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Determining Success: TRADEWINDS 2015 and Lessons Learned

By W. Alejandro Sanchez.

Between May 31 and June 24 of this year, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) carried out joint naval exercises with its partners in the Greater Caribbean. The annual exercises, known as TRADEWINDS, brought together units from over a dozen countries. Without a doubt, multinational military exercises are useful as the personnel involved in the maneuvers learn new techniques from each other as well as how to work together. Nevertheless, a major concern is how well the lessons learned are properly applied to real-world operations.

The Exercises

TRADEWINDS 2015, the 31st iteration of these month-long exercises, took place in two phases: first in Saint Kitts and Nevis and then in Belize. U.S military personnel trained with their counterparts from 18 other nations, including Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, nations from the Greater Caribbean, Mexico, and even overseas partners like the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (which both have territories in the Caribbean). Caribbean multinational agencies also present included the Regional Security System (RSS), the Regional Intelligence Fusion Center (RIFC), and the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), among others. According to SOUTHCOM, the exercises were aimed at strengthening “the capacity of Caribbean nations to respond to natural disasters, humanitarian crises and counter transnational organized crime.”

There have been several reports that enumerate and explain the nature of the exercise. For example, off the coast of Belize, the navies from Belize, Mexico and the United Kingdom carried out a simulated vessel boarding, search, and seizure operation. Mexican naval personnel from the Mexican Navy ship ARM Independencia, travelling in an interceptor boat, boarded the British vessel the HMS Severn and “simulated [the] arrests of a group of merchant mariners who tried to resist.” Other exercises included crowd control, safety techniques like clearing buildings, and gunnery with a 50-caliber

Members of the Dominican Navy participate in .50 cal exercises aboard a USCG Cutter. (Source: USCG)
Members of the Dominican Navy participate in .50 cal exercises aboard a USCG Cutter. (Source: USCG)

machine gun. A June 10 video posted in the Coast Guard Compass, the official blog of the U.S. Coast Guard, shows USCG personnel aboard a patrol boat from Grenada, explaining various techniques to their counterparts regarding how to understand the sea states and navigate effectively as they pursue a suspicious vessel.

In addition to praise from SOUTHCOM, the exercise has enjoyed the public endorsement and support from various Caribbean governments. For example ZIZ News, a Saint Kitts news agency, quoted Captain Kayode Sutton of the St. Kitts and Nevis Defence Force as saying, “the support from the government [in Basseterre] has been tremendous… Mr. Osbert DeSuza, the Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister… visited the Exercise Control Centre and he received a brief as to what is going on for the entire exercise, the training, all the exercises that are going on right now.” Meanwhile, Guyana deployed its navy’s flagship, the GDFS Essequibo, to the exercise’s maritime phase, highlighting Georgetown’s commitment to display the best it has to offer to operate along its regional allies.

How to Determine Success?                                                    

During the TRADEWINDS 2015 opening ceremony in Saint Kitts, Lt. Col. Patrick E. Wallace, commander of the

Lt. Col. Wallace addresses partner nations as part of the 2015 Opening Ceremonies (Source: SOUTHCOM)
Lt. Col. Wallace addresses partner nations as part of the 2015 Opening Ceremonies (Source: SOUTHCOM)

St. Kitts and Nevis Defense Force, declared, “I stress that the knowledge and skill that comes from this exercise is essential … However, just as important, is the strengthening of multi-nation

Mexico's ARM Independencia. The vessel participated extensively in this year's TRADEWINDS exercise.
Mexico’s ARM Independencia. The vessel participated extensively in this year’s TRADEWINDS exercise.

nating with each other will be similarly successful in real life-or-death situations. As one retired Colonel from the Peruvian military told me, “ultimately, the only way to know if an exercise is successful is if you test the lessons in real life.”

Making a multinational exercise successful so it can be properly applied in the real world includes coming up with realistic scenarios, as explained to this author by John Cope, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He suggests that what’s needed are  “players (other than the US) had a major role in shaping the exercise scenario and the organization of the event so that the exercise emphasizes what they see as their needs rather than what the US/SOUTHCOM thinks are their needs, also the non-US players assume important positions in the structure of the exercise.”

