Lt. Gen. Andrew Croft during an interview with Air Force Magazine reporter Abraham Mahshie in 2021. Master Sgt. Justin Baker
Photo Caption & Credits

Q&A: Not Just a Southern Thing

Jan. 21, 2022

Air Force Lt. Gen. Andrew A. Croft is U.S. SOUTHCOM’s military deputy in Miami. He oversees five components and three joint task forces meant to address myriad threats stretching from the Caribbean to the Arctic. Abraham Mahshie, Air Force Magazine’s Pentagon Editor, interviewed Croft in November 2021. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How does SOUTHCOM differ from other combatant commands?

A: We’re the only combatant command that has a civilian deputy commander. Because we have so many partner nations down south, and so many embassy and country teams that we work with, that part’s very important … that we stay really aligned with the Department of State.

I’m the military deputy commander, doing primarily more of the military part of this, which involves our five components, and our three joint task forces, JIATF-South, we have JTF-Bravo in Honduras, and JTF-GITMO in Guantanamo Bay.

Q: How does SOUTHCOM utilize space capabilities?

A: A lot of it’s about domain awareness. From space, we can track illegal logging, illegal mining, illegal fishing. … A lot of it’s just open-source data. We use open-source space products.

As an example, in Peru, we were looking at space imagery of these illegal mines that are in the Amazon and they’re terrible, they totally destroy the rainforest. … You can see that from space, from commercially available space products that either we see or they find, and we share them.

Then, you do things like space awareness of debris. So, that Russian A-Sat [weapon] they just [tested, produced] 1,500 trackable pieces of debris. Now, if you are Colombia, or Chile, or Brazil, you have a satellite in that orbit, we have to help tell them [by warning them] that your satellite might be threatened. So, you either need to move it or turn it so it’ll survive an impact.

It’s only going to get better as these commercial operations, such as SpaceX, launch constellations of low-Earth orbit satellites that have various ways of detecting things. In five or 10 years, we’ll be able to see every ship on the ocean, especially the illegal fishing ships, or maybe even the drug runners at some point. If you see something that small from space, and it’ll be in many cases not classified data, we can share it with our partner nations.

Q: How do things like illegal fishing in the Galápagos have anything to do with U.S. national security?

A: Illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing is a huge, huge deal. The fish stocks out off the coast of Ecuador are being wiped out. Near the Galápagos Islands, the Chinese have 300-ish big fishing ships out there that have these massive nets, they know the exact migratory routes of the fish, and they will take the entire fish stock.

Ecuador is … really concerned about that because it takes all the money away from their fishermen. So, then what do they do? They sell fuel and supplies to the drug runners, … they become little 7-11s because they have no other source of income.

That’s where in space we can start partnering. As we have access to more space vehicles, lower-end stuff that’s not classified, I think that’s where you’re gonna see a huge advantage. Then you have communication, obviously, navigation and timing, all things that we normally do with satellites.

Q: Competition from China and Russia in this hemisphere is growing fierce. How does SOUTHCOM make sure the U.S. is the partner of choice?

A: Proximity matters. We’re obviously right here in the Americas, common cultures, common values. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of all Americans came from Central, South America, and the Caribbean. The biggest percentage are from our AOR.

Instead of just focusing on either a military capability like Russia might do, or the Chinese, … we focus on things like values, and human rights, and rule of law, and democracy, migrant patterns. I mean, all those things we care about that the Chinese and the Russians will not, they’re gonna do things that just purely benefit them. It’s very transactional if you’re China and Russia.

The IMET, International Military Education and Training, that is one of our biggest returns on investment as far as long-term partnering with these nations. 

Q: How does the U.S. compete with cheaper Chinese and Russian weaponry in the region?

A: Keep a good relationship, keep doing training, keep doing engagements. Offer them something that benefits them. What we need to do is come in as a partner of choice and offer them a valid, affordable alternative, versus just telling them, ‘Don’t do that.’

We do—through foreign military financing and foreign military sales—[share weapons and technology]. There’s a lot of value, especially in the counter-drug, counter-transnational criminal organization fight, those things really are helpful.

Q: Sometimes Latin American politics swings drastically from left to right. How does SOUTHCOM maintain consistent mil-mil ties?

A: That’s a tough nut to crack because sometimes you can do more, sometimes you can do less. If they are more aligned with us, then we say we double down, we increase our exercises, increase our subject-matter expert exchanges, increase our training events, increase our IMET efforts. If they are less aligned with us, then we tend to do smaller things that the nation still needs and values, but it stays out of the public press.

If we have an embassy that is fully manned and staffed for a good relationship with a country, and suddenly that relationship starts to falter, I can’t take all those people and suddenly move them somewhere else.

Q: Vaccine diplomacy impacted countries around the world. How did SOUTHCOM compete with the vaccines donated by China and Russia?

