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Going Dark: SOUTHCOM, Where Modern ISR Was Born, Is Hoping for Assets

May. 14, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By ARAM ROSTON   |   Comments
Sailors aboard an inflatable boat unload bales of cocaine after an embarked Coast Guard law enforcement detachment seized the contraband during a drug interdiction in the Caribbean Sea.
Sailors aboard an inflatable boat unload bales of cocaine after an embarked Coast Guard law enforcement detachment seized the contraband during a drug interdiction in the Caribbean Sea. (Navy)
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In 1989, two small U.S. planes took off in Colombia’s expansive Aburra Valley, the first flights of a surveillance operation that would ultimately reshape the American way of war.

Taking up orbit over Medellin, the Beechcraft planes, part of a secret operation called Centra Spike, began sucking in phone calls and radio signals. Technicians aboard processed the data with state-of-the-art analysis techniques, seeking clues to the whereabouts of Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar. The Centra Spike operation, it is believed, played a key role in the events that led to Escobar being killed in 1992.

More than a dozen years later, the ISR techniques born in Latin America came of age in Afghanistan, where U.S. special forces tracked down countless Taliban leaders by their electromagnetic emissions.

It is ironic, then, that the U.S. command responsible for missions in Latin America is so short of ISR assets. At U.S. SOUTHCOM, intelligence officials are patching together what they can to monitor the drug routes that supply almost all of America’s cocaine.

“A lot of it was just what fell off the table,” SOUTHCOM’s new commander, Marine Gen. John Kelly, told Congress in March.


There were a lot of targets for aerial surveillance during the Colombian drug missions of the 1990s: drug cartels, cocaine labs, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), the paramilitaries. But it was Escobar’s killing that seemed to crystallize the technology’s potential, according to interviews with contract ISR operators.

“No one before that had seen it like that. No one thought you could go after one guy,” recalled a veteran of Colombian operations. “That sure pushed ISR to the forefront, to where even corporate people started taking a look at it. It was a huge time of innovation, in what you could put in an airplane.”

Among the innovations: hiring private companies to carry out ISR missions. That started around three years after Escobar’s death, and it first took the form of a kind of joint venture between the U.S. government and the oil industry. In 1996, Occidental Petroleum hired a company to fly planes along the 500-mile Cano Limon pipeline, which was under constant attack by guerrillas. A Florida-based contractor, Airscan, was in communication with Colombian Armed Forces and had a Colombian Air Force sergeant aboard the plane as a host nation rider. They flew the route back and forth, looking for guerrillas. Even the gear was innovative, for the time: an infrared camera on a civilian Cessna Skymaster.

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The mission mixed oil field security and counterinsurgency operations, and ultimately, the Colombian military hired Airscan directly, court records show.

But the complexities of using private surveillance planes in the middle of an insurgency became clear when 17 Colombian villagers died in an explosion on New Year’s Eve on 1998. The American Cessna Skymaster crew had called in the location of a FARC element, and the Colombian Air Force launched an airstrike. There are conflicting accounts over what killed the villagers: a prosecutor said it was the Colombian Air Force; and Colombian military officials blamed FARC.

Still, contract ISR in Colombia blossomed, driven by the oft-overlapping efforts to track insurgents and catch drug traffickers. Back then, “we made it up as we went along,” said one old hand.

It also helped to minimize the U.S. government’s official footprint — and perhaps its risks and costs.

One operation was called the SOUTHCOM Reconnaissance System, a Defense Department contract launched in 1999 initially held by a Northrop Grumman division. Two Cessna Caravans were equipped with infrared cameras, based at Colombian bases such as Larandia, and flown over FARC territory and paramilitary zones looking for drug labs.

They were single-engine planes, and a poor choice for the terrain. In February 2003, one of the Cessnas crashed on a mission. FARC rebels executed one pilot and a Colombian air force sergeant and took three American contractors hostage. A month later, the other Caravan went searching for the hostages and crashed into a mountain. All of its crew was killed. (The three American ISR contractors held by the rebels remained in captivity for five years, finally rescued from the Colombian jungle in 2008.)

But by the spring of 2003, the Iraq operation was well underway.

“We were doing this mission in Colombia,” one experienced contractor said, “where it’s an asymmetric environment chasing fleeting targets that are transnational. After Sept. 11, that’s what we would do in the global war on terrorism.”

