Working to Provide Peace and Security in the Southern AOR
Brig. Gen. Kurt L. Sonntag
Special Operations Command South
Brigadier General Kurt L. Sonntag assumed command of Special Operations Command South on September 16, 2014. As commander, he is responsible to the commander of U.S. Southern Command for the planning, employment and command of special operations in Central and South America.
Sonntag is a 1986 graduate of the United States Military Academy, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree and was commissioned in the infantry. While in the infantry, he served as a Bradley platoon leader, scout platoon leader and S-3 Air while assigned to the 2nd Armored Division. After attending the Infantry Officer’s Advance Course and the Special Forces Qualification Course in 1991, he served as a detachment commander, battalion S-4, support company commander and company commander in 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). After leaving the 5th Special Forces Group in 1997, he served as a company and battalion observer/controller with the Special Operations Training Detachment at the Joint Readiness Training Center.
Upon completing the Naval Command and Staff College at the Naval War College in 2000, he returned to the 5th Special Forces Group to command another company, serve as a battalion’s executive officer during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and as the 5th Special Forces Group executive officer. He also served as the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-West & Arabian Peninsula’s chief of staff during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Following a brief assignment as the Chief of Joint and Army Concepts Division for the Army Special Operations Battle Lab, Sonntag commanded 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group and served as the G-3 for the United States Army Special Forces Command. After fulfilling his United States Army War College requirements in 2009, Sonntag deployed to Pakistan to serve as the SOCCENT (Forward) – Pakistan commander in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Upon his return to Fort Bragg, he served as the United States Army Special Operations Command chief of staff. He recently returned from a deployment where he commanded an interagency advisory detachment in support of national security goals and objectives. Sonntag then held the position of the deputy commanding general of the United States Army Special Operations Command.
Sonntag holds a master’s degree in Military History from Louisiana State University as well as a master’s in National Security Strategy Studies from the Naval War College. He is also a Harvard Kennedy School National Security Fellow.
Q: Brigadier General Sonntag, could you provide an overview of your command and office for our readers?
A: Special Operations Command South plans, directs and executes special operations missions throughout Central America, South America and the Caribbean to achieve operational and strategic objectives in support of the commander, United States Southern Command. SOCSOUTH’s vision is a secure, stable and sovereign USSOUTHCOM area of responsibility. Our goal is to prevent conflict in the region.
To that end, we collaborate with interagency partners, conventional forces, allies and partner nations, which are connected by an in-depth network to detect, deter, disrupt and defeat threats to U.S. vital interests. Our top priorities are war fighting readiness and contingency response, shaping operations and engagement and taking care of the force and family.
Q: Could you discuss the advantages gained from and the purpose of the recent bilateral training exercise between your command and Chilean Special Forces at Camp Shelby, Miss.?
A: Northern Star 2015 was a successful combined joint bilateral engagement between U.S. Special Operations Forces and Chilean Special Operations Forces. A benefit of this type of bilateral exchange is the unique opportunity to share best practices with one of our closest regional partners while serving as a model for future collaboration with other partner nation SOF units operating in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility. It was facilitated by our teammates in the National Guard.
I would like to highlight some of the operational advantages gained throughout the training evolution. Northern Star participants engaged in a full range of bilateral training and full-mission profiles, including small unit tactics, close quarter battle, advanced marksmanship, all-terrain vehicle tactics, fast-roping, helocast, air assault and airborne operations. The skills of the U.S. SOF and Chilean SOF operating units were exhibited in a culminating exercise (Operation Geronimo Lives), a non-combatant evacuation event flown in conjunction with air units based out of Hurlburt Field, Fla. More than 400 personnel from the Chilean Special Forces, Special Operations Command-South, Special Operations Detachment-South, Marine Reconnaissance and Army Reserve Aviation participated in the culminating exercise. The successful execution of an event of this magnitude is a testament to our expertise in combined joint operations, underscoring our proficiency at aligning ourselves seamlessly with our partner nations in achieving the desired operational effects.
From a commander’s perspective, the U.S.-Chilean relationships that were built and strengthened during this exercise at the operational level and during key leader engagements are crucial in ensuring that we continue to expand and develop the Special Operations capabilities of both countries.
Q: Are there any ISR enhancements that could aid in certain environments where you operate (mountains, jungle, etc., FOPEN)?