A SOUTHCOM press release announcing the beginning of the exercises went over the two operational phases of TRADEWINDS 2015. But there is also a third phase, the “Key Leader Seminar,” designed to facilitate a discussion of the other phases and the way ahead. Ideally, a comprehensive report will be drafted regarding the lessons learned, as well as lessons that still need to be fully learned, from TRADEWINDS 2015. (In the interests of full-disclosure: in preparation for this commentary, I contacted SOUTHCOM for further information on the lessons learned aspect of TRADEWINDS 2015, but received no reply.)

Numerous military agencies, both U.S. and international, have published reports discussing how to properly adapt lessons learned from both exercises and operations. As the Establishing a Lessons Learned Program Handbook by the Center for Army Lessons Learned ponders, is a military organization “willing to openly discuss its mistakes, and is it willing to share those mistakes across organizational lines to make everyone better?” If not, it will be very difficult to implement an effective [Lessons Learned] program… The act of ‘saving face’ precludes individuals from admitting their mistakes.”

Hopefully phase 3 of TRADEWINDS 2015 included an open and honest discussion between representatives from the participating militaries, where there was not only praise for the event, but admitting, even if it was off the record, which areas they still need improving, in order to work in greater cohesion with the security forces of neighboring countries. Cope explains that, at least

A Coast Guard vessel from St. Kitts participates in a boarding exercise with a U.S. vessel. (Source: USCG Blog)
A Coast Guard vessel from St. Kitts participates in a boarding exercise with a U.S. vessel. (Source: USCG Blog)

regarding the Caribbean, a base for institutionalizing operational and tactical procedures and processes that worked during an exercise may already be standard across various regional states. “Where CARICOM countries are struggling to perfect common approaches is in standardizing procedures for strategic and operational planning and strategic/political decision making. Their comprehensive disaster management process and experience with the Cricket World Cup have helped Caribbean countries, but leaders continually change.”

A PR Campaign?

Part of the problem may be simply a lack of a consistent PR campaign by regional navies (and security forces in general) to highlight the effectiveness of exercises. In other words, if a narco-speedboat is detained in the Caribbean by units of the U.S. and Jamaican coast guard services, it would be helpful if a subsequent press release could tie the hypothetical successful operation with lessons learned from TRADEWINDS. Another initiative would be to invite high-ranking government officials as well as journalists and other experts to the exercises as they take place, as this would help showcase the level of cooperation militaries from different states can achieve. This would have the added benefit of serving as a prime example to support similar exercises in the future.

At a time of budget constraints and with SOUTHCOM being the lowest-priority command center in the U.S. military, said agency needs to better demonstrate to Washington that its activities, including multinational exercises, are beneficial for both U.S. and regional security.

Concluding Thoughts

This discussion is not meant to question the validity of TRADEWINDS specifically, but rather to address multinational military exercises in general. The U.S. conducts quite a number of these in the Western Hemisphere, such as UNITAS, PANAMAX, Continuing Promise, and Beyond the Horizon/New Horizons.

Multinational exercises are important but a strong link has yet to be made between a successful naval exercise (i.e. in which units from two nations operate together to stop a suspicious vessel in the Caribbean), and whether the lessons learned from said simulation were successfully applied in the real world. Given the ongoing amounts of drug trafficking that flow through Caribbean waters, putting these lessons learned to the test would not be difficult.

Ultimately, SOUTHCOM is not lacking in exercises to increase its relations with regional allies in the Greater Caribbean and rest of Latin America; but it seems that the agency could do with a better PR campaign to explain how effective these exercises are in the long run.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

U.S. SOUTHCOM vs. Caribbean Narco-Pirates

By W. Alejandro Sanchez.

On March 12, 2015, Marine General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), testified before the Armed Services Committee about the security challenges that the United States and its Western Hemispheric allies face throughout the continent. In his Posture Statement, the general noted that SOUTHCOM is the U.S. military’s “lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, hence the maxim ‘doing less with less’ has a disproportionate effect on our operations, exercises, and engagement activities.”

One particular focus of General Kelly’s remarks was transnational crime, specifically drug trafficking that originates in South America and crosses the Greater Caribbean towards the United States. There are several types of transnational crime occurring throughout Caribbean waters; due to space constraints, this commentary will only focus on the transportation methods utilized to move drugs throughout the Caribbean Sea and what this means for the security of the United States and its allies.

