Southcom Tailors Exercise Program in Light of Budget Squeeze
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 12, 2013 Confronted with sequestration and more anticipated budget cuts for the next fiscal year, officials at U.S. Southern Command are making tough choices as they scale back the exercise program they call integral to regional stability and U.S. national security.
In light of budget constraints, U.S. Southern Command is reducing the scope of big-scale exercises like Panamax, which in the past included ship, ground and air deployments. In this Panamax 2011 image, the guided missile frigate USS Thach, left, passes alongside the dry cargo ship USNS Lewis and Clark as it pulls out into the Pacific Ocean to participate in the annual Southcom-sponsored exercise focused on the security of the Panama Canal. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Lopez
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Sequestration kicked in March 1, mandating across-the-board budget cuts that included $4 million from Southcom’s fiscal 2013 exercise budget, Bill Knightly, the command’s senior exercise director, said during a telephone interview with American Forces Press Service.
With the fiscal year half over, that left the Southcom staff with little choice but to cancel three major multinational exercises and to reduce the scope of Panamax, one of the crown jewels in its program, Knightly said.
Gone from this year’s Southcom exercise schedule are three regional exercises: Fuerzas Comando, a multinational special operations competition; Peacekeeping Operations – Americas, designed to build regional capacity for peacekeeping missions; and Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias, in which U.S. and partner nations train together to respond to natural disasters.
Meanwhile, the command reduced Panamax 2013, an annual exercise focused on supporting the Panamanian government in defense of the strategic Panama Canal, from a full-scale command post exercise to a shorter, smaller-scale tabletop exercise.
Another cut, while not technically from the exercise program budget, is the command’s annual Continuing Promise deployment. That humanitarian assistance program, which includes a strong training component, had been slated to begin this month, providing medical, dental and veterinary care and engineering support in Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Peru.
The Navy announced in late March that due to sequestration, it would not deploy the USNS Comfort, the hospital ship that provides the primary platform for the mission.
Such drastic reductions, with a clear recognition that even deeper ones could be required through this fiscal year and the next, required intense soul-searching and prioritization across the Southcom leadership, Knightly said.
“The bottom line, for us, is that we are trying to preserve the core exercises that we think are absolutely essential for us to do our mission,” he said.
The highest priority went to exercises related to homeland defense and testing out contingencies directed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, he said. These exercises typically involve only U.S. participants, sometimes with interagency representatives, and tend to focus on requirements in the command’s joint mission-essential task list.
“These are no-fail missions that we have to be able to perform,” Knightly said.
Another category of exercises -- which by fiscal necessity was relegated to second priority -- tends to focus on building partner nation capacity in support of Southcom’s theater campaign plan. These typically address regional security challenges as they promote closer military-to-military relationships and increased interoperability, Knightly explained.
Southcom’s senior staff met to identify the exercises most critical to supporting the command’s priority requirements for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1. Topping their list of recommendations, to be submitted this week to Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, Southcom’s commander, is the biannual Integrated Advance exercise, Knightly said.
“This is one of one of those umbrella exercises in which we can take any one of four or five existing contingency plans that we are directed to do by the secretary of defense and exercise it with our interagency partners in a fairly vigorous way,” he said.
“That is the very top exercise, that even if all else fails, that we are going to execute,” he said, adding it probably will take place around February.
Exactly how Integrated Advance 2014 will shape up is yet to be determined, he said. In the past, it’s been either a tactical-level or command post exercise, focused on a regional crisis.
Integrated Advance 2013, for example, was a “full-up, interagency exercise across the federal government,” Knightly said. U.S. and interagency participants deployed to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to exercise their procedures for humanitarian assistance, disaster response and mass migration scenarios.
“Those are the kinds of missions we do that are no-fail missions for this command. They are among the things that, if we were not able to accomplish them, we could possibly fail in our greater [combatant command] mission,” Knightly said. “That’s why it’s essential that we exercise these capabilities, and why we have put it at the top of our priority list.”
But not wanting gains made in building partner capacity to wane, and recognizing wide regional interest in honing natural disaster response capabilities, Southcom hopes to sponsor the Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias exercise that got canceled for this year in fiscal 2014, Knightly said.
“We see this as one of the capstone coalition exercises for Southcom,” he added.
The U.S. military has historically had a significant role in supporting regional humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions in Southcom’s area of responsibility. But in light of budget cuts, Knightly said he anticipates regional partners the command exercises with will contribute more of their own capabilities to future missions.
“The commander sees that this is the type of thing that, given the reductions in the future that the U.S. is probably not going to be able to lead as we have done in the past,” he said. “But he considers it important to train and build the capacity of the region to be able to respond.”
Panamax, which in the past has been Southcom’s largest -- and most expensive -- coalition exercise, is likely to revert to a maritime-focused exercise, Knightly said. This year, he added, about 200 participants will conduct it as a tabletop exercise, fine-tuning their ability to run a multinational staff and conduct crisis action procedures.
“This won’t be the multi-million-dollar CPX we have had in the past,” with participating nations contributing ships and naval, air and land forces, Knightly said. “We just can’t afford it this year.”
While reasonably confident that Southcom can keep its exercise program viable under current fiscal constraints, Knightly said he’s got big concerns about the impact of any deeper cuts.
He’s also concerned that engineering and medical readiness exercises within Southcom’s area of operations covered by service budgets could take a greater hit. “The money for those is drying up, and we can assume there will be some significant cuts in 14,” he said.
Regardless of how severely the budget knife slices, Knightly said Southcom will do everything possible to protect its exercise program.
“Our plan is to preserve 12 major exercises,” he said. “If we have to cut, we will go from the bottom up in our priority list.”
Exercises play a key role in supporting Southcom’s missions across Central and South America and the Caribbean, Knightly said.
“If you look at all the tools we have to do our mission, I think the exercise program has to be one of the top tools in our tool bag,” he said. “This is how we reach out and touch our partner nations. It is also how we maintain proficiency in our U.S.-directed tasks.”
Exercises offer the best way to fine-tune and assess how the staff works together in realistic crisis environments, and to measure partner capacity in key mission areas, Knightly said.
“If we didn’t have the exercise program, we would have a lot of blank spots,” he said.