A shortage of ships and aircraft prevents U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) from stopping much of the illegal drug flow to the United States, the organization’s leader said April 6.

SOUTHCOM usually has about six ships assigned to it, far short of the 23 ships, plus accompanying aircraft, it estimates it needs, said Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, the head of the command, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As a result, the command can intercept only about a quarter of the drug traffic it sees moving north from South America.

Coast Guard National Security Cutter Munro during christening ceremonies in Mississippi. Photo: Coast Guard
Coast Guard National Security Cutter Munro during christening ceremonies in Mississippi. Photo: Coast Guard

“On average, one metric ton of cocaine will kill 10 Americans every year and harm hundreds more,” Tidd told the panel. “Last year, we watched almost 450 tons pass freely toward our country.”

Tidd, whose command relies on the military services to supply ships and aircraft, said that a year-long continuing resolution for fiscal year 2017 would worsen the equipment shortage, as would the return of across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, in FY 2018.

“The services are already challenged to provide resources for SOUTHCOM, and so anything that decreased the available resources is only going to make the matter worse,” he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee’s chairman, asked Tidd to submit a letter specifying the additional assets SOUTHCOM could use to apprehend drugs, especially in the Caribbean Sea.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who chairs the committee’s seapower panel, noted that the Coast Guard’s new National Security Cutters, which are built by Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., already have seized drugs worth billions of dollars.

“The National Security Cutters are a superb platform, very capable,” Tidd told Wicker. “I would never turn down an additional National Security Cutter operating in the SOUTHCOM region.”

Tidd said the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) will also improve SOUTHCOM’s drug-fighting efforts. The Navy plans to base Lockheed Martin [LMT] Freedom-class LCS ships at Naval Station Mayport in Florida.

“I very much look forward to the arrival of the first Littoral Combat Ships in our theater,” Tidd said. “They have capabilities that are ideally suited to the theater that we are talking about.”

To boost its intelligence-gathering capabilities, SOUTHCOM has encouraged the Defense Department’s research and development organizations to try out new unmanned systems in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility.

“We have a meaningful operational mission. We can provide real feedback,” Tidd said.