The US Navy’s longest-running annual multilateral exercise, UNITAS—which means “unity” in Latin—has been building ties with more than 12 Latin American navies since 1959. But the exercise has come under fire recently. Defense analysts question its value, and cost-conscious legislators from Mexico to Argentina question whether their governments can afford to have their navies participate. Opportunistic politicians in Peru and Brazil score points by claiming that UNITAS is a U.S. plot to preposition forces for invasion of the Amazon. Thus, some U.S. officials see it as a disturbing political football.
But the UNITAS commitment is a valuable part of U.S. strategy worldwide. Global presence is crucial to our National Security Strategy and the exercises provide important training to our forces as well. While the surface and submarine warfare communities are obvious beneficiaries, Marine and special forces units receive riverine and jungle training in environments that cannot be simulated. At the same time, their inclusion enhances international cooperation at the lowest working levels.
Annual UNITAS evolutions also build partners for coalition efforts in other regions. Skills gained through UNITAS experience in the late 1980s enabled Argentina to take part in more than a dozen peacekeeping operations worldwide in the 1990s, thereby lightening the load on U.S. forces. The exercises enable participants to identify—and work around—technological and tactical differences that could pose obstacles in contingency operations and emergencies. Extending participation to the naval forces of such countries as France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Great Britain has profited them in the same ways.
The UNITAS commitment is a central element of confidence building in the Americas. It fosters transparency, reduces suspicions, and increases contacts among longtime rivals. In recent years, UNITAS evolved from strictly bilateral exchanges to multilateral exercises that succeeded in increasing contacts between traditionally wary defense establishments and producing tangible benefits. For example, following UNITAS exercises in 2000, Argentina and Chile announced they would follow through with combined maritime operations—a history-making first for two countries that almost went to war less than a generation ago.
At an annual cost of less than $2 million, UNITAS is a highly economical way to generate goodwill toward the United States. Since 1998, U.S. teams have used port calls to conduct extensive refurbishment projects in the villages of Central and South America, including communities endangered by drug-related violence in Colombia.
Because the United States pays the travel and fuel costs of participating countries, Latin American defense officials traditionally have attached tremendous value to the exercises. With the Latin American political elite increasingly alleging that the United States neglects the region, the civic-action component of UNITAS provides a disproportionate bang for the buck and is a powerful reminder of U.S. engagement. The intangible advantages of the goodwill generated from these exercises clearly are much more valuable than realized by many Washington policy makers.
In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, UNITAS is shifting to meet the rapidly changing global threat by fostering stronger relationships. In response to growing transnational crime in the Americas, recent UNITAS exercises trained personnel in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Chile to detect and board ships suspected of trafficking in narcotics and illegal aliens. And search-and-rescue drills have prepared Latin American naval forces for humanitarian operations abroad—Chile recently practiced disasterrelief and noncombatant evacuation exercises.
To help Latin American nations better understand the importance of regional security cooperation and further boost their value to the United States, UNITAS exercises would gain from greater civilian participation. Latin America’s civilian elite—especially legislators and journalists—suffer from an acute lack of knowledge in defense issues and share misconceptions about UNITAS. Their participation in planning and as exercise observers would do much to nurture a better appreciation of U.S. intentions and the benefits of strengthening hemispheric defense ties.
Finally, although UNITAS exercises have contributed to U.S. service interoperability, the Latin American components remain almost exclusively naval. The United States should encourage them to break down barriers between their services and actively test joint operational capabilities.
The UNITAS exercise series is a valuable multilateral effort that should not be shortchanged. It is cost-effective and contributes significantly to U.S. defense posture and, not least, to good relations with our neighbors to the south.
* Livezey and Prillaman are Federal Executive Fellows at the Brookings Institution. The views expressed here their own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Government.