Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

JIATF South, an Interagency and International Coalition With A Tactical Mission

Claudia Sánchez-Bustamante/Diálogo | 5 April 2017

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Christopher J. Tomney leads JIATF South in deterring and monitoring operations to counter transnational, transregional threat networks. (Photo: Courtesy of JIATF South)

Joint Interagency Task Force South conducts detection and monitoring operations throughout the area shared by the United States and Central American, South American, and Caribbean partner nations to facilitate the interdiction of illicit trafficking in support of national and partner nation security.

Located at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South) is one of three U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) task forces in support of national and partner nation security. The agency coordinates with the interagency and international partners to illuminate transnational organized crime networks and support interdiction and apprehension by United States and partner nation law enforcement agencies. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Christopher J. Tomney, director of the JIATF South, spoke to Diálogo about the task force’s priorities, focus, and the importance of working together to deter transnational, transregional criminal organizations.

Diálogo: What is JIATF-South’s main focus with regard to our AOR?

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Christopher J. Tomney, director of Joint Interagency Task Force South: JIATF South’s primary focus is the detection and monitoring of illicit trafficking in the air and maritime domains throughout our 42-million-square-mile Joint Operating Area (JOA). It actually encompasses SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) as well as includes parts of the U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Pacific Command AORs as well.

Diálogo: What is the focus of your military efforts as director of the JIATF-South?

Rear Adm. Tomney: As director of JIATF South, my energy is focused on supporting our interagency and international partners’ efforts to interdict and apprehend illicit traffickers, in order to shed further light on the wider networks to which they belong. As a component commander of U.S. Southern Command, I work to promulgate Adm. Tidd’s [SOUTHCOM commander] direction and intent, especially with regard to countering transregional, transnational threat Networks (T3N).

Diálogo: What do you expect to achieve with each country in SOUTHCOM’s AOR you engage with, whether through exercises, key leader engagements, or any other engagement?

Rear Adm. Tomney: JIATF South seeks to continually develop closer relationships with all of our partner nations, including those that reside within the SOUTHCOM AOR, to facilitate two primary goals: 100 percent domain awareness and an unprecedented degree of information coordination. Through increasing engagements with partner nations, we seek to escalate our awareness of illicit trafficking and associated networks through the JOA, as well as drive information sharing to such a point of transparency that our partners, in conjunction with other SOUTHCOM and State Department efforts, can independently execute the detection and monitoring mission.

Diálogo: What is your biggest concern in terms of regional security in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean?

Rear Adm. Tomney: JIATF South’s biggest concern is the corruption and destabilization of legitimate governments by T3N that are interconnected throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Networks do not merely move drugs. They move all sorts of illicit commodities including weapons, money, and people. JIATF South’s biggest concern is if nations and government agencies allow seams and gaps to exist, these illicit networks could be used to also move terrorists – either wittingly or unwittingly. The fight against these criminal networks requires a united front.

Diálogo: How do you leverage the efforts of the countries in SOUTHCOM’s AOR to stop T3N?

Rear Adm. Tomney: JIATF South works to disrupt T3N activities where they are the most vulnerable: in international airspace and waters. We detect and monitor illicit traffickers leaving the source zone in South America as they move through the transit zones in the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean Basin toward the arrival zones in Central America and the northern Caribbean countries. In the course of supporting the interdiction of each trafficking operation, JIATF South contributes to the long term investigations by our interagency partners aimed at dismantling T3N.

Diálogo: How has your perspective of the AOR changed since you first assumed the direction of JIATF South in April 2015?

Rear Adm. Tomney: One of the primary shifts has been how JIATF South, in conjunction with SOUTHCOM, has altered our viewpoint and message about the mission. We are not simply a task force focused on taking cocaine off the water one boat at a time. We are an interagency and international coalition, brought together by a tactical mission, working to facilitate the eventual dismantlement of large criminal enterprises aimed at undermining stability and security in the Western Hemisphere.

Diálogo: How has/does the relationship you help build benefit the collaboration between the U.S. Coast Guard and those of our regional partner nations?

Rear Adm. Tomney: JIATF South operations provide the venue for a high degree of interaction between the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and regional partners. Every USCG boarding of a vessel involved in illicit trafficking in our JOA is another opportunity for USCG direct collaboration, either directly with a partner nation’s maritime forces or with the boarded vessel’s home country. For 2016, that was over 700 opportunities to work together, to develop and test procedures, and most importantly, to build trust.

Diálogo: What kind of results do you expect to come to fruition for 2017, and what results have you seen so far in your time working with this AOR?

Rear Adm. Tomney: JIATF South has witnessed a 100 percent increase in awareness of illicit trafficking in 2016. We expect our awareness to continue to grow, as well as our ability to impact T3N through novel approaches in counter threat finance and cyberspace. We have also seen the USCG get behind the effort by providing resources above and beyond their required contributions. As well, we have seen a major increase in our partner nations’ capabilities and capacity to respond – partner nations contributed to over 40 percent of the tactical successes against illicit traffickers in 2016. We expect that number to go up as SOUTHCOM and U.S. State Department programs continue to build our PN capabilities, and we continue to engage them with opportunities to execute.

Diálogo: How has your prior experience prepared you for this role? And what lessons learned did you bring with you to this role, especially serving as director for Joint Interagency Task Force West?

Rear Adm. Tomney: As a U.S. Coast Guard officer, I’ve learned throughout my career that to be successful, one must collaborate and network to achieve one’s missions. Coming from a multi-mission service, the U.S. Coast Guard must often rely on the cooperation, collaboration, and integration with other agencies and governments. The international exposure of working with so many Asia-Pacific nations as director of Joint Interagency Task Force West highlighted the requirement that success against international criminal organizations requires an international coalition of the willing. My additional experiences as an intelligence officer and an agency-level information sharing executive champion have assisted greatly expanding JIATF South’s overall domain awareness while at the same time, reduce information sharing barriers leading to stronger and more diverse international partnerships.

Diálogo: What are your/ JIATF-South’s priorities for 2017?

Rear Adm. Tomney: JIATF South’s priorities for 2017 are outlined in our Strategic Plan:

1. Detection and Monitoring – JIATF South will continue to execute its core mission set, leveraging fused intelligence to drive our 24 x 7 Joint Operations Center.

1. Information Coordination – JIATF South will continue to push the envelope, both in intelligence sharing protocols as well as operational coordination between multiple, sometimes disparate, partners.

2. Innovation – JIATF South will continue to leverage our relationships in industry, academia, and the wider research and development community to find ways to counter our adversaries’ well-financed and creative efforts to move undetected through our JOA.

3. Cyberspace – JIATF South will continue to break ground in finding ways to support its deter and monitor mission in the cyber realm.

4. External Collaboration – JIATF South will continue to build its interagency and international network aimed at further disrupting and illuminated T3N operating in the Western Hemisphere.

Diálogo: Is there anything you’d like to add for our regional readers?

Rear Adm. Tomney: I’ll conclude with these thoughts. First, all leaders should be champions of change within their organizations. As the world we operate in evolves, so too must our organizations. Never settle on the status quo and set lofty goals. In this complex, multi-threat environment, leaders must move information instantly. Leaders must constantly ask themselves: “Who else needs to know?” The fight against transregional, transnational threat networks is a global fight. Regional leaders must work together and continually strive to break down barriers to communications if we are to succeed in this struggle.

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