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Florida Reservists bring blue-suit presence to annual naval exercise

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay -- After 46 years, the longest-running naval exercise in the Americas welcomed its first “non-navy” participant. And the organization invited to join this annual training on the high seas is a member of the Air Force Reserve. 

In November, the 5th Special Operations Squadron from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., sent one aircraft and 23 people to Punta del Este, Uruguay, to participate in Unitas 04. Unitas, which means unity, brought together ships, aircraft and submarines, as well as more than 2,000 people, from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Spain and the United States.

For the 5th SOS, Unitas provided a chance to both gain some valuable training experience with naval forces and get its foot in the door for future training opportunities involving other countries.

For individual Reservists, Unitas gave them a chance to do some of the things they did prior to 9/11. The unit was activated two weeks after the terrorist attacks and remained activated for two years as part of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

“It was a great opportunity for the 5th to stretch its deployment legs in a different direction other than Southwest Asia,” said Maj. Jeff Berry, 5th SOS pilot and mission commander for Unitas 04. “This tour was instrumental in improving working relationships between U.S. and South American naval and marine forces as well as obtaining excellent training for our people in a different working environment. I feel like we’re paving new roads coming down here. It’s great training, and it lays the groundwork for future operations in the region.”

Although bad weather and some mechanical problems limited the number of missions the Reservists were able to fly in their MC-130P aircraft, Maj. Len Summers, an exercise planner at U.S. South Air Force, Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., said the squadron’s participation was still a success.

“We were able to accomplish several objectives,” Major Summers said. “We were able to show the admiral (Rear Adm. Vinson E. Smith, Commander U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command) the capabilities of the MC-130P and fly him in it. We also conducted photo ops in support of the fleet and successfully completed an ESM (electronic support measures) mission with the U.S. Navy.

“It’s an important stepping stone to having more Air Force support for the traditional naval Unitas exercise. We were able to assist our sister service. They (the U.S. Navy) had a P-3 Orion that fell out of the exercise, and we helped avoid not having any air resource equivalent for the benefit of the exercise. I was happy to have the participation of the 5th SOS and get what we got accomplished. Now we have a benchmark set.”

Not only did the admiral get a chance to fly with the MC-130P crew and see the capabilities of the aircraft, he also got a chance to view the exercise fleet from the open aircraft cargo door.

“First I would like to say thank you to the 5th SOS,” Admiral Smith said. “Having the opportunity to fly with the crew of the MC-130P was not only an honor but also an exciting adventure. Strapping into that harness and taking a look from the ramp of one of these birds offered a unique perspective of the five-nation Unitas fleet. This ‘birds-eye view’ reminded me of how much progress we have made in the execution of these exercises. We have transformed the exercise from a multinational surface navy event into a multinational joint exercise.”

The Reservists enjoyed the chance to showcase the MC-130P for the admiral.

“It was great. The admiral explained to us how the ships were operating out there and the type of ships involved,” said Maj. Lynn Townsend, 5th SOS aircraft commander. “It was interesting to get an observation from a different perspective than ours. He said he was really pleased. We invited him to come over to Eglin and fly with us anytime. I told him we’d fly him on a (night-vision-goggle) helicopter refueling mission to see what we do on a day-to-day basis.”

Major Townsend explained the Reservists’ role as “trying to determine how some of the Navy’s systems work against us and how our systems work against them. It went really well. The Navy was very pleased when the exercise ended.”

While the 5th SOS was able to impress the admiral with its performance, for a while it appeared the Reservists would not have an opportunity to show their skills due to bad weather.

“The weather did create some challenges and unexpected opportunities,” Admiral Smith said. “Having the U.S. Air Force presence helped drive home the importance of joint warfare operations to our partner nations.

“Regardless of the weather conditions, this MC-130 was able to conduct MPA (maritime patrol aircraft) and SSSC (surface, subsurface search surveillance coordination) missions. It’s my hope that we will see the continued support of the U.S. Air Force in future exercises. The 5th SOS has opened the door to what I hope will lead to more robust joint participation. Joint is how we operate in the real world, so it should be the way we train.”

The admiral noted the MC-130’s presence above the fleet was a statement about today’s training environment.

“The Air Force MC-130 overhead was seen as evidence that Unitas is transforming into a combined, multinational, joint exercise that provides relevant and realistic training to all participants as well as supports the combatant commander’s interoperability security cooperation initiatives.”

The Uruguayan navy fleet commander and exercise host also noted the importance of the Air Force’s participation in Unitas.

“The Air Force will participate in maritime operations, and this participation is very important,” said Rear Adm. Oscar Debali. “More than a combined operation, it is a joint operation, and joint operations are the operations of the future. The more we work with these types of exercises, the better the results will be. This is a good challenge to have in the exercise because our country is involved in many international operations involving the United Nations.”

“It’s a very important opportunity for us to operate with another force, a big professional force,” said Cmdr. Juan Retamoso, Uruguayan squadron group commander at the base where the 5th SOS was operating. “I really enjoyed learning about their operation. I was proud for us to have a U.S. Air Force airplane here at our base.”

Maybe equally important as the training opportunity was the chance to form relationships that will provide benefits to the Reserve and the Air Force down the road.

“I think we gained new friendships and understanding between participants and the people we met in the community,” Major Berry said. “The Uruguayan navy invited us to a farewell barbecue that gave us an opportunity to shake hands, tell stories, and exchange pictures, plaques and coins. Even with the slight language barrier, common interests served as the interpreter.”

For the 5th SOS, having the opportunity to travel and train somewhere other than the desert was an invaluable opportunity.

“Our unit’s focus has been in a certain area of the world,” said Maj. Dave Condit, 5th SOS navigator and one of the planners for the Unitas mission. “Now that we’ve been deactivated and have had time to regroup, it’s time we go back to some of those places that we haven’t been to in a while. International exercises such as Unitas require U.S. presence to maintain relationships, and with the active duty maintaining a strong presence in the desert with real-world operations, it’s nice to have Reservists participate.” «

(Sergeant Babin is assigned to the 926th Fighter Wing at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, La. He deployed to Uruguay with members of the 5th SOS for the Unitas 04 exercise.)

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