Yes, SOUTHCOM isn't likely to get Navy ships any time soon as the Navy pivots to the Pacific while forced to deal with Iran and cope with a newly aggressive and hostile (well, a new level of aggression and hostility, anyway) Russia.
But SOUTHCOM still needs ships:
U.S. Southern Command wants to be a hub for innovation, both in serving as an early tester for new technologies and ideas that can be brought into theater and also in seeking creative ways to get more ships into theater to train with regional partners.
SOUTHCOM Commander Adm. Kurt Tidd said today at an event co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute that his theater has changed drastically from the days when leadership focused primarily on interrupting the narcotics trade and could do so primarily with frigates and maritime patrol aircraft. Instead, the threat set has grown increasingly complex – networks are engaged in moving illicit goods, trafficking both criminals and refugees, laundering money and more – and ships and planes at SOUTHCOM’s disposal are all but gone, due to both the retirement of the frigate fleet and more urgent needs for ships in the Pacific and Middle East.
Tidd said he doesn’t need a carrier strike group to counter this more complex threat – and he noted that he wouldn’t get one if he asked for a CSG – but he does need ships to go on presence missions, to train with regional partners and to help search for sophisticated semi- and fully submersible vehicles now used to move people and drugs into the United States.
Sure, perhaps he could leverage a loan of ships transiting to other commands for brief visits as our 6th Fleet gets in the Mediterranean Sea with ships transiting the area between our east coast and CENTCOM. But that won't be any kind of persistent presence for engaging with regional partners.
I suggest using leased container ships equipped with shipping container-housed systems to turn the ships into auxiliary cruisers, which are civilian ships equipped to supplement fleets (usually during wartime) and which have a long tradition in naval warfare.
I thought that Africa Command--AFRICOM--could exploit this opportunity given their low priority for naval assets, and focused on them in the article "The AFRICOM Queen" that Military Review published earlier this year, which was a play on the Humphrey Bogart movie The African Queen.
But SOUTHCOM is even lower on the priority list than AFRICOM. Indeed, in the article I quoted a prior commander of SOUTHCOM who said that his naval needs were basic. Said Marine General Kelly, “So as I said, I don’t need a warship. I need a ship, something that floats, with a helicopter.”
I thought that was a great argument for my suggestion. He didn't need something fancy. He needed something.
A modularized auxiliary cruiser for SOUTHCOM could be equipped with missiles, guns, boarding parties, air and sea drones, and helicopters, using standard shipping containers mounted on the deck as the building blocks of mission packages, which would vary depending on the missions envisioned for the cruise.
The modularized auxiliary cruiser could be equipped with medical and classroom containerized mission modules to host regional partners for training on the vessel--or to provide medical help instead of sending a hospital ship.
And as I noted in the article, mission packages consisting of different containerized mission modules could be unloaded to perform a mission in one location while the modularized auxiliary cruiser continues on to other locations for other missions with different partners.
I wrote about the concept for Africa Command because I'm more familiar with the security issues of that region rather than South America, because there are more landpower missions in AFRICOM, and because of the opportunity to use the title, truth be told.
But SOUTHCOM could easily be the pioneering command for the use of modularized auxiliary cruisers if Admiral Tidd wants his command to be a hub of innovation.
NOTE: Speaking of SOUTHCOM as having South America as its region was just shorthand--its area of responsibility goes north of that, too.