A Key West-based government task force that works to stymie drug smugglers will have to make do with fewer ships.
Sequestration, the automatic across-the-board budget cuts due to congressional inaction, is forcing the Navy to pull two frigates from drug patrols along both sides of the Central American coastline and cutting short a current patrol, the military announced this week.
That's bad news for the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF), a key player in the multinational effort Operation Martillo that aims to curb major drug cartel smuggling of mainly cocaine and marijuana into the United States.
JIATF Director Rear Adm. Charles Michel described the situation as less than ideal, saying it will require planners to develop different tactics.
"But we need ships to do our business," Michel said. "These are substantial assets. One ship operating for one year nets, on average, 20 metric tons of cocaine worth about half a billion dollars. That's one ship for one year and that average has been pretty consistent for the last decade."
The Navy is suspending the deployments of the Norfolk-based USS Kauffman in the Caribbean Sea and the San Diego-based USS Rentz in the Pacific Ocean, said U.S. Southern Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Ron Flanders.
The USS Thatch is already on patrol on the Pacific Ocean side and is being called home to San Diego due to the same budget hatchet, Flanders said.
"There is definitely going to be an impact," Flanders said. "Unless something changes in Congress, JIATF will be operating with two fewer frigates."
It means JIATF must get creative and continue to work closely with partner nations in the region, but that is not a new challenge for its leaders, Flanders said.
The ongoing Operation Martillo effort is different from operations in the past in that the U.S. is working much more closely with other nations to go after smugglers along the coastal waters.
"Thank goodness that operation is already in place, because the sequester is going to force us to work even closer together," Michel said.
Last year, JIATF spearheaded efforts as part of Operation Martillo that led to the seizure of 145 tons of cocaine worth $12 billion, $10 billion in marijuana, $3.5 million in cash, 106 airplanes and vessels and arrested 339 suspected drug runners, according to the U.S. Southern Command.
"That increased capability with our partners will be helpful, and the other thing is that we're still looking at this problem," Flanders said. "We knew this was coming, and we at Southern Command are adaptive. We've been operating in flexible ways for many years."
JIATF, which comprises federal and state law enforcement and military intelligence members, is on the western edge of the island in Truman Annex, on Naval Air Station Key West adjacent to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.
The group is the primary force against drug smuggling in the Caribbean Sea.
Nearly 40 percent of JIATF is made up of civilian workers, or about 229 employees. That sizable chunk of the workforce is facing furloughs due to the budget cuts along with most other Department of Defense civilian employees nationwide.
Military leaders know drug cartels are following the sequester issue and expect them to attempt to exploit any perceived vulnerabilities.
"We've been operating and adapting with fewer troops down range and that's nothing new for us," Flanders said. "But we're still in the fight and we still intend to disrupt the flow of drugs into the United States."
Michel agreed, but he would rather have the frigates back.
"There will be real world negative impacts," Michel said. "I have to have ships out there to do the job."