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As the wars in CENTCOM heated up, the money and the action moved to the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Assets for Latin American operations vanished.

“SOUTHCOM is like the bastard stepchild now,” said one ISR pilot with experience there.

Retired Air Force Gen. Doug Fraser, who commanded SOUTHCOM until November, said search assets are at the heart of the effort. During his command, Fraser said, “ISR never came close to the requirement…A lot of ISR was catch as catch can.”

Much of SOUTHCOM’s aerial ISR missions are flown by aircraft begged off other commands. A bomber crew, for example, might be asked to do some drug monitoring while they’re freshening up their qualifications.

“They get their training, they get their flight time, and they help us out,” Kelly told Congress.

SOUTHCOM’s detection and monitoring is handled by the Joint Interagency Task Force South, which takes a particular interest in the maritime drug routes through the Caribbean and Pacific. The task force heads Operation Martillo, an international effort to detect and intercept traffic along the Central American coast.

“Generally speaking, we are talking about finding ships on the ocean,” said Tom Munroe, SOUTHCOM’s deputy for collection management. Four U.S. squadrons have rotated in and out to help. The operation has intercepted staggering amounts of cocaine: 171 metric tons since January 2012.

Quantifying intelligence is never easy. SOUTHCOM’s written testimony to Congress said its Air Force component gathered “over 28,000 images, and 1,893.8 hours of signals intelligence that led to the seizure of 332,616 lbs (worth $3.02 billion) of drugs and weapons.” The command said ISR resulted in “32 high-value narco-terrorists” being “killed in action.” (It doesn’t specify who or where.)

Still, there are vast parts of SOUTHCOM’s area of operations that are apparently largely dark. U.S. officials know that much of the cocaine that eventually reaches the U.S. moves through Honduras. The U.S. military and the Drug Enforcement Administration have stepped up operations out of Soto Cano Air Base. But there is no indication of substantive ISR to cover the country’s vast ungoverned region.

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“I would say Honduras is a huge gap, and I wouldn’t even know how to characterize it,” said one official at the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, the group charged with detecting and monitoring illicit traffic.

Overall, SOUTHCOM’s mix of ISR resources comes from various agencies. Some Customs and Border Protection P-3s run patrols and some Coast Guard planes do as well. Other U.S. planes, such as E-3 AWACS and JSTARS, periodically fly from two “forward operating locations” (not “bases,” to assuage political sensitivity) in Curacao and at San Salvador’s airport. A base in Manta, Equador, closed in 2009.

The U.S. still supplements government ISR with private companies. Figures are hard to come by, but from 2005 through 2009, the U.S. spent $313 million on contract ISR in the region, according to a 2011 report by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

U.S. officials have tweaked such operations since the 2003 crashes of the Cessna Caravans. There is no more SOUTHCOM Reconnaissance System, but there is a Counternarcotics Surveillance System. More significantly, the single-engine Cessnas were replaced by twin-engine planes.


SOUTHCOM hopes that the end of the war in Afghanistan will free up airplanes and experienced ISR crews.

“We do expect something of a peace dividend from the assets coming out of CENTCOM in Afghanistan,” Munroe said. “That peace dividend probably isn’t going to be as much as we had hoped for.”

It’s a different environment than crews have become accustomed to in Afghanistan. Drug labs and drug crews are set up in triple canopy jungle, with foliage so thick that the sunlight barely penetrates. That means an entirely different set of gear, such as “foliage-penetrating radar or a lidar-type system that can see under the canopy,” Munroe said.

The sensors find drug traffickers and insurgents and also help friendly forces get around.

“You know, 5 kilometers in the jungle can take five days to get through, because they are trying to be stealthy,” Munroe said. “They need to know where the rivers are, where the trails are under the foliage.”

Lockheed Martin’s latest foliage-penetrating radar, TRACER, is a synthetic aperture system that’s far smaller than older technology. The company says it has manufactured four TRACER systems so far, and that leaves a lot of jungle.

Sequestration has hit SOUTHCOM hard. Two Navy deployments that had been scheduled to patrol Central America and the Caribbean have been canceled.

“The day could soon come,” Kelly wrote to Congress, “when U.S. Southern Command has no assigned [Defense Department] surface assets to conduct detection and monitoring operations.”

This story appears in the May issue of C4ISR Journal.

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