A: The triple-canopy jungle environment prevalent in some parts of the SOUTHCOM AOR presents a difficult challenge to our partner nations as they pursue criminals into remote locations. Employing a foliage penetration (FOPEN) radar capability in order to look beneath dense vegetation would be invaluable in reducing narco-traffickers’ ability to conceal their illegal activities.
We have also seen a demand signal in Partner Shareable IS—that is, IS—is immediately or seamlessly releasable to our partners for their use in identifying and interdicting criminal activity.
Q: What are some of the significant training challenges in your AOR?
A: Besides the most varied terrain, riverine and littoral water and climate imaginable, there are several challenges, and they vary from country to country. The challenges can range from the PN’s ability to absorb the training that we are conducting to the authorities, and both fiscal and operational challenges that we operate under.
While SOCSOUTH conducts numerous JCETs and subject-matter expert engagements for the training benefit of U.S. SOF, all of the building partner capacity activities we conduct are under the authority of Section 1004 of the National Defense Authorization Act. While these authorities are broadly written, the permissions granted to the TSOC within 1004 are a limiting factor in how we conduct our engagements with partner nations.
Q: Following that, what are the skills that our partner nations want to focus on?
A: The skills that our partner nation forces want to focus on vary not only from country to country, but also from unit to unit within each country. The key to supporting a developing, focused and effective unit training plan is first to understand exactly what the PN wants to accomplish. Following that, we jointly assess the unit’s mission, its current proficiency and the equipment it has to accomplish its required tasks.
Based on this assessment, we can collectively develop a program that will help them build the capabilities they need. This assessment and planning process can drive significant changes in training programs. Sometimes what the PN initially wants to train on is not what they need to train on; for example, if a country does not have airlift suitable for fast rope infiltration, then time and resources would be better spent training on something they do have the capability to employ. Sometimes, that is driven by who their “sponsor” is within the Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).
Q: Are you able to incorporate simulators when training with partner-nation forces, or is the training more hands-on and/or live fire?
A: While the use of tactical simulators would in some cases enhance the mission, the vast majority of our tactical training is in the field with a focus on employment. In many cases, the units we are training with will employ the TTPs learned on real-world operations later the same day.
We also work very hard to help units build the capacity to analyze the operational impacts of the missions they execute, and employ effects-based models to further their understanding of threat networks so they can more effectively and efficiently target those adversaries. Modeling and simulation could potentially contribute to this type of training.
Q: What is SOCSOUTH’s perception on violent extremism within the AOR and the possible threat it poses to U.S. interests and to the homeland?
A: A terrorist attack against U.S. interests in the region, or an attack on the homeland facilitated from the region, is a high-impact but low-probability scenario. Of the commonly known Middle East-based terrorist groups, Lebanese Hezbollah is openly known to have conducted terrorist attacks in the region. Evidence that Hezbollah continues to maintain an attack capability was seen in the recent October 2014 arrest of a Peru-based operative. While these past attacks were limited to Jewish and Israeli targets, it has attacked non-regional U.S interests in the past. Its leadership, and that of its patron, Iran, remains committed to posing threats to U.S. interests worldwide.
The probability of a Sunni Islamic extremist group operating in the region is lower, with a self-inspired “lone-wolf” attack being the most likely scenario. However, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has attracted recruits from the region, which may present security challenges upon their return. The potential catalysts for a Sunni extremist terror cell formation in the region may include the rise of a charismatic leader, significant backing by Middle Eastern donors or willing and capable jihadists reaching a critical mass.
Q: The Mexican cartels have been undergoing a lot of competition, splintering and consolidation in recent years. What effect has this had on the region as a whole?
A: Latin American drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) control various aspects of the drug supply chain and vary in terms of capabilities, organizational structures and levels of associated violence. As a result of their struggle for power and consolidation over territory, the Central American and Caribbean regions have the highest crime rates, including violent crimes, of any region in the world. Research has shown that criminality related to drug trafficking has replaced political and regional conflicts as the primary source of citizen insecurity in the Americas.
Increased law enforcement by Mexican authorities has forced traffickers to use Central America, particularly Guatemala and Honduras, as transshipment points for Andean Ridge cocaine, increasing the already high levels of violence in those countries. Some violence is directly associated with the protection of drug trafficking routes and syndicate power struggles. Other violence occurs as drug trafficking organizations corrupt and undermine public security and legal institutions.
Economic and social collapse throughout the region, compounded by weak government institutions, inhibits efforts to improve security, rendering large portions of the population susceptible to DTO influence. Criminal organizations and radical groups capitalize on these vulnerabilities, using various methods to influence or exploit the local populace. Families are in jeopardy. Mothers and fathers are putting their children into the hands of smugglers in the hope that the lives of their children, alone, away from their families in a foreign country will be safer than with their families in their home towns.
