U.S. relies heavily on allies in Latin America, admiral says at Duke

Security-wise, the biggest challenge the U.S. faces in Central and South America, and in the Caribbean, lies in keeping an eye on the smuggling networks that operate there and have connections to other parts of the word, the U.S. Navy admiral in charge of the region says.

To track them, the country likely would need to add to its reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering abilities in the region, as “maintaining situational awareness is very challenging” with the ones it has there now, Adm. Kurt Tidd said in a talk at Duke University this week.

The good news is that the U.S. has capable allies in Latin America and good relations with them, he said.

“It’s incumbent on us to find ways to partner,” Tidd said during his appearance Monday at the Sanford School of Public Policy. “Because, ultimately, the security challenges we face, no single country, not least of which the United States, has the capacity to deal with the security challenges exclusively on our own. We have to work together as a team.”

Tidd was the latest in the series of current or recent national-security figures the Sanford School and other units at Duke have brought to campus as part of the university’s “American Grand Strategy” program on foreign relations and military affairs.

The admiral, the current head of the Pentagon’s Southern Command, shared the stage with his one-time boss, retired Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. Joining them as moderator was Duke professor Peter Feaver, who worked with Tidd on the White House National Security Council staff of former President George W. Bush.

The timing of the event was fraught, coming as it did in the early days of a new federal administration whose head, President Donald Trump, advocates a tougher line on immigration and trade. Duke’s advance publicity for it had said Tidd would “speak to” those initiatives “and how they intersect with” the U.S. security challenges in Latin America.

But Feaver’s questioning steered the conversation away from them, likely because they’d be sensitive ground for anyone working for Trump. Nor did audience members press them when Feaver opened the floor for questions.

The concern over smuggling comes because the region has what Tidd called “transnational threat networks” with broad geographic reach. Some are concerned mainly with profiting from crime; ideology motivates others. The worry is to those of the criminal bent, money talks.

Either way, “they are occupying that same gray space,” but the bottom line is that there are “people engaged in illicit activities who have said clearly, ‘For the right amount of money, I’ll move anything, or anyone,’” Tidd said. “That gives us pause.”

Beyond reconnaissance needs, Tidd said his headquarters has to deal with the fact that most of the Navy’s combat ships are needed elsewhere. It leans heavily on U.S. Coast Guard patrols in the Caribbean, and could find a use for things like the Navy’s “littoral combat ships,” a much-criticized program whose fate is being debated in Washington.

For the watchdog work needed in the area, “we don’t need billion-dollar Aegis cruisers,” said Tidd, who captained a destroyer earlier in his career. “If I can put a helicopter on it and I can put a Coast Guard boarding team on it, I’ve got the opportunity to go out and conduct the interdiction. And it’s just [that] we don’t have enough of those platforms.”

Dempsey, now a Duke research fellow, added that he thinks the U.S. and its allies likely “would be safer” if they had “not U.S.-only” standing naval task forces operating in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, and in the Caribbean.

The retired Joint chiefs chairman also noted Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget tickets the Coast Guard for a significant cut. Media accounts indicate that it could lose about $1.3 billion if Congress went along.

The Coast Guard is “indispensable wherever they are,” and particularly in the Southern Command, Dempsey said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg