United States Southern Command has generations of interagency experience that other combatant commands can learn from, Army Gen. Laura Richardson, the U.S. Southcom commander, said.
The combatant command has responsibility for U.S. defense strategy in Central and South America and the Caribbean. This includes 31 nations as well as 12 dependencies and areas of special sovereignty.
For the Defense Department, Southcom is an economy of force mission. This mission is based on the principle of employing combat power in the most effective way possible and allocating smaller forces and resources to secondary efforts.
Southcom doesn't have the forces or resources that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command or U.S. European Command have; however, that doesn't mean Southcom doesn't have important missions. Richardson and the command will "increase cooperation and information sharing with allies and partners to understand and counter threats from transnational criminal organizations, violent extremist organizations, and malign regional and external state actors," according to the command's website.
The website also states Southcom will "campaign across all domains and engage transboundary challenges."
There are critical sea and air lines through the region, with the most obvious being the Panama Canal.
Southcom also works to build military capabilities among allies and partners in the region.
Those efforts have a lot to do with limited forces. The command aims to counter China's influence-buying spree in the region and works with nations in the region to combat transnational criminal organizations that traffic everything from drugs to humans to weapons and more.
The command exemplifies one important aspect of the National Defense Strategy: the importance of allies and partners to U.S. defense and urges an "all of government" response.
Southcom does that.
"It really requires us to work together," Richardson said during a recent interview.
Southcom service members work alongside State Department experts, Drug Enforcement Agency planners, Coast Guardsmen, specialists in fighting corruption, FBI agents and more.
Richardson has cast a wide net. "It's the interagency, allies and partners," she said. "It's [non-government organizations]; it's academia; and it is industry."
The general has brought in groups like Business Executives for National Security that can examine a situation in a country and advise on the problems and fixes to those problems from a private industry side, she said. "These people look at the situation in these countries through the lens of U.S. investment," she said. "What is keeping U.S. investors from competing on projects in the country? And why is the PRC [the People's Republic of China] the only one that bids on certain things?"
It's an effort to attract more investment to democratic nations that need it for their long-term health of the country. "I think that's a big piece that we're missing right now," she said.
She used the example of Guyana as a country that could use the help. It's the second smallest country by population in South America and borders Venezuela and Brazil. More than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Yet, the discovery of light sweet crude oil in 2015 has made Guyana the fastest growing economy in the world. The nation could be among the richest in the world by the next decade. "They're very vulnerable, in my opinion right now," Richardson said. "Nations [must] help them positively or malign state actors … come in there. This is a window of opportunity. How are we going to help them?"
The military aspect of this help may be minimal, but it supports priorities vital to the long-term success of developing democratic nations, such as transparency, critical infrastructure, the rule of law, institutional capacity building and the professional development of defense and security forces. All of this informs how Richardson and the command work with partners, including Guyana or other nations.
"We try to work a lot of things in Southcom — not just equipment and not just training because security cooperation is really my main lever — the professional military education, the professionalization of their force.
One instance of this is the work of Army Command Sgt. Maj. Benjamin Jones, Southcom's senior enlisted leader, who implemented the senior enlisted leader development program.
Richardson herself always speaks to host nations about the Women, Peace and Security Program. "It includes all their services, and then it includes their [chiefs of defense] and sometimes ministers of defense, as well," she said.
Right now, there is "a call to action between democracy and autocracy," she said. "I think that we have a period of time and window that's really important for us to make an impact at the speed of relevance and not at the speed of bureaucracy."
Many of the South American leaders are term limited and many of the projects they envision take time, she said, referring to the time usually required for effective policies to yield results. "In some cases, they're trying to deliver right now for their people," she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this situation. "The impact of COVID is out of proportion in its effect," she said, adding the Southcom partners are 11 percent of the world's population, and they suffered 33 percent of the world's COVID deaths. More than 100 million people were put into poverty as a result, their economies are struggling and the people are getting upset and impatient. They want someone to come in and fix things, Richardson observed.
Climate change is another overarching threat. In South America, there is a 1,000-mile-long area suffering from a prolonged drought. It's causing food insecurity and stimulating migration, she said. "We work really hard with the military and the security forces to try to make them stronger to be able to handle their challenges," she said.
Trust in the military and security forces is important in the region, and the command constantly works with forces to improve their professionalism. "We just had our 25th anniversary of the Human Rights Initiative that we started in Southcom," she said. "We held it last week and had all the partner nations represented."
The initiative is nonbinding, but the nations believe in it and aspire to meet its goals, she said.
At the anniversary meeting, Belize became the latest nation to sign up, and all the participating countries had good discussions on where they would like to see the initiative move in the future. Nongovernmental organizations also attended and were able to freely give their assessment and suggestions.
When China goes to the continent, its leaders open the checkbook. "It all starts with the [Chinese] Belt and Road Initiative," Richardson said. "Twenty-one of 31 countries have signed on …, and 25 actually have projects. Colombia is not a signatory, for example, but the PRC [Peoples Republic of China] is building their Metro — a $3.4 billion project. I try to use OPM — other people's money — to compete."
Richardson wants the countries to join the "integrated deterrence" effort. She uses innovative means to promote the collaborative approach to security with her partners. "How do you join integrated deterrence? How do you join Team Democracy? That's really how I look at integrated deterrence," she said. "We've been doing integrated deterrence in Southcom since way before I got here because we don't have the resources."
The need for additional resources Richardson referred to forces commanders to look elsewhere, and she is selling Southcom as an innovation testbed. She is offering the command as a place where DOD agencies can test their programs and projects.
She praised the National Guard's State Partnership Program, saying the state partnerships have been invaluable in getting resources and training to Southcom's partner nations.
Finally, the Army Corps of Engineers is also a resource she uses in the theater.
The command stretches the money it receives a long way. Southcom also leverages the expertise, experience, capabilities and resources of its interagency partners. Richardson thinks her command's adaptive and creative approach could be a model for other combatant commands.