Q: Could you give some specifics or provide some anecdotes concerning how SOCSOUTH is protecting American interests?
A: From Colombia to Honduras to the Dominican Republic, we’re building a network of lasting relationships that are, quite literally, helping bring some countries back from the brink. This work is valuable not just to SOUTHCOM and the U.S. government, but also to our partners throughout the region.
Our special operations forces are among the most qualified, culturally sensitive and linguistically capable trainers in the U.S. military, and above all, they excel at building trust and forging personal relationships that are essential to supporting our national interests. Whether it’s a small team at the tactical level or an official engagement at my level, all our efforts are focused on professionalizing military and security forces. We are here to help our partners become more accountable to civilian authority and more capable, and above all, to help them respect the human rights of the citizens they are charged to protect.
Our efforts are part of a whole-of-government approach-involving the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, United States Agency for International Development and many others to strengthen governance and foster accountable, transparent and effective institutions throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Our work with Colombia is the model for everything we want to do in this part of the world. SOCSOUTH was there three decades ago when Colombia was teetering on the verge of collapse—and we’re there today.
As a result of SOF efforts, Colombia has taken its rightful place as a regional leader and one of our most important allies. SOCSOUTH has helped our Colombian partners bring the FARC to its knees in multiple ways over the last 20 years or so, building the capacity of their most elite units so that Colombia could rescue American hostages and show the world there’s nowhere special operations forces can’t go and nowhere the FARC can hide. We are also helping the Colombians target these narco-terrorists that are among the worst violators of human rights in the world. We have been supporting the Colombian military as it learned the importance of respecting human rights and protecting civilian populations, and, finally, staying with the Colombians as they make their final push to finish this fight, once and for all.
What we’ve helped our partners accomplish in Colombia is now a benchmark for our engagement with countries like Honduras and Guatemala, who are suffering unbelievable turmoil and insecurity brought on by transnational criminal organizations.
Q: Since development has been increasing tremendously in South America over the past decade, are different forms of aircraft now in demand by your command? Essentially, how much of a problem is the tyranny of distance today in the region?
A: The tyranny of distance within our assigned region can be quite a challenge if we were to go it alone. However, our Special Operations Command Enterprise consistently engages in relationships with our host nation partners, other United States forces in the region and our inter-agency partners.
Additionally, our National Guard and Reserve partners do an outstanding job supporting mobility requirements in the SOUTHCOM region. Each of these entities brings with it unique assets and experience throughout the region ranging from small fixed wing platforms and helicopters to the largest strategic airlift assets. Being able to maintain positive relationships means being able to maintain the ability to move around the region and perform the required training in the right places.
The largest challenges are not necessarily distance-related but altitude- and infrastructure-related. Our region ranges from sea level to over 22,000 feet and from developed city to nearly uninhabited rainforest. Finding the right mode of transportation to access a remote village high in the mountains takes a lot of coordination and synchronization between us and our partners.
Environment and sustainment are always challenges. As far as specific demand signals in the region, it really does range most of the capability spectrum. From time to time, we require the long-range capabilities of strategic airlift to go between the Continental United States and points in the south end of South America. Other times, we and our partners need only go from one end of Central America to the other on smaller fixed-wing aircraft. Then again, sometimes we merely need to travel 100 miles to a remote training or support site that can only be serviced by utility helicopters. Furthermore, all of these aircraft serve as the combined MEDEVAC system capable of saving lives and treating casualties from the point of injury all the way back to the Continental United States, if necessary. It is a system of mobility and survivability.
Q: Can you point to any cases in the region where nations are beginning to work together to address regional issues?
A: Take, for example, how we have provided persistent, focused training to the naval special forces (FEN) in Guatemala over the past four years. As a result, the FEN can now effectively locate and interdict target vessels, seize drug shipments and cooperate as a cohesive unit.
Colombia is a good example of SOF engagement leading to the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan. Colombia is now “exporting” their security know-how, and is now working with its neighbors in the shared fights against countering transnational criminal organizations specifically in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and El Salvador. Colombia continues to expand its role as a security exporter, having helped train tens of thousands of security personnel from more than 40 nations. Through the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan for Regional Security, Colombia engages regularly with the security forces of six Central American and Caribbean countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic—to strengthen their counter-narcotics capabilities.