Marine Gen. John Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command since November, gave his first testimonies last week to the U.S. Congress. Before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, he presented the annual “Posture Statement” for SouthCom, the “regional combatant command” that manages all U.S. military activity in the Western Hemisphere (excluding Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas).
Gen. Kelly took command just in time for “sequestration,” the deep cuts in federal spending, including defense spending, that went into effect on March 1. As Latin America is clearly a lower U.S. national security priority than other regions of the world (Middle East, Pacific Rim, Europe), these cuts are hitting Southern Command disproportionately. Its Miami headquarters is trimming 26 percent from its budget, Gen. Kelly testified. These cuts’ effect, in fact, was the central theme of his testimonies last week.
1. Reduced drug interdiction. Due to budget cuts, Gen. Kelly foresees a sharp drop in the number of planes and boats available to look for drug-smuggling and other trafficking activity along Central America’s coasts and in the Caribbean. He raised the possibility that the U.S. Navy may resort to “stopping all naval deployments to the Caribbean and South America,” something that would leave SouthCom’s naval component, the 4th Fleet, with little to do.
As a result, Gen. Kelly foresees a drop in the number of tons of cocaine that SouthCom will seize in Central America and the Caribbean, from 152 last year to 90 this year. (See the chart below, which is also interesting because it contends that U.S. interdiction dropped after Ecuador refused to renew a U.S. presence at its Manta airbase in 2009.). The cuts will spell the end of “Operation Martillo” (“Operation Hammer”), a surge of U.S. interdiction boats and planes that began last year along Central America’s coastlines. Two Navy frigates currently participating in the operation will return to port soon. The 90 tons of expected seizures this year, however, represent only a modest drop from the non-Martillo level of 117 tons measured in 2011.
2. Trafficking appears to be moving westward, to the Pacific. The Posture Statement offers these estimates of how trafficking activity has shifted as a result of “Martillo.”
- 21% drop in aircraft smuggling to Central America (mainly Honduras).
- 57% drop in aircraft smuggling to Hispaniola island (mainly Haiti).
- 36% drop in boats smuggling near Central America’s Caribbean coast.
- 38% drop in boats smuggling on Caribbean high seas near Central America.
- 71% increase in 2012, but 43% drop so far in 2013, in boats smuggling near Central America’s Pacific coast.
- 12% increase in 2012, and 51% increase so far in 2013, in boats smuggling on Pacific high seas near Central America.
The “balloon effect,” it would appear, continues to illustrate illicit trafficking activity in the region.
3. SouthCom is cutting back on exercises, military-to-military contacts, and Special Forces training deployments in 2013 as a result of “sequestration.” The command, Gen. Kelly says, has been forced to “scale back deployments of Civil Affairs and Special Operations Forces teams to the region.” SouthCom has chosen to scale back the annual “Panamax” canal-defense exercise, and to cancel the following exercises:
- Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias, a simulation of a natural disaster response.
- Peacekeeping Operations Americas.
- Partnership of the Americas, a side exercise that accompanies UNITAS, an annual naval circumnavigation of South America.
- Fuerzas Comando, an annual competition between the region’s Special Forces.
The Posture Statement also says that the National Guard’s “State Partnership Program,” a series of smaller deployments, has canceled more than 90 events. In 2012, this program alone carried out 223.
Exercises that appear to have survived the cut include the “Beyond the Horizon” series of humanitarian exercises, UNITAS, the Southern Partnership Station series of naval events, and the Caribbean exercise Tradewinds.
4. Iran’s efforts aren't getting traction in the region.“I share the Congress’ concerns over Iran’s attempts to increase its influence in the region,” General Kelly says. However,
“The reality on the ground is that Iran is struggling to maintain influence in the region, and that its efforts to cooperate with a small set of countries with interests that are inimical to the United States are waning. In an attempt to evade international sanctions and cultivate anti-U.S. sentiment, the Iranian regime has increased its diplomatic and economic outreach across the region with nations like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina. This outreach has only been marginally successful, however, and the region as a whole has not been receptive to Iranian efforts.”
SouthCom nonetheless remains vigilant, Gen. Kelly says, even though its “limited intelligence capabilities may prevent our full awareness of all Iranian and Hezbollah activities in the region.”
5. China is now being explicitly cited as a competitor. Gen. Kelly notes “an unprecedented three naval deployments to Latin America since 2008, including a hospital ship visit in 2011” from China. Whether three deployments in five years should be cause for concern is unclear, but the Commander, mindful of his congressional audience, contrasts them with the current budget cuts:
“China is attempting to directly compete with U.S. military activities in the region. I believe it is important to note that sequestration will likely result in the cancellation of this year’s deployment of the USNS Comfort [a U.S. Navy hospital ship] to the region, an absence that would stand in stark contrast to China’s recent efforts.”
6. The document’s annex provides a glimpse of current assistance to Colombian forces fighting in that country’s armed conflict. Note these fragments from the section on Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), the Southern Command’s Special Forces component.
“SOCSOUTH elements provided assistance to the Colombian Special Operations Command, the new joint interagency task forces that are conducting operations against key FARC concentrations. SOCSOUTH also provided counternarcotics, small unit tactics, and riverine training to Colombian National Police and military forces.”
SOCSOUTH supported Colombian War Plan ‘SWORD OF HONOR’ by helping build intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination capacity in newly established joint interagency task forces fighting the FARC.”
“In 2012, SOCSOUTH provided subject matter expertise to enable key Colombia partner units to establish a sustainable weapons-repair capability and initiate the development of an aerial delivery capability.”
“By partnering with academia, SOCSOUTH seeks to build critical thinking skills of key partner unit leadership, helping them to better confront complex irregular warfare challenges. In 2012, SOCSOUTH sponsored a “Counter FARC Ideological Activities” seminar in Colombia, and a “Counterterrorist Operations Planning” seminar in Peru in support of counter narco-terrorist operations.”