As the line between illicit trafficking and terrorism becomes more obscure, the U.S. Air Force supports a joint task force comprised of Department of Defense, federal agencies and partner nation representatives to combat one of the biggest threats to national and regional security.
The Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF) South, located in Key West, Florida, is charged with the mission to detect, monitor and facilitate interdiction of illicit trafficking to dismantle threat networks. Threat networks can take the form of organized crime, terrorist organizations, or violent extremist networks – most of which have global reach, stretching far beyond Latin America and the Caribbean.
“This is going to take the very best efforts across the entire national security team to be able to work together effectively,” said U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). “I think the way that we have changed how we do business and our main effort being countering threat networks are specifically intended to maximize the tools that we, within the Department of Defense, bring in to this interagency and international partnership regardless of what commodity [threat networks] are moving.”
Within the task force is an air component coordination element that falls under 12th Air Force (Air Force Southern). The team is led by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Yadira Greeson, an air battle manager by trade and someone who is no stranger to the war on drugs.
“My dad was in the Army,” said Greeson. “He was appointed as the advisor to the Urban Counterterrorism Special Forces in Colombia who was tasked to train their special forces to target the Medellin and Cali cartels. My father was in the jungles fighting the fight, directly a part of a mission taking down Pablo Escobar himself. I know for me, on a personal level, my dad fought for this very same mission to keep America safe.”
Greeson and her team are responsible for coordinating aerial assets to assist in the JIATF South mission. They coordinate an average of four to five units’ schedules to maximize the use of assets. As a liaison, Greeson is the face of the Air Force to other agencies in the joint task force, personally delivering information to create rapport and making sure she communicates what the Air Force brings to the table.
“It’s a balance between wearing my DoD hat and being sensitive to law enforcement and what their needs are,” said Greeson. “I think it’s really about creating an overall level of trust, and that you’re open to listen to different mechanisms and how to reach the same goals at the end of the day.”
During Operation Big Week II in July 2018, a surge of Air Force assets came to support JIATF South missions, flying 14 sorties in direct support of 28 maritime drug trafficking cases and 23 on-going investigations. This led to six maritime interdictions, the confiscation of approximately 4.2 metric tons of cocaine valued at $126 million and the detention of 21 traffickers.
Greeson said the Air Force’s role is to detect and monitor. After viable intelligence has been gathered, analyzed and communicated by federal agencies and partner nations, the air component coordination element analyzes the information, creates a flight plan and coordinates with aircrews in order to execute. The “high boy” aircraft use wide area surveillance radar to scan the water surface to search for what Greeson refers to as “a needle in a stack of needles.”
“We know what that radar hit is supposed to look like,” she said. “We’ve been trained, and we’re very adept at looking at all the needles and deciding which needle is the one that we need to talk about. Once we get the kind of feedback we’re looking for, we’re going to pick which thing to pay attention to base on the information we’ve been given.”
When an area or point of interest has been identified, the element sends out the “low boy.” These aircraft have image capturing capabilities.
“We’re basically assisting in finding something and keeping eyes on it until the U.S. Coast Guard and law enforcement can do an interdiction,” said Greeson. “We can get video for them to be used as part of evidence, and because of the video we have positive identification of an entity possibly doing illicit activity. This ensures that [federal agencies] get the piece of information that is necessary to make an arrest because they can’t without probable cause.”
Because of resource constraints, Greeson said that they have to be critical in picking targets based on intelligence from partner agencies and that they utilize a matrix to identify the most lucrative cases.
“It’s not always about stopping the drugs,” she said. “It’s really about those targets which are part of drug trafficking organizations to dismantle a higher listed organization.”
The air component coordination element brings in HC-130J Combat King II, E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, E-3 Sentry AWACS, RQ-4 Global Hawk, B-52 Stratofortress and B-1B Lancer aircraft to the fight. The aircrews, which are assigned to different unified commands, come from around the country to provide tracking capabilities.
Along with assisting in preventing illicit materials and individuals from entering U.S. territory, Greeson said the conditions in SOUTHCOM are conducive to training and testing new techniques as well as learning to operate in a joint environment.
“You’re looking at a wide area expansion of 42 million square miles of open ocean in a non-kinetic environment,” she said. “You have time to train, you have time to test, you have time to evaluate and debrief. That byproduct includes not only flying in the air and doing this kind of mission. It also offers the opportunity to work out of a non-DoD environment, learn different languages and to really be able to be adept at speaking to different information sources.”
Greeson said illicit cargo initially traveling on water ultimately ends up on land – where cargo disperses and becomes more difficult to track – stressing the importance of multi-agency participation; a sentiment shared by the commander of U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy.
“Countering these well-financed, adaptive, and ruthless criminal enterprises requires innovative and collaborative strategies, and we work closely with Homeland Security, the domestic law enforcement community, the interagency and [SOUTHCOM] to further improve USNORTHCOM’s ability to illuminate threat networks in order to eliminate seams exploited by traffickers,” he said. “I believe transnational organized crime is a threat to our nation’s security and the well-being of our citizens.”
In the future, Greeson’s goal is to continue to improve the integration of the aerial assets with those on the surface to create a more seamless flow of information and pave the way for more interdictions.
“A lot of times, we fly our missions, and we don’t necessarily get that direct feedback,” she said. “In this business, we get direct feedback if there is an interdiction. We get direct feedback on what happened on that mission, especially through some video or how many metric tons of cocaine we help keep away from our borders. It’s deeply satisfying when you know you’ve had a direct effect.”