U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, commander of Southern Command, discussed the efforts of competitors to exploit the perception that the United States is disengaging from the Americas.
27 February 2018
U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has focused on building a “regional security network of principled, inclusive partnerships,” U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, SOUTHCOM commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 15, 2018.
The command works with partners throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to address shared challenges and build capabilities and capacity.
The challenges these nations feel often manifest themselves in the streets of the United States, Adm. Tidd told the panel. “Criminal and extremist networks continue to threaten regional stability and our national security,” Adm. Tidd said. “We know of specific cases of individuals who were involved in plots to attack our homeland or our partners. Fortunately, they were stopped, but this remains a significant, persistent concern.”
Great power competition
Great power competition has returned, and China and Russia are trying to gain influence in the Western Hemisphere by saying the United States is withdrawing from leadership in the world. “And as they succeed in their efforts, [there] comes an increased ability for them to interfere with our security relationships and to hold our interests at risk,” Adm. Tidd said.
“These challenges are less overt and sometimes more insidious than in other theaters,” he continued. “They are manageable with modest investment, sufficient attention and early engagement. For SOUTHCOM, that involves tools that strengthen relationships and build capacity.”
“Modest” is the key word here, he said, noting that the command is not asking for a large commitment of the American military. Adm. Tidd said he doesn’t want or need brigade combat teams or carrier battle groups.
“We're talking about small teams of general purpose and special operations forces to maintain critical training engagements,” he said. “We're talking about medium-endurance ships with embarked helicopters, and particularly those that are interoperable with our partners, and with enough awareness to buy down risk against problems early and stop threats at their source, before they become more costly.”
No one-size-fits-all solutions
SOUTHCOM covers a large area and has a diverse population. Solutions in the Caribbean don’t work in Brazil or Chile. Relationships must be tailored to each country and the whole of government approach works best, so Adm. Tidd engages military leaders in his area of operations. “My observations and my conversations genuinely reflect that they recognize and … are grounded in the same democratic principles that … were the founding characteristics of the Americas community,” he told the senators.
Appealing to common values and law is an important concept globally, and this serves to separate the United States from Russia and China as those nations attempt to gain leverage in the Western Hemisphere.
The Soviet Union had relationships in the West -- notably with Cuba and Venezuela -- and Russia is attempting to use those past ties to influence the governments today. “[The Russians] continue to engage in a direct competition for influence with some of our key partners around the region,” Adm. Tidd said. “Our challenge is to be able to disprove the false narrative that Russia peddles in the region that the United States is withdrawing, that we are not a reliable partner.”
Many of the actions SOUTHCOM engages in are intended to show partners that the United States shares common interests. “We certainly share common democratic values and principles, which neither Russia nor China share,” he said.
Democracy isn’t always neat and pretty, and there have been fits and starts in South and Central America, but there have been “a number of elections that have occurred throughout the region that led to changes in -- in government positions,” the admiral said. And the militaries of the countries -- which once would take power -- “in each instance have played a very reasoned, responsible role.”
Venezuela, however, swims against the democratic tide. Recent elections there were neither free nor fair, Adm. Tidd said, and the economic collapse that is happening in the country threatens prosperity in the region. Venezuelans are fleeing -- more than 500,000 to Colombia alone, placing an incredible burden on a nation just emerging from a decades-long civil war. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have also fled to Brazil and neighboring Guyana. The country has vast resources -- notably oil -- and if used correctly could be an economic success story, Adm. Tidd said.
The nature of SOUTHCOM embraces the whole-of-government approach. Adm. Tidd had high praise for the U. S. Coast Guard -- part of the Department of homeland Security -- in his testimony. “I've said before on a number of occasions, in the SOUTHCOM region, my maritime force has white hulls and orange stripes,” he said. “And, frankly, if it were not for the United States Coast Guard and the -- and the significant effort by the commandant, we would not have a maritime presence.” This is not because the Navy doesn’t think the area is important, but because “we run out of forces before we run out of mission,” Adm. Tidd said. “The Coast Guard cutters are irreplaceable,” he added.
The admiral asked the senators to fund replacements for medium-endurance cutters, many of which are past 30 years old. “The recapitalization of those medium-endurance cutters with the offshore patrol cutters, I view as extremely important to SOUTHCOM's ability to provide an adequate maritime presence in our region,” he said.