A: Through COVID, we got $74 million [for] humanitarian assistance programs. These are small things—field hospitals, ventilators, [personal protective equipment]—all the things you would need to combat COVID or any other diseases. And we were able to donate them.

When we were unable to deliver vaccines, when the Russians and the Chinese were doing it, this was our counter and it was very successful. And now vaccines delivered to our AOR have exceeded those of the Russia-China crowd. And ours are much better, right? But we had to get through that first eight to 10 months of China sending half a million vaccines and we send a field hospital.

And the Chinese are countering us. So, the minute we would do something, they would drop vaccines on somebody. Or, the minute we would do a key leader engagement, they would publish an op-ed. So, they’re watching us really closely.

Q: A lot of what SOUTHCOM does is related to humanitarian assistance. How does that advance U.S. national security goals?

A: It gives us access and presence and partnering beforehand. If we have to do something like defend the Panama Canal, we know all the people that we’re going to work with already. Or, if we’re going to counter transnational criminal organizations, we know the people that we want to work with. If the Russians are going to send bombers down to Venezuela again, we know who to work with in Colombia. It’s the access and presence that the humanitarian assistance and response does for us. It’s also basing. So, our base at Guantanamo Bay—super critical strategic base—but we use it to respond to the Haiti earthquake. So, we exercise that system.

If we don’t have those forcing functions, we tend to close those things or reduce them. And if we need them for something else, like higher-end combat operations, we wouldn’t have it.

That’s why that access and presence is so important. And then also with our partner nations, it’s working with them. We fly F-16s with the Colombian Kfirs. So, they know each other, and we have interoperability going on there, that’s a higher-end example. If we ever had to go assess Colombia to do anything, we’ve already been to the base, we’ve flown out of the base. All that stuff matters. These things all exercise our military capabilities, which then we can use short notice.

Q: You previously served as AFSOUTH Commander. What did you learn in that role?

A: The first key piece was to partner and get to know all the air chiefs from the various nations. … We have the South American Air Chiefs Conference, Central American Air Chiefs Conference, and a Caribbean Air Chiefs Conference. So, three different conferences a year, which sort of mirrors what we would do here at SOUTHCOM, but focus purely on the air chiefs. Then you can focus on just the air problems.

So, it’s detection and monitoring aircraft, domain awareness from the air side of the house, sharing of data, air tracks, radar and feeds so we can build a picture for either JIATF-South or the partner nation. Transport aircraft, helicopters, and then assisting them and their air forces with either training or exchanges on the air side. And then you understand where they’re struggling and where they need help, and where can we assist. And that drives all of our operations, activities, and investments for the next couple years.

Q: What Air Force-specific ideas have you brought into the deputy position in the past year?

A: AERONet is a technology using an IP-based radio system where you can communicate. It’s secure, but it’s unclassified. So, how do I take a sensor ball on an airplane and get it to a tablet on an interceptor boat? That’s what AERONet does. So, we just had installed AERONet in Belize, and JIATF-South has the exact same technology on their special ship mission.

It’s a transmitter, essentially. So, you have an airplane above here, that translates to an interceptor boat so the folks on the boat can see what the airplane is seeing. We just contracted a new ISR airplane that is a super souped-up DC-3 with turboprop on it, it has AERONet on there. So, when this thing finds a go fast on the water, it can then transmit it to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, whoever’s there. Any partner nation that has AERONet … will then have an immediate feed from the airplane.

So, that’s one that we just saw that has been pushed primarily from Air Forces Southern that came from the Air Force.

Q: There’s a new commander at SOUTHCOM, Gen. Laura J. Richardson, an Army aviator. What changes have you discussed moving forward?

A: She’s an aviator-focused person. So, we do things methodically. That makes it a little bit more fun. It’s actually hard to fly a helicopter, we were talking about that the other night.

The biggest thing that the commander wants to focus on is information operations. You know, we’re doing so many great things, but we’ve got to get it out there. So, how do we get it into written publications, doing it through social media, through other media forms? How do you lump it together and just have an outreach program where we’re actually advertising all the great things we’re doing … and then people realize that we are a partner of choice that is actually trying to do good.

Big focus efforts are going to be women, peace, and security, and senior NCO development. In the U.S. military, our NCOs, our enlisted corps, about 80 percent of the military, depending which service, do all the work. And they’re empowered. And they’re given responsibilities. And we develop them professionally through their careers, whether it’s technical schools or education or higher-end schools. A lot of the other partner nations don’t do that. And we’re trying to bring them around to that model. The Honduran Air Force took our model and is going to implement it.

A lot of discussion is the environment, right? So, illegal mining, illegal logging, illegal fishing is destructive to the nation that it’s in—it benefits people that don’t live there. It actually mortgages your future in many ways. I was thinking about this other day: We ought to treat space as an environmental issue because if you destroy space with debris, if you make a debris field, then we can’t use it.