WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Southern Command on Tuesday appeared to find a receptive audience to his requests for greater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the next budget.
Adm. Craig Faller, who will retire as the SOUTHCOM chief later this year, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that his command receives less than 1 percent of the Pentagon’s ISR capabilities.
While he acknowledged that every combatant command wants more ISR, Faller said he can only meet 20 percent of his current ISR needs, with the majority of that supplied through a partnership with Customs and Border Patrol, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
That lack of capability “will significantly challenge our ability to understand the threats of all types in the hemisphere. Intelligence drives everything,” Faller told lawmakers. “A significant amount of a movement of transnational criminal organizations, our understanding of what are our competitors are up to — Russia, China, Iran — a lot gets left on the table that is contributing to this violence, that’s driving instability here in the United States and in our partner nations.”
During the hearing, Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Angus King, I-Maine, Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., each expressed concern over a lack of ISR, which Faller indicated impacts his ability to interdict smugglers of drugs and people, as well as track activity from Cuba and Venezuela.
Inhofe, the top Republican on the committee, described SOUTHCOM’s capabilities as “not adequate,” while King indicated he will push to increase SOUTHCOM’s resourcing during budget negotiations this summer.
“That’s within our control,” King said. “That’s a matter of allocation and resources, and I hope this committee can bring some pressure on the administration to allocate adequate resources for ISR and for interdiction because we’re not even interdicting the drug shipments we know about, let alone finding ones that additional ISR could provide. So that’s something that I hope this committee can work on.”
However, increasing the Defense Department’s budget might be a challenge. The defense budget is expected to be flat, with no growth to account for inflation — a situation the Pentagon previously described as effectively a monetary cut.
After his testimony, Faller visited the Pentagon briefing room and acknowledged the budget realities may provide a challenge. “I’ll just say that prioritization is important and it’s hard, and the Pentagon has a solid process for that, and no one’s ever satisfied, given the global threats and demands on the level of resources to do our job.”
Faller noted that SOUTHCOM is particularly interested in “21st century tradecraft,” or nontraditional ISR — capabilities that are less about aircraft in the sky and more about using software in smarter ways.
When “we think about ISR, we think about big wing stuff — P-8s and big MQ-9 drones. That’s important, but also important that we leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning for all the data that’s out there, that’s available in the open source,” Faller said. “We’ve had a couple pilot programs in the past year that if converted to programs of record or were embraced more broadly show great promise, as we think about data and information to build the kind of all-domain awareness that we need.”
Asked specifically if that means the regional command doesn’t need hardware in the sky, Faller was quick to says physical assets are still important.
“We’ve got to have the right balance going forward, and there is a role for manned platforms and unmanned platforms in addition to using data in the information space. We did get a slight increase [in assets] last year, in response to the transnational criminal organization threat. We think that that modest increase is important to sustain going forward.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.