Many people don’t realize the scenes portrayed in Netflix’s “Narcos” series are not what South America is all about today, said Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Tidd spoke to a large audience Wednesday in a keynote address on the final day of the GEOINT 2017 Symposium. “Yes, there are security challenges, but it’s fundamentally different from what it was 20 years ago.”
Florida-based SOUTHCOM, one of the Department of Defense’s nine unified Combatant Commands, is responsible for U.S. military operations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, covering 15 million square miles and 31 countries. It’s a geographic area that includes jungles, rugged landscape, undeveloped coastline, diverse weather patterns, and congested urban centers.
“In terms of proximity, trade, immigration, and the environment, I’d propose that no other part of the world has a greater impact on our daily life than the Americas,” Tidd said.
Yet while our relationship with countries such as Columbia, Brazil, and Chile is fundamentally different than it was a decade or two ago, and militaries in many Latin American countries train in the United States, SOUTHCOM still faces plenty of emerging threats.
“We don’t see traditional military threats to the U.S., Tidd said. Instead, he told the audience, it’s the terrorist networks—not the kilos of cocaine that concerned previous military leaders—that keep him awake at night.
Today, the line is blurred between economic-based networks and ideological-based terrorist networks, he continued. They all occupy the same grey area—that of money launderers, document-forgers, and corrupt government officials.
“Networks are the definitive characteristics of our daily lives,” Tidd said. “We rely on them. We’re part of them. And unfortunately, we’re also threatened by them.”
The global security environment—complex, uncertain, and volatile—is like nothing we’ve experienced before, he added. Groups that once were simply public safety nuisances—small time criminals and jihadi enthusiasts—are increasingly dangerous.
“Some networks have military grade capabilities that rival or exceed those of our partners,” Tidd said.
He added criminal networks don’t follow established rules: They operate across multiple countries and regions, adapt and learn from other networks, embrace new technologies, and are difficult to predict.
“Keeping pace with these networks requires fundamental changes on our part,” Tidd said.
Given the change in the nature of the security challenges, innovation is the key to gain competitive advantage against adversaries.
Among the most exciting innovation partnerships is what began as an experimental SOUTHCOM collaboration with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and small satellite providers, with the goal to visualize and understand the dynamics of regional security environments using commercially available imagery, online tools, and publically available data. The experiment was so successful SOUTHCOM created a pilot project to advance the collaboration.
SOUTHCOM has leveraged GEOINT in multiple ways: to pinpoint airfields used to smuggle drugs from South America, to analyze prison capacity in El Salvador, and to uncover evidence of illicit mining networks in Peru.
The command is also getting ready to launch the first test flight of a high-altitude balloon Tidd said has the potential be a game-changer because of its ability to spend extended periods in the upper atmosphere. The balloon was developed by World View Enterprises, which initially created it for tourism.
Tidd said he’s eager to work with innovative developers.
“What [SOUTHCOM’s] really proud of is our changing mindset,” he concluded. “We’ve got an open mind, dynamic and capable partners, geographic proximity to the United States, and a range of security challenges that demand creative and agile thinking.”