CARACAS -- U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), Carrier Strike Group NINE (CSG 9), Destroyer Squadron 23 -- including the Arleigh Burke class USS Chafee (DDG 90) and USS McFaul (DDG 74) -- and Carrier Air Wing TWO (CVW 2) completed the multinational UNITAS Atlantic (LANT) in Brazil on November 25 and began sailing north through waters off Venezuela on their way back to their new home port in Norfolk, Virginia.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, UNITAS LANT, hosted by Brazil from November 14 to 25, consisted of "a variety of maritime scenarios to test command and control of forces at sea and focus on promoting tactical interoperability and promoting friendship, professionalism and mutual understanding among the participating partner nations."
Brazil hosted this year's UNITAS LANT with participation from Cameroon, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, United Kingdom and United States. Venezuela had participated prior to the administration of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, but Chavez withdrew the country from military coordination with the U.S. as he sought to distance his country from its largest customer.
UNITAS 2015, the U.S. Navy's longest running annual multinational maritime exercise, is part of the Southern Seas deployment planned by U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet. This 56th iteration of UNITAS was conducted in two phases: UNITAS Pacific, hosted by Chile in October 2015 and UNITAS Atlantic, hosted by Brazil in November.
On November 26, the U.S.S. George Washington left Rio de Janeiro and its task force began steaming north toward its home port of Norfolk, Virginia.
On December 1 and 2, the carrier passed over the equator and new crew members participated in the centuries old "crossing the line ceremony" initiation rite.
The aircraft carrier and its task force is now located in waters off Guyana and Venezuela. In addition to its standard complement of the electronic surveillance capabilities of 2 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, the ship also carries E-2C Hawkeyes from the "Black Eagles" of Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 113, which provide an eye and ear in the sky.
Venezuela's leadership has noted the presence of the aircraft carrier, and the Minister of Defense, Vladimir Padrino López, warned about the "very casual" presence near Venezuelan waters.
"For us it is a strange coincidence, but we do not believe it is a coincidence that the carrier will be very close on the election day," Padrino Lopez told Globovision television during an interview.
According to the U.S., there was nothing out of the ordinary in the George Washington's transit near Venezuela, as the multinational exercises in Brazil were planned long before Venezuela's late June announcement of the date for its parliamentary elections.
"The USS George Washington is deployed as part of Southern Seas 2015 which seeks to enhance interoperability, increase regional stability and build and maintain relationships with countries throughout the region through joint, multinational and interagency exchanges and cooperation," said the U.S. Department of Defense.
"This was an invaluable training experience for all of our navies, and we're grateful for Brazil's exceptional leadership this year," said Rear Admiral Lisa Franchetti, commander, Carrier Strike Group NINE. "This realistic exercise gave us the opportunity to form a multi-national task force and train together across the full spectrum of maritime operations from anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare to air defense and maritime interdiction operations. We also conducted a very productive seven-day bi-lateral training exercise with the Brazilian air force. This was a truly unique opportunity for our F/A-18 aircraft to work with Brazilian fighters in air-to-air combat training."
UNITAS is conducted annually and dates back to 1960. It is the U.S. Navy's longest running annual multinational maritime exercise. The next UNITAS exercise, UNITAS 2016, is scheduled to be hosted by Panama and occur in September 2016.
The USS George Washington is a United States Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ("supercarrier"), the sixth carrier in the Nimitz class and the fourth US Navy ship named after George Washington, the first president of the United States. She was commissioned on July 4, 1992. The super carrier can accommodate approximately 90 aircraft and has a flight deck of 4.5 acres. She can reach speeds of over 30 knots (56 km/h) and is powered by two Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors that turn 4 five-bladed propellers. The Washington can travel more than three million nautical miles before needing refueling.
In a highly charged environment, Venezuela goes to the polls to elect 167 members of its unicameral national assembly amidst a collapsing economy, inflation over 200% and widespread shortages. Polls suggest that the Opposition should win at least a majority of the seats, despite government gerrymandering, as well as the jailing, disqualification and murder of opposition leaders.