Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert, 7th Fleet Commander.

Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert, 7th Fleet Commander. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

Stars and Stripes spoke recently with Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert, commander of the 7th Fleet, about the issues and topics that concern him. Greenert, who took the helm in August, spoke about things that keep him up at night and why he’s taking a close look at how sailors behave. Part one of a two-part series looks at the fleet’s strategic value in the region, its missions and potential changes in its area of responsibility.

Click herefor the full transcript of the interview.

ABOARD THE USS BLUE RIDGE, Japan — As the leader of the Navy’s largest numbered fleet, Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert worries about the outbreak of wars, terrorist training camps and his sailors’ behavior.

The 7th Fleet commander’s area of operations stretches from the international date line to the eastern coast of Africa.

Every day, Greenert said, he begins with a survey of the major hot spots in his domain, starting with North Korea.

The fleet’s main mission in the peninsula is to help protect South Korea.

“North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world, and though the threat of conflict is relatively low, the consequences are so high that that consequence-based thought process has us focused there,” Greenert said.

But the region presents other problems as well for the fleet.

“A second order … is the stability of the regime. Although we may not go to war over something like this or be in conflict, if the regime were to fail, we would have quite a mess on our hands,” Greenert said. “We would be the naval component for any subsequent operations; we would go in and help restore order in North Korea if there were an instability or a regime failure. We would probably have refugees and displaced people trying to get to Japan or otherwise going to sea to try to get out. So that’s a second order problem with Korea.”

Continuing around the region, Greenert focuses on China and Taiwan, where the mission is to help prevent conflict.

“I would say that our mission … as we enhance stability is to dissuade any military actions by China or Taiwan — to help dissuade China from taking any kind of military action but at the same time to preclude Taiwan from provoking such an action and we try to balance that here.”

He finally considers the thousands of islands that may be home to terrorists in Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

“That’s a concern of ours, the continued operation and expansion of terrorist operations down and around that area,” he said.

Regional and theater security

Since taking the helm of the 7th Fleet in August, Greenert’s job has taken him to dozens of ports and cities to meet with military and political officials as part of the United States’ mission in Asia and the Pacific. His job, he explains, is to keep up the relationships with some of the richest and poorest nations in the world, with some of the most pressing needs and issues.

He tries to thwart conflict, open dialogue and prevent terrorism. The tangible results of that endeavor are laid out on a table in his office: token gifts from military leaders across the region, symbols of the agreements, cooperation and mutual respect developed through visits.

Greenert’s job is providing the naval component for the mutual defense of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. He is responsible for evacuating noncombatants by sea from a list of countries including Taiwan, Indonesia and even India.

He also is responsible for maritime counterterror operations.

But much of the job is simply developing relationships, the foundation for agreements and cooperation.

It falls under the Pacific Command’s Theater Security Cooperation plan.

“It is a plan,” Greenert said. “I can actually go to it, turn to a country like Malaysia and look at the Pacific Command objectives for Malaysia. There will be a maritime area. And I’ll look at, how are we doing in that area? It could be landing rights, it could be sharing of security operations, port security.”

If an area is neglected, a port visit in the not-too-distant future is likely.

Theater security cooperation “runs the gamut from reassuring the allies to building new relationships with countries such as China, Russia and India, ones we may not have a standing alliance with or treaty for operations but one we want to enhance our relations with. [Where] we want to have a relationship such that if need be for a mutually agreeable situation, we could get in and access the country. Such as for a tsunami or any kind of humanitarian situation,” Greenert said.

“Those are the three big bullets if you will — reassuring, building and gaining access in a mutually agreeable situation. The pillars for this … are exercises — and we hold about 100 exercises a year — [and] port visits. Just about every port visit I approve has a mission associated with it.”

The exercises and engagements have proven results: last week the Navy sent P-3 surveillance planes to the Philippines to search for lost fishermen at the request of Philippine officials with whom Greenert had met just weeks before, he said.

Nine months ago, U.S. and Indian forces practiced landing helicopters on each other’s ships and on Indian soil. So four months ago, when a sick sailor aboard a U.S. ship needed to be evacuated to India, the landing rights were established. In a few hours, the sailor was on Indian soil.

“It’s that kind of building relationships that enable us to do that kind of simple thing,” Greenert said.

The recent humanitarian mission to Indonesia following the tsunamis in late December is another example.

Until late last year, U.S. ties to Indonesia were extremely limited. There were no bilateral exercises between the two nations for years. The mission there showed the need for military-to-military relationships, even when diplomatic ties have cooled.

This year, for the first time in many years, the Navy will hold one of its largest regional exercises — Cooperation and Readiness Afloat Training — with Indonesia, Greenert said.

“What we did well in Indonesia is we got out of there,” Greenert said. “We got out of their country. When it wasn’t part of our mission as we mutually agreed it would be, we didn’t find something else to do that would ‘help’ them. We said, ‘Our work’s done here, agreed?’ They agreed and we left.”

Maritime initiative

For the past two years, the Defense Department has pushed for better maritime cooperation in Southeast Asia under the Regional Maritime Security Initiative, an effort to help thwart terrorism.

“I would describe it as a coalition of the willing,” Greenert said. “Its first major step … is the sharing of information. On an international basis we share air information, flights coming to and from, we keep pretty close track of that. What we don’t do on an international basis very well is share maritime information, what is contained on a ship, whose flag it is under, when was the last time it was inspected.

“A goal [for the initiative] might be a common database or network understanding shipping that is going to the various ports. What that would do is, we would know who doesn’t carry contraband, arms or terrorists. And then we would have a much more palatable challenge to look at who might. There is no time line on this because these things are relatively new. There’s a concern about sovereignty.”

Pacific Command uses exercises such as CARAT to practice cooperation, but also to build bridges to further collaboration.

“We are using the agenda of that exercise to perhaps steer it toward a more RMSI, counterterrorism [focus].”

The initiative asks nations to relax fears about sovereignty for the common good. What might be difficult politically is easier to manage through military cooperation, particularly where relationships exist and where bilateral training has fostered cooperation. The agreements are nascent, but with effort, the initiative is progressing, Greenert said. “We don’t have an end state per se because we don’t know where this will take us,” he said. “But we do like the progress.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now