Navy forms fleet to serve Western Hemisphere

Ships, aircraft and submarines will dispense humanitarian relief quickly to the Caribbean and Central and South Americas.

The Navy last week created a new 4th Fleet, responsible for Navy ships, aircraft and submarines operating in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The move signals the Pentagon's recognition of the importance of the region and elevates the Navy's stature there, said Rear Adm. James Stevenson Jr., who commands all naval forces in the Southern Hemisphere.

The 4th Fleet will be headquartered at Mayport, Fla. The Navy will not station ships there permanently, but the establishment of the command will allow the service to respond more quickly to natural disasters such as hurricanes or to emergencies requiring humanitarian relief, Stevenson told reporters on Wednesday. The command will have responsibility for any Navy ship or aircraft deploying to Latin America.

The 4th Fleet originally was created during World War II to hunt enemy submarines and was disbanded in 1950. Today, the 4th Fleet focuses on providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the area, especially in the hurricane-plagued Caribbean. It also provides additional ships, submarines and aircraft for counternarcotics operations in the region.

The surveillance and stealthy monitoring capabilities of Navy submarines make them particularly useful against drug runners, Stevenson said. In recent years, sophisticated drug traffickers have made greater use of small submarines to smuggle drugs into the United States.

The Navy's new maritime strategy elevated disaster relief and humanitarian operations to the same level as combat operations, Stevenson said, and the service's amphibious warfare ships have the shallow draft that allows them to enter the region's ports. They also have the capacity to carry large quantities of medical supplies.

Last year, the hospital ship Comfort provided medical assistance to about 300,000 people. This year, the amphibious ships Boxer and Kearsarge will make about 20 ports of call in the Caribbean and along the East Coast of South America. "It's quite remarkable once the word gets out," Stevenson said about the response when a Navy medical ship makes a port of call.

Navy ships can be positioned nearby when a hurricane is approaching landfall and can move in almost immediately to provide medical care and deliver food and shelter, he said.

Stevenson said the Navy also is mindful of events in Cuba and the chance of another mass migration from the island, which happened in the 1980s and 1990s when thousands fled by small boats for U.S. shores. "If you don't have the capability to rescue these people, you have a disaster on your hands," he said.

In addition, half the nation's oil imports and 40 percent of its exports come from the region. To keep the sea lanes secure, Navy ships partner with ships from other regional naval forces to conduct training exercises and military-to-military exchanges.