might encounter strong westerly winds, often a gale-force blow that’s known as the “Roaring Forties” because it’s at 40 degrees latitude.
Confirmed port calls during the transit include Chile and Colombia, two key partners in establishing unity, security and stability in the Western Hemisphere, Cody said. More countries may be added, depending on scheduling and invitations by host-nation governments, he said.
“The name for the transit, ‘America Visits the Americas,’ celebrates the importance of the partnerships between the United States and the countries of Central and South America,” Cody said.
Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, commander of Naval Forces Southern Command and 4th Fleet, said partner nations are responsive to the idea of teaming with sailors and Marines during this transit. Colombia will be one of their first stops, he said.
“They’re going through a transformation with their marine corps,” he said. “A lot of these nations look at the United States Marine Corps as a model for what a marine corps should look like, so they can see how we do things at different scales.”
Later, U.S. sailors and Marines will join a Partnership of the Americas exercise in Chile, said Harris, who described it as a “huge engagement” with the Chilean navy and marine corps..
In 2012, more than 1,100 Marines participated in the 13-day Partnership of the Americas exercise that brought together the armed forces of seven South American countries, some of which have a history of political disputes with their neighbors. The exercise was hosted by MARFORSOUTH in Florida, and Chile was one of the countries that participated.
As the Marine Corps works through budget cuts that have left smaller commands like SOUTHCOM relying on innovation to carry out their missions as best they can, Coffman said keeping the U.S. keeping presence with nations in its own hemisphere and that share similar goals is imperative.
“We care about this part of the world,” Coffman said. “We have great partners here that are enduring partners [and] that also have amphibious capability, and we want to continue to develop our ability to operate with them and work with them when we’re in the same business, doing the same things.”
Harris agreed, and said the message is especially important as other countries look to build or maintain relations with some of those nations.
“It is our partnership to lose,” Harris said. “China and Russia are paying attention. [Iran] to a lesser extent, but certainly China and Russia ... have ships and aircraft out here and they’re certainly paying attention.”
Officials with SOUTHCOM have raised concerns to lawmakers about declining resources for the command due to budget cuts. Gen. John Kelly, head of SOUTHCOM, told members of Congress in February that tons more cocaine, heroin and other drugs could be crossing the border into the U.S. each year because budget shortfalls have forced the military to scale back interdiction efforts.
Kelly emphasized that the command doesn’t need huge amphibious ships, just those that can accommodate a helicopter. Harris underlined that point, especially because the Navy plans to retire six aging frigates homeported in Mayport, Fla., by the end of 2015. That will be a hard hit, he said, because the littoral combat ships won’t be ready by then.
Until the LCS reaches his combatant command, Harris said they’ll continue to innovate to carry out missions.
The Navy accepted delivery of the America from the shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls Industries, on April 10. It’s scheduled to be commissioned in October in San Francisco, Cody said, and will then be homeported in San Diego.