SOUTHCOM Looking at New Intelligence-Gathering Ops to Counter ISR Shortfall

U.S. Southern Command is turning to big data and artificial intelligence to gain more leverage on transnational criminal organizations, while also keeping an eye on China’s expansion in the region and monitoring Russia’s disinformation efforts.

SOUTHCOM boss Adm. Craig S. Faller, both in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee and in a press conference March 16, repeatedly sounded the alarm on Beijing’s expansionist moves into Central and South America, such as assessing deep-water port access, 5G development, and recently the use of “mask and vaccine” diplomacy to exert their influence.

Globally, China has made an “insidious move forward for global economic dominance,” and that is being seen in South America, Faller said.

In the time of COVID-19, China has distributed tens of millions of doses of vaccines largely focusing on countries they want to pressure. Nine of the 16 countries in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility support Taiwan, and those countries are on the receiving end of China’s attempts to use the vaccine for political influence, he said.

In testimony and other public appearances, Faller has repeatedly said his command does not get enough ISR for what it needs to do, both in tracking China’s move and in guiding interdiction missions targeting the drug trade. However, the command in the past budget received a 46 percent cut to its ISR budget, which “significantly challenges our ability to understand threats of all types in the theater,” Faller told lawmakers.

“Prioritization is hard,” Faller said, adding that across the combatant commands “no one’s ever satisfied. We get a fair shake.”

To try to get around the ISR shortfall, however, the command has undergone two pilot programs in the past year that have “shown great promise” by using artificial intelligence and “big data” to evaluate open-source posts on social media and other online sources to collect intelligence. While there is a place for sorties by P-8s and MQ-9s to collect surveillance, online information gathering is growing in importance, he said.

“We’ve got to have the right balance going forward,” Faller said. “There is a role for manned and unmanned [ISR] … in addition to using data in the information space.”

The monitoring of online disinformation has proven important for not only countering China, but Russia as well. Moscow has continued “to try to spoil and undermine U.S. interests.” For example, Spanish language posts are second only to Russian language posts in disinformation campaigns linked to Moscow, Faller said.