Low Priority & Insufficient Assets?

In his Posture Statement, General Kelly stated that Washington’s allies in the Western Hemisphere “are frustrated by what they perceive as the low prioritization of Latin America on our national security and foreign policy agendas, which is especially puzzling given the shared challenge of transnational organized crime.”It is not surprising that Latin America and the Caribbean are a low security priority for the United States, as the White House has had to deal with security crises elsewhere over the past years, such as the conflict in Ukraine, tensions with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Islamic State. Moreover, sequestration and other defense budget cuts have forced SOUTHCOM to try to do more, or at least the same as before, with less funds. The SOUTHCOM commander went on to explain how “force allocation cuts by the Services… are having the greatest impact… We are already feeling the impact at our headquarters, where we have implemented a 13% reduction in civilian billets and an 11% reduction in military ones.”

A similar situation is occurring with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a wide area of operations in the

A USCG counter-narcotics operation
A USCG counter-narcotics operation

Caribbean. For the USCG, one immediate challenge is upgrading its aging equipment. Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s Commandant, stated in April, “much of the Coast Guard’s infrastructure and many of our platforms are well beyond their service life.”

Both the SOUTHCOM commander and the Coast Guard Commandant have pointed out the challenge that transnational organized crime (TOCs), e.g. drug trafficking organizations, pose to U.S. security. General Kelly has highlighted the types of illegal goods that criminals are moving throughout the Western Hemisphere, like“drugs—including marijuana, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and methamphetamine—small arms and explosives, precursor chemicals, illegally mined gold, counterfeit goods, people, and other contraband.” Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s 2014 security blueprint, the Western Hemisphere Strategy (WHS), explains how “organizations are able to quickly adapt to changes in their external environment, including everything from advances in technology to an increase in law enforcement activity… As maritime trade and travel have grown, criminal organizations have taken to the sea, using complex operations and tactics to avoid detection while in transit.” (Click here for an analysis of the Coast Guard’s WHS).

In other words, both Southern Command and the Coast Guard are well aware of the challenges posed by TOCs. However, defense cuts and other security priorities are affecting how well these agencies, among others, can play a role in improving security in the region. The United States’ Caribbean allies and extra-hemispheric partners (like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) are actively working to crack down on Caribbean drug trafficking. However, given that the United States is the final destination for most of the drugs being moved around the Caribbean Sea, and given the still-limited resources of Caribbean states to stop drug trafficking through their territories (land and maritime), it would be ideal for U.S. security agencies to maintain a vibrant presence in the region, particularly since Caribbean drug trafficking entities have the funds, creativity, and willingness to constantly expand their methods of transporting drugs.

Narco-Methods of Transportation

As for criminals themselves, they are nothing if not (infuriatingly) resourceful and creative when it comes to thinking of new ways to move drugs across the Caribbean. As a disclaimer, I must highlight that one major obstacle with this analysis is that detailed information is sometimes not openly available regarding the specifications of narco-vessels. For example, U.S. Southern Command reported that the USS Kauffman, a frigate, interdicted 528 kg of cocaine aboard a vessel on June 17. Nevertheless, SOUTHCOM’s press release does not explain what kind of vessel it was, other than calling it a “narcotic-trafficking vessel in international waters in the Eastern Pacific” or a “suspected smuggling vessel.”

The information below about narco-vessels provide as much detailed information as this author has been able to find.

As part of my research for this report, I contacted the Implementation Agency for Crime And Security (IMPACS), a security branch of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM, an organization made up of 15 Caribbean states). CARICOM IMPACS explained that 80% of all illicit smuggling activity through the region that originated in South America is carried out through maritime means.

Speedboats / Go-boats: the standard method of transporting cargo. Just this past July, the Coast Guard cutter Dauntless, “along with the assistance of a Netherlands Coast Guard maritime patrol aircraft,”stopped a speedboat north of Aruba – on the vessel were six individuals carrying a cargo of 275 pounds of cocaine.

Narco Subs: The evolution of narco-submarines over the past two decades is quite remarkable. The first narco-sub was stopped in 1993 and it had a crude design: it was slow and made up of wood and fiberglass.

