The U.S. is able to intercept about a quarter of the vessels headed for these shores bearing illicit cargo, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard at a Thursday hearing to get updates on Northern and Southern Command and their battle against drug trafficking.
“We have pretty good situational awareness on an awful lot of the trafficking that is occurring,” Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, testified. “And that’s based on very close partnership with a variety of countries in the region, most notably with Colombia. Of the known tracks that we are aware of — and we think we’ve got a pretty good handle — we are only able to intercept about 25 percent, about one quarter.”
Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) mused about whether “if we can invest more in Coast Guard, presumably we could intercept more than 25 percent of the ships.”
Tidd replied that “security in our theater is a team sport.”
“I’ve said before on a number of occasions, in the U.S. SOUTHCOM region, my maritime force has white hulls and orange stripes. And, frankly, if it were not for the United States Coast Guard and the significant effort by the commandant, we would not have a maritime presence,” Tidd told senators.
This isn’t a matter of downplaying the “very significant importance of the region,” he noted, but “just a matter of strategic priorities and availability of forces… we run out of forces before we run out of mission.”
The Coast Guard cutters that have been interdicting drug shipments are “irreplaceable,” the commander lauded.
“The national security cutters — terrific, when we get them. But the real workhorse, the ‘cop on the beat’ vessels arethose medium-endurance cutters, many of which are past 30 years in age. Some were built in the 1960s,” Tidd said. “And so the recapitalization of those medium-endurance cutters with the offshore patrol cutters, I view as extremely important to U.S. SOUTHCOM’s ability to provide an adequate maritime presence in our region.”
Tidd said there are some drones in use, though there “are some challenges procedurally” with unmanned aerial vehicles “to incorporate them in the missions that we are engaged in, but we are actively exploring efforts to be able to do that.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said he recalled receiving a 25 percent interdiction estimate from SOUTHCOM a few years ago.
“It is inexcusable to be sitting here, three or four years later, and still only being able to interdict 25 percent of the drug shipments that we know about. And we would know about more if we had adequate ISR. This is simply a question of allocation of resources, and this is the most serious public health problem this country faces,” King said, referring to the devastation of the opioid crisis particularly in his home state.
“Four people have died in the last hour, and we’re still talking about it, and you’re giving me the same figures that Gen. Kelly gave three or four years ago,” the senator added.
Tidd said the greatest challenge is “being able to provide additional resources, which they recognize very clearly are required” while being hampered by “the inability to have budget predictability to be able to produce more forces, to make them available.”
Gen. Lori J. Robinson, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the flow of drug runners from Canada is nothing like what Southern Command sees.
“But the one thing I would like to also add and give Admiral Tidd a lot of credit for is, last month, we had a meeting with he and I and Admiral Durand from Colombia and Admiral Soberon from Mexico to talk about how do we — as we watch things go from the land-based transit, to the ocean-based transit, you know, those two folks talking to each other about how do we decide how we’re going to combat this together,” Robinson told the committee.
Colombia, Mexico and the U.S. presented plans, “and now the three of us are going to sit down and go, ‘What’s the best way we can do this from an open-ocean perspective, to try to get after that?'” she added. “…This is a multi-dimension conversation and it’s a multi-combatant-command conversation, which, to me, is what’s really important, is the fact that he and I stand side by side doing this.”