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Coast Guard Vital to Anti-Drug Ops in Latin America: Navy Admiral

Every year, the commander of U.S. Southern Command comes before Congress to make a quickly forgotten plea for more funding and assets for operations in Latin America to a Congress consumed by more pressing problems worldwide.

Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, now secretary of the Homeland Security Department, did it for four years to little avail as head of the command and his successor, Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, took up the task last Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

This time, Tidd appeared to have made an impact on both sides of the aisle. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel's chairman, and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, backed Tidd's call for more funding, citing the opioid and painkiller crisis hitting communities across the nation.

In a joint statement Monday, McCain and Reed said that the testimony of Tidd and Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of U.S. Northern Command, "illustrated troubling trends in the trafficking of cocaine and heroin into our nation from their areas of responsibility."

"Their testimony illustrates how artificial budget constraints limit our ability to confront this challenge, whether by preventing interdiction by limiting the presence of ships in the Caribbean and South America or inhibiting law enforcement and drug treatment closer to home," McCain and Reed said.

"We are deeply concerned by the opioid crisis in communities across America, driven by Mexican heroin and prescription pain medication at home that will be exacerbated by an increased influx of cocaine from South America in the coming years," McCain and Reed said.

Tidd had listed his current assets -- U.S. Army South, U.S. Air Forces Southern/12th Air Force, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. Fourth Fleet, U.S. Marine Corps Forces South, U.S. Special Operations Command South, Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South, Joint Task Force (JTF) Bravo, and JTF Guantánamo (GTMO).

Despite all that, Tidd said his current naval assets for the entire region consisted of six -- sometimes seven -- Coast Guard cutters since the Navy is focused on NATO, the Mideast and the Far East. As a result, "we face significant limitations in stopping the deluge of drugs that reach our shores and streets," Tidd said.

Several senators appeared taken aback when Tidd told them that only about 25 percent of the drug cartel shipments tracked by Joint Interagency Task Force South operating out of Key West, Fla., are actually intercepted.

"Although JIATF South detected a record amount of cocaine moving in the maritime domain last year, they were unable to target 75 percent of validated events due to a shortage of forces," Tidd said. "That equates to hundreds of tons of additional cocaine on our streets, and nodes in that network that continue to operate rather than face disruption and prosecution."

"Our Coast Guard partners are doing everything they can, punching well above their weight" in trying to fill the vacuum left by the Navy's commitments elsewhere, Tidd said, but there are limits.

The initial so-called "skinny budget" proposal from the White House Office of Management and Budget last month called for a major cut in Coast Guard funding, partly to pay for beginning construction of the wall on the Mexican border that President Donald Trump has pledged to build.

Homeland Secretary Kelly later said that OMB had backed off, and there would be no cuts to Coast Guard funding, but the details remain to be worked out by Congress.

"The Coast Guard plays an absolutely critical role in U.S. SouthCom's ability to execute the missions that we've been assigned," Tidd said. "Because the U.S. Navy has been tasked to meet demand signals, higher priority demand signals in other parts of the world, the U.S. Coast Guard is shouldering the burden" for the command, he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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