DORAL, Fla. -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper launched a review of U.S. Southern Command on Thursday as part of the Pentagon's worldwide look at where it can reallocate forces, raising the possibility that the already small Florida-based command could see additional cuts.
The worldwide review of all combatant commands was directed by Esper to find areas from which forces can either return to the United States to retrain and improve readiness or shift to the Asia-Pacific region or other commands to focus on longer-term threats posed by China and Russia.
"There's only a finite number of dollars, a finite number of troops, and so I've got to figure out, where is the best place to put them?" Esper said.
The potential for more cuts comes just as U.S. Southern Command is seeing a worrisome increase in Chinese and Russian investment, weapons sales and and influence in the command's area of responsibility, Southern Command officials said on the condition they not be identified. Southern Command covers 31 countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
In a briefing to reporters traveling with Esper to Southern Command, the officials provided several examples of how China and Russia have increased their ability to influence policy in South America.
For example, China has sold more than $615 million in weapons over the last 10 years to Venezuela, increasing its influence there.
For months, a Russian ship specialized in tracking and interfering with undersea cables has loitered off the coast of Uruguay and is currently en route to Antarctica, as "part of the highest (Russian) naval activity here in 15 years," another Southern Command official said.
The command has already seen seven previous cuts to its staffing levels, making it more difficult to keep pace with China and Russia's outreach, one official said.
"Ten years ago, if you came here, we had a Colombia division. A division of analysts working Colombia," another Southern Command official said. "Right now we have two analysts working Colombia."
"We are assuming risk in a number of areas in order to meet the present challenge," the official said.