Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, GEOINT 2017 Keynote Address
San Antonio, Texas | June 7, 2017
Good morning. Tish, thank you for the kind introduction. Robert, thanks for the invitation to speak today. SOUTHCOM is fortunate to have such a great partner in NGA. You’re one of the great innovators inside our government, challenging the U.S. military and the intelligence community to use GEOINT in new and exciting ways. We can’t thank you enough for the support you give SOUTHCOM, and we’re glad to be a part of the NGA team.
Robert asked me to talk about how we’re embracing innovation at SOUTHCOM. I’m going to hazard a guess that some of you might not know too much about us. SOCOM, sure. But SOUTHCOM? What on earth could we have to say about emerging threats?! Plenty, as it turns out—but we’ll get to that in a minute.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with our organization, here’s a quick overview of what we do.
As one of six geographic combatant commands, our job is to look south [slide]: to focus on the Americas—1/6th of the globe, 15 million square miles, with more than half a billion people in 31 countries.
With an already crowded national security agenda, it’s easy to lose sight of the enormous strategic importance of the Americas to our national interests.
Fact is, in terms of geographic proximity, trade, immigration, and the environment, I would propose that no other part of the world has greater impact on our daily life than the Americas.
When people ask me to describe what it’s like working in this part of the world, I always find myself saying “it’s different down here.”
One of the ways it’s different is that we don’t see any traditional military threats: no conflicts between countries…no regional adversaries…no strategic military threat to the United States.
In fact, we’ve got a host of willing, capable, partners who are eager to work with us, and with each other. You may be surprised to learn that nations like Brazil, Chile, and Colombia boast military capabilities on par with our NATO allies.
These are nations that are actively contributing to international security, not just in Latin America, but around the globe. All things considered, this is a pretty great place to work.
While the region may be largely at peace, that doesn’t mean it’s free from security challenges. But like I just said, it’s different down here—and that extends to the types of security challenges we and our partners face.
Over the past decade or so, the nature of many of these challenges has changed. Old ones have evolved and new ones have emerged, both with direct implications for our national interests.
So that’s what I want to talk to you about today: change.
How the regional security environment has changed, and how that’s driving us to change how we look at operational innovation at SOUTHCOM.
As General Dunford and others have noted, the global security environment our military faces is unlike any we’ve seen before.
- It’s more complex, more uncertain, and more volatile.
- It’s an environment we know more about—but seeing the signal through the noise (and knowing what to do with it) is a challenge in and of itself.
- The environment is also more interconnected. Everywhere we look, we see a merging of the global and local, a blurring between crime and acts of terror, and overlaps between public security and national defense. And everywhere we look, we see networks.
We live in a world driven by them. Networks are the defining characteristic of our daily lives. They’re all around us. We rely on them. We’re part of them. And—unfortunately—we’re also threatened by them [slide].
What’s true for the global security environment is true for Latin America, where groups like drug traffickers have long been the principal challenge to regional security.
But thanks to globalization, the nature of these groups—and of other networks like them—is changing. What were once public safety nuisances have, in some cases, become globally-integrated enterprises that fuel corruption, chaos, and criminality.
These groups are no longer small-time criminals and jihadI wanna-bes, confined to one bad neighborhood or one vulnerable community. Many have global reach (and the profits that go along with it).
Thanks to those profits, some networks possess military-grade capabilities that rival—or even exceed—those of our partners. ISIS leverages social media to market their ‘brand’ to new audiences, while transnational criminal organizations exploit the cyber realm in new and unconventional ways.
The Sinaloa Cartel are ‘market makers,’ fielding new product lines like synthetic drugs, and finding new (and incredibly creative) ways to move things in and out of our homeland.
Like companies on the cutting edge of R&D [slide], these groups embrace new technology like semi-submersibles, crypto-coin, and tracking devices on their products to stay one step ahead of our efforts to counter them.
- The tactics, techniques, and procedures employed by these networks have advanced far beyond the “typical” activities we’d expect of violent non-state actors. Everything is more complex and dynamic.
- They don’t operate in just one domain, at one point in time, or do just one thing, in one place. They simultaneously operate across multiple domains, countries, regions, and continents.
- They’re adaptive, constantly reacting and learning from other networks, and from us. Every obstacle we place in their path…everything we do (or don’t do), every action we take, it all affects them in interconnected and interdependent ways that are difficult to predict and often impossible to fully understand.
Keeping pace with the changing nature of these networks requires some fundamental changes on our part.
We need to think and act differently. Not just about these networks, but also about how we use information, how we get it, how we share it with our partners, and how we act on it together, as our own ‘friendly’ network.
At SOUTHCOM, we have several added complications: we don’t have the luxury of significant resources to help us get after these challenges. That means we need to get a lot smarter about making best use of what we do have.
And, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we also face competition for regional security partnerships—specifically from Russia and China, who actively court the region through arms sales, defense agreements, and military education exchanges.
They’re also actively engaging in information operations in the open source domain.
This is why operational innovation is so important to us: it’s how we gain a competitive edge against adversaries, and it’s also how we maintain our competitive edge as a military partner.
At USSOUTHCOM, we’re embracing operational innovation in several different ways.
One of our most exciting partnerships is the work we’re doing with NGA.
- This started out as an experimental collaboration with NGA’s Pathfinder 2 effort and commercial small sat providers.
- The results were so impressive, we created a pilot project to operationalize the R&D results.
