AFSOUTH partnership brings illicit air drug trafficking to a halt

  • Published
  • By Capt. Justin Brockhoff
  • 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern)
In 2010, illegal drugs were being flown into the Dominican Republic at an alarming rate of more than 130 illegal flights per year.

Drug runners were brazenly taking off in small, private planes from the Venezuelan region of South America, landing at remote strips near the Dominican coastline and offloading their illegal cargo. After the drugs were handed off, the pilot would be airborne and heading back for South America in a matter of minutes. The scene repeated itself about every 72 hours.

In the Dominican Republic, military and law enforcement agencies were fighting the problem, but the drug runners were well versed in collecting and dispersing the drugs to avoid apprehension. Traffickers would continue shuffling their product through their networks' veins in the Caribbean and then onto Europe, Central and North America.

These realizations led the Dominican government to seek new aircraft and tactics to deal with the problem. They turned to the U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for U.S. military involvement in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. U.S. Southern Command turned to its air component, Air Forces Southern at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, for expertise in interdicting illicit air traffic and regaining air sovereignty and the Sovereign Skies program was born.

The goals of Sovereign Skies were first to help the Dominican air force regain Dominican air sovereignty; second, to expand training in maritime interdiction operations; and third, to encourage all of the partner nations in the region toward a common aim, using similar tactics and hand-off procedures to find, track and stop illicit drug traffic.

The Dominican government decided to use the A-29B Super Tucano, a sleek turbo-propeller powered aircraft fast enough to intercept civilian aircraft suspected of trafficking illegal drugs, but also capable of flying slow and loitering in an area long enough to track and monitor suspect aircraft. It can also be outfitted with surveillance equipment capable of operating in infrared or night vision modes.

Dominican government leaders then turned to getting their pilots the right training and skill sets to regain control of the country's skies. The challenge was finding pilots with the right experience and language skills to develop a program and provide training.

The search led to the Air Forces Reserve's 69th Fighter Squadron commander and F-16 Fighting Flacon instructor and evaluator pilot, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, Col. Mike Torrealday, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time.

"Previously, I'd done subject matter expert exchanges with 12th Air Force, going back to 2003," Torrealday said. "So I had done a myriad of different exchanges, usually having to do with fighter operations. When SOUTHCOM contacted AFSOUTH, (or) 12th Air Force, to provide subject matter experts to train the Dominican pilots in intercepting illicit traffic, at the time, AFSOUTH did not have any of those subject matter experts within their staff. So, they contacted me and I said, 'Yes.'"

Previous SMEE experiences led Torrealday to encourage counterparts at USSOUTHCOM to include the Colombians in assisting the Dominican government with the Sovereign skies program, since the Colombian air force employs the A-29B for the same mission.

"My thought process was, why don't (we take the Dominican pilots) to Colombia, where they speak the same language, they've been flying the same platform and have used that platform in this mission," Torrealday said. "They agreed, and we sent a delegation of SOUTHCOM representatives, Dominican air force representatives and myself to Colombia and we met with the Colombian air force chief of staff and their director of operations.

“They thought it was a great idea,” he continued. “They conveyed to us that they felt that they were basically the regional center of expertise on this kind of combating transnational organized crime and that they would be very happy to impart that instruction regionally, so that all of these regional air forces could work together to try to combat or stem this regional threat."

The U.S. investment in the Sovereign Skies Program has yielded impressive results, a reduction of an average of 130 illicit air tracks per annum to zero illicit air tracks in more than three years. Additionally, the A-29Bs have aided in multiple sea-based intercepts resulting in the capture of an estimated 2,000 pounds of illegal substances worth upwards of $22.5 million.

"The Dominicans up to today have trained eight pilots and two instructors," Torrealday said. "And they are planning on training four more pilots and two more instructors, for a total of 12 advance training and four instructor pilots, so that they'll be able to maintain this level of operational capability on their own with their instructors."

By making a small investment to train an initial cadre of regional partners, AFSOUTH enabled the Dominican air force to take the lead and integrate with regional partners.

The Dominicans took it upon themselves to stem illicit trafficking and regain control of their airspace. The U.S. and Colombia simply helped the initiatives thrive. Now, with an initial cadre training new A-29B pilots at a steady pace, the Dominican government has regained air sovereignty for its country and serves as the example for the region on bringing illicit air traffic to a decisive halt.

While the Sovereign Skies program itself is complete, Torrealday said the overall structure of the program could be used as a model when considering similar partner nation exchanges.

"This program can be used as a template for other countries within the region, because the narcotics illicit traffic trade is not a threat or a problem that only a certain country experiences," Torrealday said. "It's a regional threat that affects most of the countries of the region. So, our view is that we can use this program as a template, modify it and adjust it for each country's geopolitical realities to help them address this common threat."