By David Abel | The Sun-Sentinel | 5/1/1999
WASHINGTON -- The Kosovo crisis, this year's military pullout from Panama and the post-cold-war downsizing of the armed forces are hampering America's ability to monitor the byways traffickers use to ferry drugs into the United States, the commander-in-chief of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command testified before Congress.
"The continuing erosion of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets available to Southcom is compromising our ability to concentrate limited resources at the decisive time and place," Gen. Charles Wilhelm told the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee this week. "I'm not sure there is enough to go around even if we were in a normal cycle."
Before the Kosovo bombing began in late March, the Pentagon had "a flexible and comprehensive air and maritime detection and monitoring capability" covering transit zones from South America to the U.S. border, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, Brian Sheridan, told the panel.
While the number of resources removed from the area to supplement operations in Kosovo is classified, Wilhelm and Pentagon officials acknowledge continuous air surveillance provided by AWACS surveillance planes, strategic airlift capacity and a smattering of intelligence experts have been reduced.
"If you look around, all the CINCs (commanders-in-chiefs) have been stripped of certain items for Kosovo," Wilhelm said. "There were already 118 CINC-identified readiness-related deficiencies. Kosovo has exacerbated the problem."
Despite the military's $ 982 million anti-drug budget for fiscal 1999, officials who oversee the military's role in fighting drugs say the United States now has less than 50 percent of the personnel and equipment it employed in the region before 1990.
Normally, Southcom says, it can cover 50 percent of the region 50 percent of the time. With the Kosovo commitment, Wilhelm estimated the military can only monitor 15 percent of the drug-running corridor only 15 percent of the time.
Senior Pentagon officials say the Kosovo conflict has a negligible effect on the drug war. They argue the military, which plays only a supporting role in fighting drug traffickers, is deep enough to deal with multiple campaigns.
"There will be some diversion," said one senior Pentagon official who oversees the military's anti-drug efforts. "Does it affect the overall policy? No. It may no longer take three days to get something accomplished. It may now take two weeks. But it will get accomplished."
Increasing the difficulty of dealing with fewer resources is the confusion that comes with a reorganized Southcom. The 1977 Torrijos-Carter treaty obliges the United States to remove all its forces from Panama by Dec. 31. Critical elements of the military's anti-drug forces are being dispersed throughout Latin America.
All air operations will end today at Howard Air Force Base in Panama. Anti-drug sorties will be directed from Southcom's new headquarters in Miami, with flights hailing from new bases in Manta, Ecuador; Aruba and Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles; and established bases in Puerto Rico and Key West, officials said.
Yet U.S. officials have yet to secure the long-term use of the bases. The United States has limited one-year agreements to operate in Aruba and Curacao, and each will require heavy investments -- beyond the budgeted $ 45 million, officials say -- to support the type of missions carried out from Panama.
Michael Vigil, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Puerto Rico, one of the most active transshipment points for drug traffickers in the Caribbean, said he's yet to feel the effect of the Kosovo crisis.
"I think it's a little too early to gauge the impact," Vigil said. "We haven't faced a major dilemma with a massive increase in illicit activities. But this may happen in the next few weeks."
Sitting ramrod in his Marine greens before subcommittee chairman Pat Roberts, Wilhelm explained how the tricky game of combating smugglers with limited resources is becoming increasingly difficult.
"The keys to success are flexible and agile operations based on timely and accurate intelligence," Wilhelm said. "This is emerging as our Achilles heel."
Copyright, The Sun-Sentinel