Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command
June 6, 2018, Association of the U.S. Army ILW Rogers Forum
Good evening, and thank you for that warm welcome. General Ham, thank you very much for the invitation to join you all tonight. Addressing this outstanding organization is an honor at any time, but today, on the seventy-fourth anniversary of the Normandy landings, it just seems to have a bit more significance. I've always been in awe of what our predecessors accomplished on those beaches, on the sea, and in the air that day. So let me begin by acknowledging those who sacrificed so much for us on that day in France so long ago. And let me also express my appreciation for all you do today to support our soldiers and army families whose service and sacrifice help to defend our nation and our way of life.
I'm told we have about an hour set aside this evening. I'd prefer to spend my time talking with you, rather than at you. So my plan is to open with about 20 minutes of framing thoughts, and then open up the floor for the "Q&A" period.
While my remarks will mostly focus on how we see the strategic environment at U.S. Southern Command, please feel free to open the aperture during the Q&A period.
This evening, I want to offer our perspective on how today's complex global security challenges are playing out in the Americas. Often Latin America and the Caribbean receive less of the nation's strategic consideration, but I want to tell you all tonight that this region - the one closest to the United States - is heating up and merits greater focus.
As our new national defense strategy recognizes, we are facing increased global disorder, characterized by a decline in the rules-based international order and a return to strategic competition on a grand scale. This is creating a global security environment that is more complex, and more volatile, than any we've experienced in recent memory.
I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here, and say that Latin America and the Caribbean is the "next frontier" of some of the toughest, most complex, and most dynamic security challenges that exist today. I firmly believe that what we at Southern Command are learning, and the way we are adapting, applies broadly across the Defense spectrum; not just in our theater.
These challenges aren't traditional "military" threats. But neither are they solely "informational" or "diplomatic" issues, either. They're something else, something that falls into a gray area; an area that's not very well defined, with rules we're still figuring out.
But what's happening in this gray zone has significant implications for regional and international stability, democratic governance, and what's going to be demanded of all of us, as leaders, to address them.
In Latin America, challenges to the rules-based international system come from both non-state and state actors alike.
Their motivations are different, but many of their means are the same and so are the detrimental effects of their activities.
Both are expanding coercion to new fronts, and violating principles of sovereignty in new ways.
Both are exploiting ambiguity and seams in our national security frameworks. And both are deliberately blurring the lines between crime and war, development and security, conflict and competition.
And while these actors don't necessarily work together, both benefit indirectly from one another's actions. They create operational space for each other to exist and thrive. They have a symbiotic, if unintentional, relationship.
But the real challenge posed by these actors lies not in the products they are moving, or the influence they seek to gain. The real challenge lies in the inter-related effects they are having on the broader security environment.
We should all care about these effects. They matter, because they corrode our partners from within, undermining their sovereignty and making them more susceptible to a range of other threats. In some cases, they reduce Latin America's potential to contribute to regional and international security. In others, they reduce the competitive space we have to advance our interests.
Let's start with the effects generated by non-state actors: what we call 'threat networks.'
We've started using this term to encompass a whole range of 'bad actors'-terrorist supporters and sympathizers, drug traffickers, arms dealers, human smugglers, money launderers, and even illicit goods peddlers.
These groups are borderless; they operate with fluidity and impunity, across all domains, in their attempts to evade and confound law enforcement.
They work in the margins, intimidating or buying off the support of civilian populations, coercing, corrupting, and controlling politicians, making alliances with security forces, or using institutions to camouflage their objectives.
In many cases, they co-opt local governments by offering the population employment, social services, and protection. And thanks to enormous profit margins, they possess capabilities that far outmatch local law enforcement.
Military-grade weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, armored vehicles, the latest in GPS technology to track their illegal shipments, sophisticated smuggling tunnels, semi-submersible submarines ... you name it, and these guys likely have it and use it -- not just to move illicit products, but to attack, intimidate, and kill. Latin American governments may be at peace with each other, but thanks in part to these groups, it's the most violent region on the planet.
Since the year 2000, the region has experienced more than 2.5 million homicides.
Every 15 minutes, a young Latin American is murdered. At least 1/3 of all Central and South Americans know someone who's been shot dead in the past 12 months.
These stats are chilling, but all the more so for the deeper issues they reveal.
As they pursue those incredible illicit profits, what these threat networks are really engaged in is an assault on the rule of law, and everything it stands for.
Take a look at some of the images behind me [slide]. These are not scenes from Syria or Iraq. What you are looking at are recent examples of what partners like Colombia, Brazil, and El Salvador are up against in this region.
Retaliatory car bombs detonating outside police headquarters.
Turf battles that turn into city-wide shootouts between criminal groups vying for control of the cocaine trade. Insecurity so rampant the military has to be brought in to try and regain control.
And let me be clear: this is not a "Latin American" problem. I'm not singling any of our partners out.
I could just as easily put up a picture of Chicago, or Los Angeles. We're dealing with this challenge, too, on a different scale, in some of our largest cities.
MS-13 and Barrio-18 were born in Los Angeles, after all. Affiliates of Mexican cartels run distribution hubs from Chicago, Miami, and Baltimore ... and criminal networks fight fierce turf battles here, too.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter which country this is taking place in, because the truth is, in some form or another, it's taking place in every country.
All over the world, we're seeing elements of a broader system of violence, alternative order, and criminality.
As I mentioned, this system exists in parallel with, and occasionally overlaps, the legitimate, Westphalian based one. It ignores borders and established governmental mechanisms. It exploits its existence and its gaps, while also reaping the benefits of a globalized, integrated world.
Its purpose typically isn't to overturn or replace legitimate governments.
