With transnational criminal organizations trafficking drugs, guns and people in South and Central America and China, Russia, Iran and Cuba meddling and peddling influence in the region, U.S. Southern Command has its hands full working to keep the neighborhood safe. Increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity and a greater ability to offer security cooperation opportunities to partner nations can help with that, Southcom's commander said today.
"Modest investments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, security cooperation and presence go a long way in the hemisphere and will help us and our partners counter these global threats," said Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, during a House Appropriations Committee hearing.
In addition to threats posed by transnational criminal organizations and the involvement of China, Russia, Iran and Cuba, environmental threats — such as hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic — have made keeping Southcom's area of responsibility safe an even greater challenge, Faller told lawmakers.
"Now, more than ever, I feel a deep sense of urgency that our region is under assault from a vicious circle [of] threats," said Faller. "And these are global threats, and they are right here, right now in our neighborhood."
Faller told lawmakers that an increase in ISR capabilities for Southcom would be helpful to the command. Right now, he said, Southcom uses only about 1% of U.S. ISR capabilities.
"Our intel drives everything we do," he said. "We turn it into knowledge; we share it where we can, particularly with our own U.S. government agencies. It helps us understand what's on the field and how to best respond long term."
Faller said, in the past, a special "ISR transfer fund" provided additional funding to support ISR activities in the department — including for Southcom — but that fund wasn't present in the FY2021 budget.
"We've used that ISR transfer fund money to do work in that environment, and we've uncovered a considerable amount of useful information that we've been able to pass to the host nations for their action, our law enforcement partners, and, in some cases, it's ... used to be able to illuminate malign Chinese and Russian behavior," he said.
The admiral said he would like to see additional support for ISR at Southcom in the upcoming budget.
"While we have not seen the full budget for FY22, I would anticipate that the top of my unfunded requirements list will be ... the need for additional ISR, to include what we call non-traditional ISR," he said, adding that this includes machine learning and artificial intelligence to look through the large amounts of commercially-available data on foreign adversaries.
A big part of what Southcom offers in its area of responsibility is security cooperation through the military-to-military relationships the U.S. forges with partner nations there.
"Security cooperation is key," he said. "That's what builds partner capacity. That's how we become more interoperable with partners. The U.S. has the best equipment in the world, and partners want our equipment; and it's a long-term relationship."
Additional funding for enhanced security cooperation opportunities is something Southcom needs more of, he said.
"As the budget is unveiled, I believe that'll be at the top of my unfunded priorities," he said. "There's more that could be invested in the capacity. We sit at about $120 million for 28 countries to help them build. It's a good investment long-term for both the United States and our partners. It keeps them close; it's a relationship."
Faller also cited, specifically, the importance of defense attachés in U.S. embassies.
"Those are our frontlines in our embassy," he said. "We should look at the manning of our embassies. It is very, very lightly manned for today's competition. And then look at where we're postured as a military and where is the United States postured? In this hemisphere, it's the right thing to not have permanent bases, to have light locations where we can come in and out and work with our partners on their training and readiness."