- The goal of this project is to help us visualize and understand the complex dynamics of the regional security environment.
- To do that, we’re combining commercially available imagery with online tools and publically available data.
- This combination gives us insights into people-to-people connections, allowing us to see not just what’s happening, but where and when, gaining critical context in both time and space.
We’ve leveraged geo-enabled open source analysis in multiple ways:
- We used it to pinpoint illicit airfields that were being used to smuggle drugs from South America to Honduras [slide].
- We analyzed prison capacity in El Salvador and verified the status of construction on new prison projects, using nothing more than press reporting and social media postings about gang roundups.
- And we uncovered evidence of illicit networks engaging in illegal mining in Peru, just by comparing commercial imagery [slide].
- We think we can do the same in Central America, where illicit networks may be responsible for 30% of the deforestation happening in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras. 
This unclassified capability really proved itself during last year’s hurricane relief effort in Haiti. [slide].
- Using commercial imagery, photos from Twitter, and postings from other social media sites, our team was able to rapidly identify washed out bridges and damaged infrastructure—faster than we could get the information from our own assets due to the days of cloud cover that typically follow a storm.
- This helped us, because it enhanced our internal planning efforts for aid delivery. More importantly, it helped the United Nations and foreign partners prioritize repair and recovery efforts.
What’s great about this new application of existing technology is that it gets us outside the typical intel tasking cycle.
- It makes us more agile and more responsive.
- It’s also affordable, and more importantly, it’s accessible—to everyone.
- It’s all unclassified.
- We can share it with our foreign military partners. They can share it with their civilian agencies, NGOs, and other organizations on the ground.
- Like Robert, we think working and succeeding “in the open” is really the next frontier in GEOINT.
- Working “in the open” supports the development of our own military capabilities, and also strengthens our network of military and security partners.
- By sharing more with our partners, our partners can do more—with us, and with each other. We’re better partners—and have stronger partnerships—because of it.
But how we use technology is just as important as what technology we use.
We’re also moving out aggressively to embrace operational innovation in traditional mission sets like the detection and monitoring (D&M) of illegal drugs.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this aspect of DoD, since 1989 our Key West-based Joint Interagency Task Force South has executed this mission, and they are pretty darn good at it.
When they have planes to hunt for illicit network activity and ships to vector in for interdiction, their success rate is impressive.
The problem is there’s just not enough ISR to go around, and a lot of JIATF South’s requirements go unmet.
So we’re trying to compensate for that.
- We’re conducting a long duration, long-dwell ISR pilot study to address our D&M capability shortfalls.
- During the first phase, we performed a comprehensive study that looked at more than 500 commercially available, low-cost systems to determine which would perform the best out in the Eastern Pacific, where illicit networks are extremely active.
- We’ll soon launch the first test flight of a “stratollite”--a balloon operating in the stratosphere [slide].
- This capability is actually being developed for commercial near-space tourism, but we think it has some interesting applications for our mission sets, particularly if the balloons achieve their predicted flight durations greater than 180 days.
We think this has the potential to be a game changer for us: a great long-duration, long-dwell surveillance platform.
We’re going to combine this high-altitude balloon with a long-duration oceanographic remote sensor and an unmanned aerial system that’s used by railroad companies to conduct track inspections beyond line of sight.
Between these three capabilities, we think we’ll get persistent awareness and better information sharing—all intended to produce better disruption of illicit network activity.
We’re proud to be the first geographic combatant command to try this out. We’re proud to be experimenting with technology that may mitigate our capability gaps without competing with our traditional assets, or free up those ‘exquisite’ assets to use where we urgently need them.
But what we’re really proud of is how we’re changing our mindset. It’s not just that we’re leveraging off-the-shelf hardware in new ways.
[slide] We’re changing how we’re looking at things like commercial space technology: space as a service. We are anticipating a world where the cost of sensing the environment drops by a factor of 100…or 1,000…or 10,000; where bandwidth is no longer an obstacle to disseminating the real-time data and information from remote sensors; and where autonomous learning systems enable us to immediately see patterns that we otherwise couldn’t.
We’re not there yet, but it’s not that far away and the implications are enormous.
So that’s what we’re doing, and here’s what we hope it means for all of you: that it fundamentally changes the way you look at SOUTHCOM and this part of the world.
In case it didn’t know, the Americas is a great place for innovators. [slide].
- Geographically it’s got dense jungles and harsh terrain: it has thousands of miles of riverine thoroughfares alongside rugged and often undeveloped coasts; diverse weather patterns; deserts, mountains; congested urban centers, and everything in between.
- It’s home to partners like Brazil and Uruguay, who are leaning forward on the innovation front, and embracing new technologies in peacekeeping, disaster response, and space. These and other innovators are natural partners for the United States.
- All this, and it’s peaceful and welcoming of U.S. engagement.
You can focus on fielding new technologies focused on challenging and meaningful missions, and we’d like to be the platform to let you do it. (slide)
We’re not waiting for mature capabilities or technological nirvana. We’re integrating emerging technologies into our operations now.
Whatever it is, we’ll try it out, get it in the field, see what works, what doesn’t. We’ve got a lot to offer: an open mind, dynamic and capable partners, geographic proximity to the United States, and a range of security challenges that demand creative, agile thinking.
Remember what I said earlier—it’s different down here. And different is what innovation is all about. Thank you.
 Sensie, S et al. “A spatio-temporal analysis of forest loss related to cocaine trafficking in Central America.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 12, no 5. May 2017.