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American Forces Press Service

Southcom Program Plugs Science, Technology Gaps

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

MIAMI, June 6, 2012 – A little-known office here at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters is making a big impact by identifying technical capabilities to support the mission, and lacking them, helping develop new ones.

Southcom stood up its Science, Technology and Experimentation program in 2002 to strengthen its support to Colombia’s war on drugs and drug cartels. The problem, explained Juan Hurtado, the command’s science advisor, was that existing capabilities, even in light of $1.3 billion in U.S. funding, weren’t sufficient to meet Colombia’s counterdrug operational challenges.

“As the money … to support Plan Colombia came in, we realized that a broad spectrum of the capabilities we needed to support Colombia and other partner nations were not available,” Hurtado told American Forces Press Service. Among the gaps, he said, were the tools to promote situational awareness and communication, particularly in deep jungles, and to share information.

All, he noted, are essential to both U.S. and interagency efforts and partner-nation counterdrug interdiction operations.

“So it wasn’t about money. It was about having the right tool sets to do the job,” Hurtado said. “Some capabilities didn’t exist and you could not buy them.”

Modeled on a similar program at U.S. Pacific Command, Southcom’s Science, Technology and Experimentation office set out to find ways to get those technology-related capabilities. Its mission, Hurtado said, was “to find ways to do things better or do things cheaper.”

That boils down to taking gaps and requirements as identified by U.S. forces and partner nations in the theater, converting them into technical requirements, then going out to the science and technology community for solutions.

DOD’s own advanced technology arms -- the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Fielding Directorate; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command; the Office of Naval Research; and the Air Force Research Laboratory, among them -- typically get first shot at the proposals. “We work through the DOD technical community and bring back something cheaper, something that helps us do things more effectively or creates new capability,” Hurtado said.

But increasingly, Southcom is broadening its net to include other advanced technology programs. For example, the command hosts an annual science, technology and experimentation conference that brings together the most innovative minds in the defense, interagency, industry, academic and international communities and encourages them to pursue projects to support recognized capability gaps.

The program has been highly successful, although Hurtado admits that most of its best achievements are classified and can’t be divulged publicly.

He did, however, offer a sneak peek into some of the new technologies being developed, tested or put to use in the theater. These include:

-- New radars that enable U.S. and partner nations’ militaries and law enforcement officials to increase situational awareness of activities in jungle environments. In the past, the heavy foliage found in the jungles provided the perfect camouflage for illicit trafficking activities and the infrastructure that supports them. The new radars have the potential to provide “information superiority” Hurtado said, ultimately reducing sanctuaries for bad actors to operate freely.

-- Robotics, communication devices and low-light cameras able to detect mines and improvised explosive devices. Among the places where this technology may be applied is Colombia, which Hurtado said faces a troubling IED problem.

-- The All Partners Access Network, which is designed to be as user-friendly as Facebook and enables regional partners to share information and collaborate as they deal with common threats.

-- New power-generation, communications and water-purification kits that forces can use to better support a broad spectrum of operations in isolated areas.

-- An intercoastal and riverine monitoring system able to differentiate between illicit trafficking and legal commerce transiting waterways that constitute major supply routes in much of the region. This system was tested last fall in Belize, with participation from the U.S. Navy, Colombian navy, Guatemalan foreign ministry and Mexican special forces.

-- Nano satellites that can be launched far less expensively than traditional satellites and provide dependable communications capability at a fraction of the cost. This initiative, being developed by Army Space and Missile Defense Command, is expected to be “transformational” for operational forces, Hurtado said.

As the Southcom staff continues to seek out technologies to support current missions, Hurtado said they’re keeping a steady fix on the horizon as well.

“We are the team who looks out to the future with an eye on improving our capability and support to our partner nations by enabling advanced technologies -- not just for the near term, but 10 to 15 years out,” he said.

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