By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 13, 2014 – Though drug interdiction looms large among U.S. Southern Command’s responsibilities, it isn’t the only national security role filled by the command, the Southcom commander said today during a media briefing at the Pentagon.
“[It's] a big part of what I do,” Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly said, “but it's one of the three things I do the most.”
Engagement with the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and running the Guantanamo naval base and prison in Cuba are Kelly’s other major duties, he said. But the amount of engagement Southcom can conduct has recently declined due to limited assets, the general added.
“[Combatant commands] get what the services can give us, … so if the services are hurting -- which they are -- for assets, then I'm hurting,” Kelly said.
In testimony earlier today to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kelly said the lack of assets means he is forced to watch 72 percent of suspected drug traffic sail freely through his area of responsibility. The situation is unlikely to change in the near future, he added.
“Of the five overseas combatant commands, I am certainly the least priority, and have been for some time, for a lot of different reasons,” the general explained, because with a finite amount of available assets, the Defense Department has to prioritize.
“That's just the way it is,” he said. “However, without assets, certain things will happen. Much larger amounts of drugs will flow up from Latin America. We'll do less and less engagement with our friends and partners in the region.”
Most of the countries in the region want to partner with the United States, the general said, and don't ask for very much in return other than advice -- from technicians, medical and dental professionals and veterinarians, for example. “And I can tell you, the engagements for me, they're very, very valuable,” he said.
Military-to-military engagement is a small part of the exchange, Kelly said, but “the overwhelming number of the engagements are … not focused on a kinetic kind of threat, but simply on how to make them a better military.”
Kelly estimates that he needs 16 vessels capable of transporting a helicopter to fulfill a mandate by President Barack Obama to reduce by 40 percent the amount of drug traffic flowing into the United States from Latin America. Working with an interagency group of partners that includes the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, the departments of State, Commerce and Treasury, and international partners, Southcom detects and monitors the movement of narcotics traffic.
“We do that superbly. I have very, very good clarity on the flow of drugs as it comes out of Latin America [and] Central America. The end game part of that is a law enforcement end game,” the general said. Frequently, the interdiction team may launch from a U.S. military helicopter or ship, but the teams themselves are Coast Guardsmen or federal agents, he explained.
Locally, the governments of Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have been “unbelievable partners,” Kelly said. In Colombia alone, more than 200 tons of cocaine are destroyed before ever leaving the country, the general noted.
Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France are providing assistance in the form of vessels and aircraft, he said. Last year, a Dutch oiler served as a platform to launch interdictions via helicopter, Kelly said.
“So as I said, I don't need a warship. I need a ship, something that floats, with a helicopter. … We think it takes 16 of those things to accomplish the 40-percent mission,” Kelly told reporters.
Last year, Southcom and its partners seized 132 tons of cocaine on the high seas, Kelly said. “That was done by, on average, having three, three and a half, maybe, ships on station day-to-day -- different ships, not always the same ship, but three ships, 132 tons,” he added. “The year before that, we took 153 or 154 tons. Why less this year than last year? Less assets. It's almost a scientific equation: more assets, more tonnage.”
Kelly said he estimates that each ship in his command stops an average of about 20 tons of narcotics yearly, despite spending just 1.5 percent of the entire U.S. government's counternarcotics budget.
“And I get the overwhelming tonnage,” the general said.