While China remains the long-term pacing threat, and immediate concerns focus on Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe, the U.S. cannot afford to neglect its own back yard and allow its two near-peer adversaries to gain a foothold, the leaders of U.S. Northern and Southern Commands told Congress on March 8.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put Europe back in the security spotlight, and some observers have drawn parallels with China and a potential invasion of Taiwan. But as the Defense Department looks to center its strategy around the concept of “integrated deterrence”—working across domains, theaters, spectrums, and government agencies—it has to make progress in the Americas, NORTHCOM boss Gen. Glen D. VanHerck told the House Armed Services Committee.
“From a theater security cooperation perspective, I think there’ll still be work to be done,” VanHerck said. “A little goes a long way in the Western Hemisphere, and to compete as part of integrated deterrence, I think we can do more. China and Russia are both global problems. Instead of running to the South China Sea, or to the EUCOM [area of responsibility], we need to factor in that they’re here in the Western Hemisphere and ensure adequate funding for integrated deterrence.”
VanHerck and SOUTHCOM commander Army Gen. Laura J. Richardson said they haven’t seen the fiscal 2023 budget request that’s yet to be released by President Joe Biden’s administration. But they both seemed to indicate that they weren’t expecting massive increases in funding.
“I aspire that it will give us modest investments in the AOR,” Richardson said of the budget. “I think [we need] a comprehensive strategy in the SOUTHCOM region. As we look east and west quite a bit, we don’t look south so much. This is a very important AOR, and so I’m hopeful that we’ll get what we need. When we don’t, … we look for other ways of low-cost, high-yield investments.”
Meanwhile, both Russia and China are seeking to increase their influence in the region. Richardson highlighted China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s disinformation campaigns as particularly concerning.
The Belt and Road Initiative, whereby China has invested tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects globally, has already impacted U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command. Now, it’s coming for South and Central America, Richardson said.
“As we know, it starts with the infrastructure [and] economic projects and then furthers into exploitation. A lot of those are state-owned enterprises by China. … I think that the Chinese are using the same playbook that they did in Africa 10 to 15 years ago, and they’re using that in the SOUTHCOM AOR now,” Richardson said.
Specifically, the Chinese spent $72 billion in the region from 2017 to 2021, Richardson said, highlighting projects near the Panama Canal as particularly concerning. By comparison, SOUTHCOM received $250 million for infrastructure projects conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“This region is rich in resources, and the Chinese don’t go there to invest—they go there to extract,” Richardson said.
But it’s not just infrastructure that China has been leveraging to build its influence in SOUTHCOM.
“China doesn’t have partners, but they are using our playbook in our region. So, for example, with professional military education, they’re offering one-year, two-year, all-expenses-paid [trips] to Beijing for professional military education with individuals,” Richardson said. “But they don’t have exercises, and they don’t have partners. So I’ve got to be able to keep up the security cooperation and the exercises that we do in this region to show the strength of the partnerships.”
Meanwhile, Russia has leveraged its strengths in spreading misinformation to interfere in elections and to prop up authoritarian leaders, Richardson said. The approach is particularly dangerous, she added, because of the state of many democracies in the region—more than two dozen are “fragile,” she said.
“Fragile democracies [are] trying to make it, trying to deliver for their people. COVID has really rolled back the advances that some of these countries have made by 10 to even 20 years, due to the economic impacts of COVID, and depending on what area of the region,” Richardson said. “And so they’re trying to deliver for their people, and quite honestly these disinformation campaigns are very prevalent, and we work very closely with the partner nations to try to help them counter it and advise them.”
Risk to the Homeland
It’s not just China’s and Russia’s abilities to influence Latin America that should concern the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere, VanHerck said. With the rise of hypersonic missiles and modernized nuclear weapons, the U.S. homeland is under continuous threat, he warned, and that will only increase in the years to come.
“Russia will be a persistent, proximate threat to the homeland in the maritime domain within the next five years,” VanHerck said. “China is about a decade behind, but they will do the same thing. And so 24/7 in the near future, we’ll have both persistent, proximate threats from a submarine perspective, but also surface-level as well.”
In order to deal with that threat, the Pentagon must invest more in domain awareness and missile warning, VanHerck said. It’s an issue he has harped on before, and he added March 8 that the DOD should assign an office of primary responsibility to deal with cruise missile defense of the homeland.
When it comes to the 2023 budget, meanwhile, VanHerck said he is “confident that we’re going to move the ball, if you will, down the field on domain awareness, both in the air domain, space domain, and undersea domain.
“We do need to work more on NORAD modernization on the way forward, which would include infrastructure in the Arctic to get after that problem, which also allows me to position forces for the cruise missile problem … as well as having organized, trained, and ready forces to operate out throughout my AOR.”