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Peruvian Submarine BAPAngamos(SS-31) during fleet exercises in the Jacksonville Operating Areas (JAXOAS), Fla.

What are the biggest challenges for the DESI program now and in the future?

JF: Any time you work with international partners there are always challenges due to different traditions, work practices, and different platforms. More significant are the language barriers and communication challenges. You can plan the best naval exercise but everything can fall apart if you cannot communicate. So, we are working in several venues to overcome these two significant challenges in future exercises.

The language barrier—we’re working on that. I am a native Spanish speaker and I’ve had much success due to my language skills. We have gone to our reserve component to actively seek the skills of Spanish linguists to provide onboard support services while the submarines are deployed.

The other challenge is the communication challenge. We have aligned ourselves (the Submarine Force and the DESI program) with the current technological advances that the region is utilizing. This includes the CENTRIXS system, which is a coalition communication network based on the internet through SOUTHCOM and NAVSO [U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command] as the Naval component commander. They’re using DESI as the first operational proof of concept that this communication system will work.

RC: I have been following this program and participating in it for seven years with Juan. I don’t speak a lick of Spanish, but would like to emphasize the fact that the language barrier is not an insurmountable challenge. It is surprising when we engage with the leadership of South American countries and find that they are far more attuned and able to understand and work in English than maybe we are in working in Spanish. So, it is not an insurmountable barrier, it’s one that you say “there’s a language challenge and that’s all.” For example, it’s not surprising to see someone in a Chilean uniform and find out that he spent most of his learning years in England.
JF: I think it is worth mentioning that recently the Colombian Navy has actively instructed their officers to achieve a level of proficiency in English by the rank of lieutenant commander. If not, they will not be promoted. We’re seeing the same trend all across the South American region.

How has DESI changed the training environment for the Navy?

RC: We at COMSUBFOR are the operational agents for this program, but it’s sponsored by the fleet commanders. The numbered fleet commanders have Title X responsibility for training, equipping, and certifying forward deployed forces. In turn, our Strike Group Training Commands, that’s Commander Strike Group Training Atlantic and Pacific, are charged under the numbered fleet commanders to put together and certify their training programs. This folds into our major fleet exercises. In the training environment, the Strike Groups have actively incorporated participating SSKs into their programs. In the past their stated requirements for upcoming exercises was for a certain number of submarines, and it was always assumed to be U.S. submarines. Now, and the last couple of years, strike groups requirements have specifically called out the need for DESI, SSK-type submarines to participate. The change in requirements reflects the proliferation of SSKs and their emergence as serious threats to our Strike Groups in the current security environment. Therefore, the training environment has changed so the fleet fully embraces these submarines as a key element to their ASW training certification.

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During a recent visit to Bogota, Colombia Vice Adm. Jay Donnelly, Commander, Submarine Force (center), accompanied by Mr. Juan Fernandez, DESI Program Director (left), met with the Colombian Minister of Defense, Dr. Juan Manuel Santos Calderón (right), to discuss Colombia’s participation in the DESI program.

What do sailors think about the DESI program?

JF: Sailors have gained appreciation for the professional and cultural benefits of the DESI program. We have many U.S. sailors at different levels within the program. The strategic element of the program is where the COMSUBFOR staff engages the other submarine forces’ staffs throughout the region in the planning of the deployments. At the tactical level, once we have the deployment planned and the plan passes to execution, we have staff members and members of other commands directly engaging with submarine crews. They all agree that we’re working with professional, competent sailors. They are knowledgeable of the platforms, eager to exchange ideas and eager to participate in these exercises.

What are the primary benefits derived from the DESI program?

RC: The primary benefits of DESI are relationship building, theater security, training against real threats, and improving our abilities to detect and defeat these threats. Additionally, we have created a lot of trust with our participating countries.

One of the points that I want to address is when we go and engage, it is a cooperative engagement. Cooperative engagement requires the desire of the countries to participate and benefit for themselves as much as we benefit from them. Without reciprocation of a cooperative engagement this program would not have succeeded. So, we are sensitive to ensuring that the participating nations’ goals and needs are equally realized. When we go into the country we ask, “what would you like to get out of this deployment?” And they are very frank now in discussing what they want to achieve. We really want to have more countries asking to participate than we can fill. This is a point we have almost reached. I don’t believe we’ve had any proposal for participating in these deployments delayed or refused. Realizing the individual partner countries’ goals, I think, is an important point that might not be clear at the operator level, but, we’re sensitive to it at our engagement level.

It’s been a very open relationship as a result of having the same faces over and over. As a result, Juan can pick up the telephone and speak to the head of the Navy of any of the participating countries and have a very frank discussion, without a lot of varnish. That’s the type of understanding necessary to make sure we manage our expectations with minimal disappointments.

JF: I want to emphasize that while this program is collaborative with other countries, it is also collaborative with other commands and agencies, here, within the United States. Fleet Forces Command is the owner of the program and we at SUBFOR are the executor. We also consult and align ourselves daily with the existing policies and strategies of the Commander, U.S. Southern Command and his Naval component commander —Commander, U.S. Naval Southern Command in Mayport, Florida. Together we work with other agencies that have assets in theater as we put together target of opportunity exercises and other ASW exercises while in transit.

Are there any particular successes from the DESI program that you think are important to highlight?

JF: Since the inception of the program in 2001, and including the two deployments currently in execution, we have 17 deployments in seven years for a total of more than 1,800 deployed days. This is a great success for the program and tells us that not only is the United States Navy willing to make the commitment, but there is cooperation from our regional partners.

RC: This has been an extraordinarily successful program. We’re very grateful of our South American partners and we look forward to its continued success.

Mr. Richard Current is the Deputy Director for Training, Tactical Weapons, and Tactical Development for the Commander Submarine Force. A retired U.S. Navy Captain, Mr. Current’s tours included Commanding Officer USS Seahorse (SSN-669) and USS Jacksonville (SSN-699). Seahorse participated in UNITAS XXXV during Mr. Current’s command introducing him to most of the South American navies.

Mr. Juan Fernandez is the Tactical Development Director and DESI Program Director for the Commander Submarine Force. A 20-year veteran of the Submarine Force, Mr. Fernandez tours included service onboard USS Tang (SS-563) and as Submarine Tactics Instructor at the International Diesel Submarine Training Program, where he fostered many professional relationships and gained valuable regional experience which has directly attributed to the success of the DESI program.

This interview was conducted by Jason Reagle, the associate editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

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