A group of 300 Marines and sailors recently completed a rotation in Central America that could be the foundation of a new multination task force for everything from natural disaster to security responses.
Marines with the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Southern Command, deployed to Honduras in June and returned to home station in November. During that six-month tour they trained troops in the region on basic infantry skills, worked engineering projects such as water mains, medical clinics and school construction/repair.
This was the fourth consecutive year the Marine Corps deployed such a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force during the hurricane season. But this year saw the first integration of a foreign nation officer within the command staff.
Colombian naval infantry officer Lt. Col. Erick H. Del Rio served as the deputy commander of the task force throughout the deployment. A senior adviser in the Chilean navy and a liaison officer from the Honduran navy also worked within the group.
Those additions are the building blocks upon which officials hope to create a Multinational Maritime Task Force that would combine manpower, resources and responsibilities for a variety of future missions in the region from many Latin America partners with the United States.
Col. Michael Oppenheim spoke with media recently following the deployment about some of their activities and goals.
“Our view was that we were the first step in a long process that would result in a Multinational Maritime Task Force that had many partner nations, with many types of resources, including the United States,” Oppenheim said.
He deferred detailed explanations of future task force composition and missions to U.S. Southern Command officials but said that the long-term goal is for a permanent partnership with components both in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean sides of the region.
At a media roundtable last year, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, then-head of U.S. Southern Command told reporters that key challenges for the region were great power competition with both Russian and Chinese counterparts attempting to buy influence in the region from major projects.
He also saw evidence of terrorist fundraising, from groups such as Lebanese-centered Hezbollah as another area of concern. A key maritime security focus has been and remains the Panama Canal, a key transit point that requires 16 partner nations training for its defense.
Lastly, Tidd noted the ongoing Venezuelan refugee crisis, creating instability in the region and straining partner forces resources and military.
Such threats are at issue when units even at the tactical level such as the SPMAGTF-SC 18 work with other militaries.
The theme, from the top of the Defense Department down to the private seems to be keeping southern neighbors interested in having the United States as their “partner of choice.”
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis pointed to that theme in a November change of command ceremony.
“There is more in this hemisphere that binds us together than drives us apart," Mattis said. "Our hemisphere's military forces can be stabilizing forces.”
This recent deployment saw an estimated two-thirds of personnel from Marine reserve units and the rest from the active duty side.
The two main active units that made up SPMAGTF-SC 18 were Combat Logistics Regiment 45 (CLR-45) (Reserve command element) and Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461 (HMH-461) (Active duty ACE).
The remaining reservists were pulled from 33 locations across the force, Oppenheim said.
The fledgling task force work included U.S., Colombia, Chile and Honduras but units did work in Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala.
The Guatemala work included a response in the wake of the Vulcan de Fuego volcanic eruptions near Escuintla, Guatemala, sending an engineering detachment to Escuintla to assist the Guatemalan government and Engineer Corps in constructing hundreds of shelters for families displaced by the volcano’s effects, according to Marine Forces South release.
A maritime task force, while new to the region, is a concept in use elsewhere.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon Maritime Task Force has been in operation since 2006 and uses multiple nations through the UN to train and assist the Lebanese Navy to secure its coastline and prevent arms and other materials from entering the nation illegally.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.