Southern Command Mission Faces Resource Challenges, Outside Influences
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — While its main focus is on building relationships with the nations in its theater, countering the criminal networks that threaten America and the region by trafficking drugs, people and weapons, and enabling rapid response to the recurring natural disasters, U.S. Southern Command also must deal with Russian and Chinese efforts to gain influence in the region and the growing threat of Islamic extremist organizations, its commander said June 7.
And it must address all those missions and threats with a persistent shortage of resources and public attention, which are focused on what are considered greater national security challenges in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd said.
In his appearance at a Defense Writers Group breakfast and his congressional testimony earlier this year, Tidd expressed his gratitude for the Coast Guard, which provides most of the limited maritime assets he can pit against the flow of drugs, humans and weapons through the waters surrounding Latin America.
But he noted that his most valuable Coast Guard assets have been the high-endurance cutters, which are being retired. Those cutters are being replaced by more capable national security cutters, six of which are in active service.
Tidd also expressed great interest in getting access to littoral combat ships, which he said were ideally suited to his missions and the region.
“I don’t need a billion-dollar warship” to interdict drugs and refugees, he said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has talked about sending LCSs to Southern Command, but no decision on that has been made, Tidd said.
Tidd noted that a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF), which is organized primarily for providing disaster relief, has just arrived in the theater at the start of the hurricane season. SPMAGTF-South has about 300 Marines and Sailors, mostly from Reserve commands, is heavy on engineers and has several CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters to move personnel, equipment and supplies to areas needing assistance.
When not providing disaster relief or humanitarian assistance, the MAGTF conducts construction and engineering support for public works and training for local security forces in the region, he said.
The current MAGTF has a colonel from the Colombian naval infantry as deputy commander, Tidd said.
Tidd said Russia is actively involved in his region as part of its drive to regain status as a global power and to undermine U.S. influence. Some of that effort is providing military equipment, with no regard for “end use” or the human-rights records of the recipient, he said. Venezuela, controlled by an increasingly authoritarian regime, has been a major target of such Russian aid.
China’s involvement in Latin America is “primarily economic,” as part of its expansive “One Road, One Belt” program that seeks to supplant U.S. and European worldwide economic clout, he said.
Tidd said the region is seeing increased activity from Iran and groups such as ISIS, Hezbollah and other Islamic extremists. Some of their efforts are to radicalize the small Islamic population, but other activities are attempts to earn money by cooperating with the drug cartels, he said.
Tidd noted that his command is actively engaging U.S. defense firms to use his theater as a test bed for new technologies or processes. Congress has supported those activities with some funding. Because of the size of his command, “relatively small amounts of money can go a long way,” he said.