Southern Command Doesn't Have Drones, Commander Says

Latin America and the Caribbean

Here is a striking exchange from yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Northern and Southern Command. At about the 46 minute mark, the commander of all U.S. military forces in the Americas (excluding Mexico) says that, “generally speaking,” he never gets to use any of the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of surveillance drones.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), committee chairman: Under the FY15 budget, the Air Force is going to cap the fleet of unmanned aerial systems, which are mainly the Predator and Reaper drones. They’re going to reduce the growth in that fleet from 65 to 55 combat air patrol. Is that something that would make it more difficult for you to meet your full ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] requirement?

Gen. John Kelly, commander, U.S. Southern Command: Right now, Senator, I don’t get any of those systems, generally speaking, right now. I was actually hoping, and only found out yesterday, about the caps. I was actually hoping that as the war in Afghanistan, Middle East, started to wind down, and those assets maybe be made available, I was hoping to get some of those. So, very disappointed yesterday when I was told that we’re going in that direction.

We found it surprising that the Defense Department isn’t using drones at all for surveillance in Latin America, neither over the Caribbean or Pacific, nor in the airspace of countries, like Colombia, that might allow it.

We know that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (part of the Homeland Security Department) uses drones over the Caribbean, Pacific, Mexico, and possibly parts of Central America, if not further south. And we can only guess what the intelligence community is up to. But contrary to what we’d expect, the U.S. military isn’t employing them, apparently for budget reasons.

Southern Command still uses lots of manned aircraft, like Navy P-3s operating out of El Salvador and Aruba-Curacao (and maybe Colombia). Gen. Kelly was quite emphatic yesterday that he doesn’t have enough of those, either.