On July 18th, 2015 US Customs and Border Patrol agents along with USN and USCG counterparts seized a semi-submersible carrying 16,870 pounds of cocaine.
On July 18th, 2015 US Customs and Border Patrol agents along with USN and USCG counterparts seized a semi-submersible carrying 16,870 pounds of cocaine.

More modern narco-subs can be fully submersible, travel as fast as 11 miles per hour, with larger fuel tanks and space for cargo. Due to space issues, we cannot discuss the different types of narco-submarines. A comprehensive report by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) entitled “Narco Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels For Drug Smuggling Purposes” discusses them in detail, including estimated costs, separating them from semi-submersibles, low-profile vessels, and submarines. These vessels have become alarmingly popular in recent years, as the narco-traffickers have sufficient funds to construct them. Case in point, this past June 18, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard intercepted a “semi-submersible craft” that was carrying the whopping cargo of 16,870 pounds of cocaine.

Narco-Torpedos: One new technology is static narco-containers (AKA Parasitic Devices). The FMSO report defines them as “containers which are bolted or magnetically placed on the bottom of freighters and other large cargo ships by cartel and organized crime frogmen.”Narco-torpedoes were found on the hulls of ships going from Latin America to Europe in 2013. I have been unable to find current examples of such containers being utilized in the Caribbean, but it stands to reason that they could be utilized as well, particularly as there is a great flow of goods through Caribbean ports en route to the U.S. and elsewhere. Narco-subs and narco-torpedoes are the next evolution of drug trafficking in the region and, so far, there seems to be no limit to how large and equipped narco-subs can become.

Inside cargo/fishing ships: Unsurprisingly, hiding contraband aboard vessels that apparently are carrying legitimate operations, such as fishing, continues to be an option for drug traffickers. For example, in early 2014 a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter operating out of a British Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, the Wave Knight, stopped a vessel that was carrying 45 bricks of cocaine. This is a memorable mission, not solely because of the amount of narcotics seized, but because this marked the first time that a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was launched from a British ship. That same year, on March 15, a fishing boat was seized off the coast of Panama. The U.S. Coast Guard investigated the vessel and found 97 bales of cocaine.

Finally, it is important to note that smuggling aboard vessels is more prevalent in some areas. CARICOM IMPACS explained to the author that smuggling among fishing vessels is common among members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (i.e. Dominica, Grenada or Saint Lucia) to French territories (i.e. Guadeloupe and Martinique) and Barbados. This is due to the fact that these nations have large fishing industries which are utilized as disguise for the flow of contraband.

Narco-Aircraft: Planes and helicopters are also utilized for moving drugs, though they seem to be less common than maritime methods of transportation.  According to CARICOM IMPACS, air smuggling accounts for approximately 20% of narcotics shipments in the region, mostly around the Bahamas due to its geographical proximity to Florida (with Haiti and the Dominican Republic utilized as springboards between the two). Throughout my research for this report, I was unable to find recent incidents of air smuggling throughout Caribbean islands. A geographically close incident occurred this past May; a narco-plane, a Hawker twin-engine jet, crashed off the Colombian coast as it tried to flee from the Colombian Air Force. The aircraft reportedly left Venezuela and entered Colombian air space – authorities found 1.2 metric tons of cocaine among the wreckage. As for narco-helicopters, in 2013 the Costa Rican police cracked down on a criminal group that utilized helicopters to transport weapons and drugs along the country’s Caribbean coast.

The aforementioned list exemplifies how drug trafficking organizations employ a wide array of vessels and aircraft to move their contraband from South America, through the Greater Caribbean, and ultimately to the United States and Europe. Part of the reason for this variety is that drug trafficking groups use an “island hopping” strategy to move the narcotics – for example, a speedboat carrying cocaine may leave Venezuela and dock in Curacao; from there it will be put in another vessel until it reaches a different island, and from there it may be transferred a third time before it attempts to enter U.S. territory.

Shootouts At Sea?

