- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

MAYPORT NAVAL STATION, FLA. (AP) - Navies from the United States and 11 other countries on Monday launched two weeks of war exercises off Florida’s Atlantic coast that will include training in combating piracy and drug smuggling.

Several Latin American countries, Canada and Germany are taking part in UNITAS Gold, which is now in its 50th year and is the Navy’s longest-running yearly exercise. Hundreds of white-uniformed officers held a starting ceremony before embarking on ships, submarines and aircraft to begin training meant to foster naval cooperation throughout the Americas.

Sailors, Marines and other military forces will perform live-fire exercises, undersea warfare, helicopter and amphibious operations, among other training. More than 25 ships, four submarines, 6,500 sailors and 50 aircraft are taking part in the exercise hosted by the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet, based at Mayport Naval Station just north of Jacksonville.

U.S. ships participating in the $7 million exercise are the amphibious transport dock ship, the USS Mesa Verde, the guided missile destroyer the USS Donald Cook; guided missile frigates, USS Doyle and USS Kauffman, and the U.S. Coast Guard ship Thetis.

Rear Adm. Joseph Kernan, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and of the U.S. 4th Fleet, opened the exercises Monday. It was the first time that UNITAS was being held off the mainland United States, although the Navy has hosted the annual event in Puerto Rico.

Kernan noted that multi-national forces are combating piracy off Somalia and said exercises such as UNITAS will help nations coordinate efforts to oppose that scourge.

“If piracy proliferates into the region, my belief is that exercises of this nature will allow us to address it effectively,” he said.

Other countries involved in UNITAS exercises are Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.

“As we move forward together, I am confident that future opportunities to work with our partners will not only strengthen our ability to operate together and provide for our nations’ security, but will also build personal respect and friendships,” he told them.

Kernan said he expected individual sailors and junior officers to benefit the most from the training. Several countries are also trading sailors so they can observe operations of their respective navies, officials said.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects in headline, lead that 12 nations, not 11, are participating in the exercises)

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