Wednesday, May 15, 2013



Note: Recommended reading. Some, especially former military/agency
people will find it much more interesting than others. The "gap" not
just Honduras. Tech aid has been crucial in the actions against the
zetas. With obvious applications to AZMEX and TEXMEX AOR's.

Going Dark: SOUTHCOM, Where Modern ISR Was Born, Is Hoping for Assets
May. 14, 2013 - 02:02PM | By ARAM ROSTON | Comments

C4ISR Journal

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.

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."

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.

"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

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

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

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

"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."


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