Instead, it corrodes governments from within ... weakening them just enough to carve out areas of impunity in which it is easy for them to do business.
The cumulative effects of their activities eat away at core democratic values like the rule of law which erodes citizens' faith in democracy, especially in countries with the highest levels of criminal violence.
Widespread corruption and insecurity in turn drain precious financial resources away from the state, making it harder to address more entrenched development challenges and achieve lasting economic prosperity ...providing fertile ground, not just for threat networks to proliferate, but also an opening for state actors like Russia and China to exploit. Which they do -- across the globe, and, increasingly, right here in our hemisphere.
When people hear the words 'increased competition by Russia and China,' they immediately think about what's going on in Europe and Asia. That's understandable. But, these are global actors, with global ambitions, and those ambitions include Latin America and the Caribbean. The region is key terrain in Russia and China's global campaigns.
Wherever they operate, Russia and China are attempting to extend their influence and undermine the rules-based system from within, exploiting its benefits while undercutting its principles. Latin America -- the region closest to the United States, in geography and cultural history -- is on the frontline of these efforts.
Russia's increased role in the Western Hemisphere is alarming, given its intelligence and cyber capabilities, proven interference in multiple elections, and global intent to upend the international order, disrupt regional politics, and discredit democratic institutions.
Russia also continues to sell arms and provide financial lifelines to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.
Russian propaganda platforms have significant presence in this hemisphere; they sow discontent and chip away at the region's confidence in the United States.
As for China, their economic engagement offers the appearance of an attractive path to development.
But this engagement comes at a price.
The Chinese model extracts natural resources to feed its own economy, often with little regard for environmental laws, fair trade practices, or human rights. China's efforts provide almost nothing long-term for the countries in which it makes these seemingly 'too good to be true" deals.
China is using economic statecraft -- and more unscrupulous means like bribes -- to pull Latin America into its orbit, as part of their intent to reshape the international system in its favor and whittle away at the United States' influence in the region.
That has significant strategic implications, because the international system is founded on principles like rule of law, the protection of human rights, and the right to free and fair elections.
That international system is comprised of nations who value equal partnerships, and who cooperate freely with one another, without coercion.
Russia and China, in particular, have a decidedly mixed track record when it comes to respecting those principles.
Like threat networks, neither are directly or overtly threatening to destroy the rules-based system. They're engaged in something more complicated ...more opaque...something in that gray zone I talked about earlier. It’s hard to see and even harder to define. They're undermining the system from within, exploiting its benefits while undercutting its principles.
Today, more than ever, future conflicts will be a complex struggle in that gray zone - and that struggle may not even come to what we recognize as war, or may not resemble it in the way we expect, based on our careful study of history and military theory.
And it doesn't matter if it's taking place in the violent slums of urban cities, in the voting chambers of international bodies, or even in the cybersphere; make no mistake: this is a struggle for the future of the world as we know it, the system that sustains it, and the principles that uphold it.
So what does this mean for all of us?
Well, for one thing, it means we all have to become far more adept operating in that 'gray zone,' and in understanding and recognizing how security threats may disguise themselves in forms we don't expect, or manifest themselves (often deliberately) in ways that don't seem malign...at least on the surface.
The U.S. faces state and non-state competitors who employ a wide range of political, informational, military, and economic measures to influence, coerce, intimidate, and undermine U.S. interests or those of friends and allies. This extends, rather than replaces, traditional conflict. Some call it hybrid warfare, but I would argue that it’s just the latest evolution of warfare.
I think this is important for us to understand for two very specific reasons.
First is the way we need to think about future fights. After almost two decades fighting terrorists and insurgents in other countries, the U.S. is beginning to focus again on the very real potential of high end state on-state conflict. I believe this is supremely important, but everyone should remember the gray zone tools and approaches will exist before, during, and after a major war. It doesn't exist solely outside of ''the big fighting battles." and if you think this gray zone stuff is hard, wait until it's combined with a multi-domain conventional fight. This will be complexity at a scale we have not imagined. It will be a global, multi-domain, multifunctional fight that is not the traditional military-on military war we prepare for in our wargames and imagine in our OPLANS.
The second is the way we think about ourselves; the way we prepare to do our jobs. The U.S. has always been about technology -- in short, engineering over humanities.
As a French/political science major I’ve always had a bit of a bone to pick with that mindset. Don't get me wrong -- effective warfighters must understand technology and more importantly how to integrate it into our warfighting forces.
But that isn't sufficient; we must be far more ... while technology is important, it is not the panacea. The age old maxim from Sun Tzu still holds true ... we must know our adversaries as we know ourselves. The concept of "understanding the other"... our understanding of what matters to people and nations may be what matters most.
To succeed in the gray zone and in future warfare, we must all have at least a basic grounding in history, culture, economics, and the human and cognitive domains. Understanding (and leveraging) these areas matters as much as technological superiority - - as we've seen over the past two decades of war.
All of this means we have to think bigger than ourselves. The security challenges we face in today's complex world can't be solved alone. They require joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational cooperation.
Integrating service cultures and competencies, fostering trust and mutual confidence across the intelligence community, law enforcement, the diplomatic community, and with NGOs, and operating together as one ensures we can meet the demands of the 21st Century.
This means we have to do a better job connecting the dots in combined efforts, to build something that better reflects the interconnected world we live in-and the interconnected challenges we face.
It’s a choice between the past, and the future...between approaches that were built for a different era, for fundamentally different problem sets, or embracing something new, to protect something enduring.
We can stay in the past, or we can change. Adapt. And build connections, across services, agencies, and borders. I hope we choose well.