One issue worth discussing is that most press releases that report on stopping suspicious vessels discuss the incidents as generally non-violent, or they are one-sided violent. At most, we hear about security forces that fire shots at suspicious vessels. For example, in January 2014, the aforementioned helicopter, launched from the HMS Wave Knight, fired warning shots at the suspicious

HMS Wave Knight
HMS Wave Knight

vessel. “It was a unique and successful mission,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma. “We fired warning shots, and they tossed [the drug-filled] bails.” Meanwhile, a March 2014 operation included a Coast Guard helicopter shooting at the engines of a ship in order to stop it.

The interesting issue here is that both incidents include security personnel shooting at suspected drug traffickers but not the suspected criminals shooting back. There are some official videos available online of suspected drug smugglers being chased by U.S. security forces, but the footage seems to show the fleeing drug traffickers more than actively engaged in a firefight (video 1, video 2). Certainly, criminals have no problem shooting at security forces – just this past May, a Mexican military helicopter had to make an emergency landing when it was shot at by gunmen (three soldiers were killed). However, in the Caribbean, incidents of drug traffickers aboard speedboats shooting at security agencies appear to be less common (or at least, under-reported). Nevertheless, the possibility that drug traffickers could become more actively violent in order to evade capture–switching from a release cargo-and-flee strategy to actively shooting at security agents–is worrisome. (While this commentary focuses on drug trafficking, there is also an active weapons trade through Caribbean waters; hence it stands to reason that criminals could use weapons in their possession/cargo, such as rifles and handguns, to attack security agents trying to stop them).

Nowadays SOUTHCOM, U.S. Navy South/4th Fleet, and the U.S. Coast Guard must do “more with less” at a time when the U.S. defense budget is undergoing significant cuts, and, as General Kelly correctly points out, SOUTHCOM has the least priority of all the other U.S. military commands. On the other hand, drug trafficking criminals are constantly thinking of new, more ingenious ways to move their illegal merchandise across the Caribbean Sea. Spotting narco-vessels may become even more difficult in the near future, particularly if narco-subs become more advanced and if narco-torpedoes become more popular.

Moreover, drug traffickers may eventually decide to be bolder and shoot back at security forces rather than flee. This may be the case if a particular cargo is deemed as too expensive to be lost. I have been unable to find cases of narco-speedboats having built-in machine guns, but this is certainly a possibility.This is not meant as an alarmist declaration but rather an assessment of how the situation is evolving in the Greater Caribbean.

Concluding Thoughts

In his March 2015 Posture Statement to the Armed Services Committee, General Kelly declared,“I am frustrated by the lack of a comprehensive U.S. government effort to counter the [transnational organized crime] threat.” Documents like the 2014 Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy similarly explain the problem posed by TOCs, including those involved in drug trafficking, and the steps that can be taken to counteract them. The challenge nowadays for SOUTHCOM and the Coast Guard is having a budget that allows for the necessary personnel and equipment to carry out these objectives. General Kelly stated, “If sequestration returns in FY16, our ability to support national security objectives, including conducting many of our essential missions, will be significantly undermined. “

The goal of this analysis is not to imply that the U.S. government should give SOUTHCOM and/or the Coast Guard a blank check for obtaining new weapons. Nor should Washington solely focus on stopping the transportation of drugs through the Caribbean, while dismissing the other sides of the drug-equation, which includes demand (in the U.S. and European markets) and production (in South America). Rather, while the demand and production remain (unfortunately) vibrant, the interdiction of illegal narcotics among the various narco-corridors of the Greater Caribbean must remain a priority for SOUTHCOM and its supporting agencies like the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, just like it is a national security priority for Caribbean nations and and regional security agencies like CARICOM IMPACS.

While Washington does not regard developments in Latin America or the Greater Caribbean as a security priority (at least not comparable to developments elsewhere in the world), criminal organizations, particularly drug trafficking entities, continue to operate in areas like the Greater Caribbean. The list of vehicles used to transport drugs through that region demonstrates how drug trafficking groups continue to imagine creative new methods to move their illegal merchandise. Moreover, the rise of the narco-submarine is a problematic development as these vessels could become harder to spot in the near future, particularly as narcos have the funds to support their construction. The seizure of a narco-submarine just this past July is a clear example that narcos have not given up on these vessels.As General Kelly said, “criminal organizations are constantly adapting their methods for trafficking across our borders.”

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere.  The author would like to thank CARICOM IMPACS for their assistance with this project. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez