Rear Admiral Thomas L. Brown II has worked in and studied Latin America for the last few decades. He learned Spanish in the ’80s, attended the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies to pursue a master’s degree in Latin American studies, and was subsequently assigned to the U.S. Military Advisory in El Salvador. Later, he commanded Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Unit Four in Puerto Rico, which serves as the Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) NSW Component Command.
“Latin America is a fascinating place,” he observed. Now, as the commander of SOCSOUTH in Homestead, Florida, he has the opportunity to work with the U.S. hemispheric partners to tackle problems such as illicit trafficking, violent extremists and other irregular challenges.
In an interview with Diálogo, RDML Brown talks about the mission of SOCSOUTH, and the importance of understanding the language and the culture of the region.
DIÁLOGO: What is the mission of SOCSOUTH and how does it relate to U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)?
Rear Admiral Thomas L. Brown II: SOCSOUTH is a special operations headquarters assigned to General Fraser [SOUTHCOM Commander]. Gen. Fraser has a service component commander for each service, for example Commander U.S. Navy South, Commander Marine Forces South, and SOCSOUTH is his Special Operations Forces component command for planning and conducting special operations. One difference between SOCSOUTH and the service component commands is that we are a subunified joint command, with members in all services.
DIÁLOGO: What are the core tasks of SOCSOUTH?
RDML Brown: The mission of Theater Special Operations Command is to plan and execute special operations, in our case in Latin America and the Caribbean. So that means everything from conducting Civil Affairs [CA] operations to the possibility of special operations in direct support of or in partnership with our friends in the region, like we did with Operation Willing Spirit, the operation to rescue the U.S. hostages being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] in Colombia [2003-2008]. What falls under the rubric of special operations is often a surprise to people, the “soft power” tools we possess, from Information Operations to Civil Affairs. The U.S. Special Operations Command [SOCOM] has a CA brigade that provides civil-military support elements that SOCSOUTH employs in support of our partner nations and country teams’ efforts in the region. We routinely employ our Special Forces from 7th and 20th Special Forces Group, special warfare combat craft crewmen, and SEALs, principally from Special Boat Team 22 and SEAL Team 18, Air Force commandos and SOF aircrew instructors. All these capabilities help us build the capacity of our partners for combating dangerous nonstate actors, or using the term coined from John Arquilla [a Ph.D. in International Relations from Stanford who has written many articles and books on the future of warfare], “dark networks.”
DIÁLOGO: What do U.S. troops take away from participating in multinational exercises?
RDML Brown: A fundamental value of special operation forces is that they’re culturally attuned, work in small numbers, and deploy for extended periods of time outside fixed or traditional bases, which allows us to get to know and understand the environment and the people we work with. We bring back from our exercises an improved cultural knowledge, a better understanding of the capabilities of our partner nations, and solidify relationships that allow us to better synchronize the capabilities and effects of our partners against illicit trafficking, terrorists and other such threats. Relationships are vital in this business. Knowing people and their views, while understanding our partners’ strengths, weaknesses and needs, assists us to reinforce their strengths and help out on their weaknesses.
DIÁLOGO: What is the importance of understanding the culture and language of the region?
RDML Brown: From my experience working in different parts of the world, SOUTHCOM is unique in that in working with Latin America, it’s kind of expected that one speak the language. In order to achieve desired effects, it’s important to have a degree of language capability and understanding of cultural nuances. Some people may have more skills in communicating than others and may be able to communicate or learn without knowing the language, but it’s a lot more challenging. So I’d say that language skills and cultural awareness are mission essential here. U.S. Special Operations Command’s leadership has been consistent in emphasizing the importance of language competency as well as regional expertise and culture in its investment strategy, and SOUTHCOM benefits from that in terms of the skills our Special Operations Forces bring to the theater.
DIÁLOGO: How does new technology used by narcotraf- fickers, such as semisubmersibles, affect your mission?
RDML Brown: We work hard to stay abreast of new technologies or techniques the traffickers and transnational criminal organizations, and narcoterrorists like the FARC use to move drugs and other illicit goods. We take this into account in the way we are training and building partnership capacity. We keep our eyes on it as we work with the U.S. country teams, and in close collaboration with the countries, to tailor our training and other capacity building efforts against the threat as these “dark networks” adopt new communications, transportation and other technology.
DIÁLOGO: Can you talk about Special Forces in SOCSOUTH?
RDML Brown: The generic term for what you are referring to is Special Operations Forces or SOF, which includes the Army Special Forces, Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, U.S. Marine Special Operations Teams and SEAL platoons, as well as the Air Force special operations with its 6th SOS [Special Operations Squadron] for building partnership aviation capacity, Combat Control Team and Pararescue personnel. However, we have a much broader range of capabilities, different from those I just mentioned above and beyond the traditional understanding people have of SOF from the movies. Just as important, if not more so, is that SOCSOUTH is on the leading edge of employing Civil Affairs, Information Operations, and intellectual capital from academia to solve complex irregular warfare problems. Our core culture is built around the commando and the bias for action that comes with that territory. But, it is important to mention that we count on Civil Affairs and Information Operations to complement the hard power of direct action, or traditional commando raids, and the warriors and the officers, and the enlisted men and women at SOCOM have got to be those people that understand how to employ all those tools to solve complex problems. This is job No. 1 in irregular warfare, with which we have a competitive advantage over traditional military forces and capabilities.
DIÁLOGO: What kind of participation does SOCSOUTH have in Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR)?
RDML Brown: After the earthquake in Haiti, Special Operations Forces were among the first on the ground. Even though it’s not a primary special ops mission, and it’s not the thing that I have my forces looking at every day, we can move very quickly to operate in small numbers in austere environments, particularly with our Information Operations and Civil Affairs forces to contribute significantly to HA/DR in the event of a crisis.