The Fleet was restored in 2008 due to the geopolitical alliances of Venezuela
Of the US naval forces, the most often in the news have been the Sixth Fleet (Mediterranean) and the Seventh Fleet (Persian Gulf). The Fourth Fleet usually goes unnoticed. In fact, it is hardly staffed and when it needs ships it must borrow them from other units. However, its restoration in 2008, after its deactivation in 1950, indicates that Washington does not want to neglect security in the Caribbean in the face of the movements of Russia and China.
▲The US S Dwight D. Eisenhower arriving at Mayport, Florida, in 2010 [US Navy]
ARTICLE / Dania del Carmen [Spanish version]
The Fourth Fleet is part of the United States Southern Command. It is located in Mayport, Florida, and its area of operations are the waters surrounding Central and South America. The ships currently based at Mayport do not strictly belong to the base and as of today they do not have any forward deployed ships in South America. The staff stationed at the fleet is about 160 personnel and a mixture of military, federal civilians and contractors. As part of the US Naval Forces Southern Command (USNAVSO) they work at the shared headquarters and the commander of the Southern Command is also commander of the Fourth Fleet, currently the Rear Admiral Sean S. Buck.
It was originally established in 1943, during Second World War, to protect the US against Axis surface raiders, blockade runners, and submarines. After the war ended in 1945, the FOURTHFLT was only kept active until 1950. At that moment its area of operations was handed over to the Second Fleet, which had just been established to support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The Fourth Fleet was reactivated in 2008, during the presidency of George W. Bush, as a way of monitoring possible threats coming from the anti-US sentiment fueled by the then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. During this time Venezuela was receiving loans from Russia, money which was destined to arms purchases and military development. Later on that year, Venezuela performed a joint naval exercise with Russia in the Caribbean Sea as a way to show support for Russian intentions of growing its geopolitical presence as a counterbalance to US power.
The fact that Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador had a similar ideology to Venezuela gave Washington reasons to reestablish the fleet as a reminder that they were still the sole military power in the Western Hemisphere. Although the territory of US was no threatened, preventing any menace to the free access to the Panama Canal has been a permanent assignment for the South Command. In the last years Russia has sought to expand its military footprint in the Americas, through particular dealings with Cuba and Nicaragua, whereas China has increased its investments in the area for the Panama Canal.
According to the mission statement on the USNAVSO/FOURTHFLT’s website, the US Fourth Fleet “employs maritime forces in cooperative maritime security operations in order to maintain access, enhance interoperability, and build enduring partnerships that foster regional security in the USSOUTHCOM Area of Responsibility.”
As mentioned previously, when ships and other equipment are assigned to SOUTHCOM and the Fourth Fleet, they are provided by other Navy commands with wider geographic responsibilities far from the American homeland.
The FOURTHFLT has three main lines of action: Maritime Security Operations, Security Cooperation Activities and Contingency Operations.
—As for its Maritime Security Operations, it currently provides maritime forces to Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South) in support of Operation MARTILLO. The JIATF South “conducts detection and monitoring (D&M) operations throughout their Joint Operating Area to facilitate the interdiction of illicit trafficking in support of national and partner nation security.” It uses the resources of the Fourth Fleet or temporarily employs other assets, like the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group or individual ships from other fleets such as the Norfolk, VA-based Fleet Forces Command or the Third Fleet, headquartered in San Diego, California. For its part, the Operation MARTILLO mainly aims to combat international drug trafficking, enhance regional security, and promote peace, stability and prosperity throughout Central and South America. As part of the Operation MARTILLO, in a joint operation with the U.S. Coast Guard the USS Vandegrift successfully stopped in 2014 a suspicious vessel off the coast of Central America. Security personnel found almost two thousand pounds of cocaine. More recently, in January 2015, the USS Gary and the US Coast Guard successfully seized more than 1,6 metric tons of cocaine from a go-fast vessel. However, the absence of dedicated Fourth Fleet assets demonstrates that its counternarcotics missions are a lower priority for the US Navy than other operations, although they are significantly less demanding, operationally speaking.
—Regarding Security Cooperation Activities, its two main premiere partner nation engagement events are Exercises UNITAS and PANAMAX. UNITAS was conceived in 1959 and first performed in 1960. It is an annual exercise and its purpose is to demonstrate US commitment to the region and to the value of the strong relationships with its partners. PANAMAX dates back to 2003 and it has become one of the largest multinational training exercises in the world. It is primarily focused on ensuring the defense of the Panama Canal, one of the most strategically and economically crucial pieces of infrastructure in the world.
—Lastly, the Fleet is always ready to conduct Contingency Operations: basically humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The US Navy’s hospital vessel regularly travels throughout the Caribbean and Central America area to provide humanitarian support. As part of the program Continuing Promise 2015, the Comfort visited a total of 11 countries, from Guatemala to Dominica, carrying out procedures like general surgery, ophthalmological surgery, veterinary services and public health training. This was the Comfort’s fourth trip as part of the Continuing Promise initiative. According to SOUTHCOM, the vessel previously participated in the mission’s 2007, 2009 and 2011 incarnations.
Objectives met at reasonable cost
As an integrated part of the Southern Command, the Fourth Fleet has supported SOUTHCOM when dealing with major operations such as the response to the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010. The FOURTHFLT served as the Navy Component Commander during the Operation Unified Response which was the Navy’s largest ever contingency response in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
In regards to budgetary implications, spokesperson Ruiz claims SOUTHCOM does not exclusively rely on the US Navy “for maritime resources to accomplish important missions [...] Other important interagency partners, such as the US Coast Guard and US Customs and Border Protection also provide key sea and air platforms and forces to support those missions. Therefore we are looking at a good counterbalance of expense-reward.”
In addition to developing effective humanitarian actions, at a limited economic cost, the Fourth Fleet does not fail to fulfill its purpose of helping the United States have a significant presence in the Western Hemisphere in the eyes of the Latin American and Caribbean States, and also of superpowers such as Russia and China.
1. The Second Fleet itself was deactivated in 2011 and reestablished in 2018.
2. REICH, Simon and DOMBROWSKI, Peter. The End of Grand Strategy. US Maritime Operations In the 21st Century. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY, 2017. p. 144