by Capt. Justin Brockhoff
12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern)
8/28/2014 - DAVIS-MONTHAN AFB, Ariz. -- In
2010, illegal drugs were being flown into the Dominican Republic at an
alarming rate of more than 130 illegal flights per year.
Drug runners were brazenly taking off in small, private planes from the
Venezuelan region of South America, landing at remote strips near the
Dominican coastline and offloading their illegal cargo. After the drugs
were handed off, the pilot would be airborne and heading back for South
America in a matter of minutes. The scene repeated itself about every 72
In the Dominican Republic, military and law enforcement agencies were
fighting the problem, but the drug runners were well versed in
collecting and dispersing the drugs to avoid apprehension. Traffickers
would continue shuffling their product through their networks' veins in
the Caribbean and then onto Europe, Central and North America.
These realizations led the Dominican government to seek new aircraft and
tactics to deal with the problem. They turned to the U.S. Southern
Command, which is responsible for U.S. military involvement in South
America, Central America and the Caribbean. U.S. Southern Command turned
to its air component, Air Forces Southern at Davis-Monthan, for
expertise in interdicting illicit air traffic and regaining air
sovereignty and the Sovereign Skies program was born.
The goals of Sovereign Skies were first, to help the Dominican air force
regain Dominican air sovereignty; second, to expanded training in
maritime interdiction operations; and third, to encourage all of the
partner-nations in the region toward a common aim, using similar tactics
and hand-off procedures to find, track and stop illicit drug traffic.
The Dominican government decided to use the A-29B Super Tucano, a sleek
turbo-propeller powered aircraft fast enough to intercept civilian
aircraft suspected of trafficking illegal drugs, but also capable of
flying slow and loitering in an area long enough, to track and monitor
suspect aircraft. It can also be outfitted with surveillance equipment
capable of operating in infrared or night vision modes.
Dominican government leaders then turned to getting their pilots the
right training and skill sets to regain control of the country's skies.
The challenge was finding pilots with the right experience and language
skills to develop a program and provide training.
The search led to the Air Forces Reserve's 69th Fighter Squadron
commander and F-16 instructor and evaluator pilot, at Luke Air Force
Base, Arizona, then-Lt. Col. Mike Torrealday.
"Previously, I'd done subject matter expert exchanges with 12th Air
Force, going back to 2003," Torrealday said. "So I had done a myriad of
different exchanges, usually having to do with fighter operations. When
SOUTHCOM contacted AFSOUTH, 12th Air Force, to provide subject matter
experts to train the Dominican pilots in intercepting illicit traffic,
at the time, AFSOUTH did not have any of those subject matter experts
within their staff. So, they contacted me and I said, 'Yes.'"
Previous SMEE experiences led Torrealday to encourage counterparts at
USSOUTHCOM to include the Colombians in assisting the Dominican
government with the Sovereign skies program, since the Columbian air
force employs the A-29B for the same mission.
"My thought process was, why don't [we take the Dominican pilots] to
Colombia, where they speak the same language, they've been flying the
same platform and have used that platform in this mission," Torrealday
said. "They agreed, and we sent a delegation of SOUTHCOM
representatives, Dominican air force representatives and myself to
Colombia and we met with the Colombian air force chief of staff and
their director of operations. They thought it was a great idea. They
conveyed to us that they felt that they were basically the regional
center of expertise on this kind of combating transnational organized
crime and that they would be very happy to impart that instruction
regionally, so that all of these regional air forces could work together
to try to combat or stem this regional threat."
The U.S. investment in the Sovereign Skies Program has yielded
impressive results, a reduction of an average of 130 illicit air tracks
per annum to zero illicit air tracks in more than three years.
Additionally, the A-29Bs have aided in multiple sea-based intercepts
resulting in the capture of an estimated 2,000 pounds of illegal
substances worth upwards of $22.5 million.
"The Dominicans up to today have trained eight pilots and two
instructors," Torrealday said. "And they are planning on training four
more pilots and two more instructors, for a total of 12 advance training
and four instructor pilots, so that they'll be able to maintain this
level of operational capability on their own with their instructors."
By making a small investment to train an initial cadre of regional
partners, AFSOUTH enable the Dominican air force to take the lead and
integrate with regional partners.
The Dominicans took it upon themselves to stem illicit trafficking and
regain control of their airspace. The U.S. and Colombia simply helped
the initiatives thrive. Now, with an initial cadre training new A-29B
pilots at a steady pace, the Dominican government has regained air
sovereignty for its country and serves as the example for the region on
bringing illicit air traffic to a decisive halt.
While the Sovereign Skies program itself is complete, Torrealday said
the overall structure of the program could be used as a model when
considering similar partner nation exchanges.
"This program can be used as a template for other countries within the
region, because the narcotics illicit traffic trade is not a threat or a
problem that only a certain country experiences," Torrealday said.
"It's a regional threat that affects most of the countries of the
region. So, our view is that we can use this program as a template,
modify it and adjust it for each country's geopolitical realities to
help them address this common threat."