On April 1, the United States announced enhanced counternarcotics operations in the Caribbean Sea to combat the flow of illicit drugs into the U.S. by malign actors taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. President Donald Trump made the announcement together with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, and Admiral Karl L. Schultz, 26th commandant of the United States Coast Guard (USCG). Diálogo spoke with Adm. Schultz, former U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) director of operations (J3), about his main goals, challenges, and COVID-19, among other topics.
Diálogo: What is your main goal and biggest challenge as the USCG commander?
Admiral Karl Schultz, commandant of the United States Coast Guard: I think as part of a service team, and that is what the commandant position is, I am in the business of manning, training, and equipping Coast Guard men and women. We have 11 statutory missions, and I got to roll them up under three lines of effort: securing the Homeland, fostering economic prosperity, and advancing our other national security interests, a lot of which falls under support of the combatant commanders, including our relationship with SOUTHCOM. One of my signature efforts over the last two years has been addressing Coast Guard readiness, and a key pillar of that readiness in our service is what I call the mission-ready total work force. It is building capacity in the workforce, which ties back to broadening the diversity of our work force. We are putting the tools in our people’s hands to get out there and do the important work for the nation.
Diálogo: Is COVID-19 also considered a big challenge?
Adm. Schultz: I think COVID-19 plays a role in every aspect of people’s lives across the globe right now, and certainly impacts the Coast Guard. I am really proud of our Coast Guard men and women. We continue in our relationship with SOUTHCOM to have many cutters in the area of responsibility doing counternarcotics work during the entire pandemic. We are doing rescue work, and I mentioned one of our key lines of effort is enabling economic prosperity –— there are 361 ports in the nation and 25,000 miles of navigable waterways. We are enabling the economy, but it is obviously taking some body blows here — container shipping is down 20-30 percent. Prices of a barrel of oil are affecting the energy sector as well, but we are doing our best to keep the economy going and help the economy get back on track here, while we do rescues, counternarcotics, and migrant interdiction, which are the whole portfolio of Coast Guard missions.
Diálogo: You served as director of operations at SOUTHCOM. What is the most important lesson learned from your tenure and how are you using that experience in your current role?
Adm. Schultz: I think the key take away was maybe more of a revalidation than a lesson learned. One of the things that I truly appreciated about my two years at SOUTHCOM was the partnerships. SOUTHCOM is integrated with more than 30 countries in the Western Hemisphere. I look at where we were 10 years ago, but I have been around in this counternarcotics mission most of my 37 years in the Coast Guard, in some form or fashion, and I see the level of contribution partner nations make. I would say that 50 to 60 percent of all those narcotics interdictions have partner nations’ contributions. I think somewhere between 20 to 40 percent actually have partner nation end game results in those interdictions. I really enjoyed that SOUTHCOM excels at building partner capacity.
Diálogo: How is the USCG contributing to the current counternarcotics fight that was launched on April 1?
Adm. Schultz: I believe that SOUTHCOM commanders Admiral [Kurt] Tidd, General John Kelly, and now Admiral Craig Faller talk about the Coast Guard being SOUTHCOM’s Navy. We remain, in my opinion, the primary force provider on any given day. We certainly welcome the uptick of the U.S. Navy hulls and capabilities, and the Department of Defense assets that are contributing to this counternarcotics operation. I will not get into too many specifics because of operational sensitivities, but we are all in the fight. We will remain in that fight, because between 60,000 and 70,000 deaths occur on American streets every year from drug overdoses and drug-related violence, so this is important. I have witnessed first-hand over my career, including my time at SOUTHCOM, the destructive, corrosive, destabilizing effect of drugs in Latin America, and those corrosive effects of the drugs in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. So, we are all in the fight and we will remain committed to the president’s guidance.
Diálogo: Can you please elaborate on the USCG’s relationship with Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIAF-South)?
Adm. Schultz: JIATF-South has been around for more than 30 years, and I think it is the premiere joint interagency, international, collaborative center in the world when it comes to counternarcotics work. And clearly, they have the lead role under Admiral DeQuattro [Rear U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Pat DeQuattro, JIAF-South director] with detecting and monitoring. We are one of the services that provide forces and end game capability, so yes, JIATF-South is absolutely critical, along with the partner nations present there, in countering drug movements. I would just add that the U.S. Coast Guard, in partnership with SOUTHCOM, to include partner nations’ contributions, clearly remains committed in this region. I am not exactly sure what the new normal will look like, but I think doing the new normal together through a collaborative partnership lens is going to be important for the security and safety of the Western Hemisphere.