Listening to Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) speak at a breakfast meeting with reporters on Wednesday was like sitting through a refresher course on the latest strategic guidance released by the Pentagon earlier this year.
In that paper, the defense department said that it wants to be the “security partner of choice, pursuing new partnerships with a growing number of nations” to “develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.”
Welcome to the world USSOUTHCOM has been living in for years.
Like most any combatant commander anywhere, Fraser needs more of everything. By today’s standards, “everything” means more UAVs, more ships, and new surveillance technology like foliage-penetrating radar that can spot insurgents and drug runners in the triple canopy jungles of Central and South America.
But the general is also realistic. With the war in Afghanistan still very much on, Fraser knows that getting that gear to the Southern Command theater of operations is easier said than done. “The real need is just vessels to be able to intercept [illegal shipping] and the way we’re addressing that is to build partner capacity,” Fraser said. “We’ve provided some interceptor vessels to our partners … those are Boston Whaler type vessels with a small radar and communications capabilities … we’re working to build that international capacity.” In the end, “the capacity to intercept is where we’re really lacking.”
And here’s where building partner capacity comes in. Fraser said that Panama recently purchased 19 maritime radars, and that the Nicaraguan Navy is a “very reliable” partner in intercepting ships. To underscore that last point, the Nicaraguan Navy seized more than two tons of cocaine in an operation along the its eastern coast recently, which is almost half of the 4.7 tons its seized in all of 2011.
And then there’s Colombia, which has received about $8 billion in U.S. military and law enforcement aid over the past decade. The government in Bogota has been able to dismantle the largest drug cartels—which shouldn’t be confused with stopping the flow of cocaine, which continues to gush out of the country in torrents—and reduced the FARC rebel group to a significant degree.
Given this experience, the Colombians have now “become very much externally focused” Fraser said. The Colombian military has an agreement with the Dominican Republic to help the island nation monitor illegal aircraft and train their Super Tucano pilots, while “doing something similar with Honduras, and training Mexican helicopter pilots in Colombia.” The funding for this pilot training comes form the U.S.-provided Merida Initiative that is aimed at assisting the Mexican government fight its own drug cartels. Colombia also operates Marine and Navy training centers where they host training classes for partner nations from across the region, as well as hosting a police training center for partner nations. “Chile is also providing law enforcement and military training and support” across the region, Fraser said.
While this all fits nicely with the DoD’s new strategy of helping partners help themselves, Fraser said that in the end the United States and its regional partners are only able to intercept about 33 percent of the drugs and illegal goods flowing north out of the region. The low number is partially the result of the “limitation on the number of assets” that he has at his disposal.
The problems that the Littoral Combat Ship has faced over the last several years are also having a negative impact on the anti-drug fight in the Caribbean Fraser said, adding that as the U.S. Navy retires its frigates, “we’ll see a gap” in the number of ships tasked to the region. The general also said that while USSOUTHCOM can normally rely on an annual visit from a large deck amphibious ship, that won’t happen this year since the operational tempo in other commands is too high. While Fraser said that more UAVs would certainly help and that “we have access to occasional Global Hawk missions," any other UAV assets would need to be “broad area-type UAVs” that would be effective at sea.
Much of higher end equipment that the general wants for his command will have to wait for the war in Afghanistan to fully wind down so those assets can become available, Fraser said. But the command has been busily funding, training, and working with regional partners for years in the hope that they might be able to shoulder more of the effort themselves. Welcome to the DoD’s not-so-new way of war.