Given that there is never a shortage of immediate crises monopolizing their time and energy, it is easy for policymakers to give less attention to the threats looming just beyond the horizon. Perhaps as an effort to overcome this tendency, the SAIS program at Johns Hopkins University had the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen discuss his “Perspectives on the Global Security Environment” for their Rostov Lecture on International Affairs. So I traveled to SAIS on March 31, 2011 to hear the president’s top military advisor discuss the global security environment.
In what was admittedly a wide ranging speech, it was interesting to see Chairman Mullen give so much attention to natural security issues. In fact, after reiterating his view that the national debt posed the greatest security threat to the nation, the next three issues the chairman addressed were ones that we at the natural security program cover. Specifically, Chairman Mullen discussed how demographic trends, energy security and climate change could affect the future security environment, and, just as important, how those challenges could affect the military’s ability to operate.
Noting that SAIS had named the 2010-2011 academic year “the year of demography,” Chairman Mullen first touched on how the nation’s graying population constrains the armed forces. In fact, the chairman confessed, “I’ll be receiving my Medicare card later this year…. [So] this demographic effect hits home for me in a very personal way.” It also hits home for the U.S. military, with personnel expenditures consuming nearly 70 percent of its budget to include “keeping pace with the burgeoning medical cost our retirees are encountering.” While this problem was “somewhat obscured for us in a decade that saw steadily rising defense budgets,” Chairman Mullen stated bluntly, “Those days are over.” This problem is not unique to the United States, however, as “many of our European friends are already seeing” its impact and “China, and most especially Russia… will not be immune either.”
Chairman Mullen turned next to energy security, telling the audience that “long before this most recent round of turmoil in the Middle East, it became clear to me that energy security presents an enduring challenge for our military and our nation.” A day after President Obama gave his own speech on energy security at another university across town, Chairman Mullen said there was a “growing need to rethink our views on energy,” especially our dependence on petroleum that often comes from “regimes that do not always share our interests.”
“In my profession,” the chairman continued, this problem manifests itself in more than “just a heftier bill at the gas pump.” Indeed, the chairman noted, the military often pays for its dependence of fossil fuels both in blood and treasure, as “past headlines of fuel convoys [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] being attacked” can attest to. On a brighter note, however, Chairman Mullen discussed a number of initiatives the U.S. military is currently adopting to improve its energy security. These include the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” and Marines using solar panel to fuel forward operating bases.
In addition to mitigating the fully burdened cost of fuel, Chairman Mullen noted that these efforts “may even help stem the inherent security issues related to climate change.” What I found particular interesting was that Chairman Mullen said that “regardless of the root cause” of climate change, its “potential impacts are sobering and far-reaching.” To me, Chairman Mullen’s note about the root cause being somewhat besides the point seemed prudent and avoided the thorny barbs of a still politicized debate on climate change. His attention to climate change is no doubt rooted in his understanding of the challenges associated with a changing global climate, including the challenges stemming from “scarcity of water, food and space,” as well as the prospect of more “failed states instability and potentially radicalization” as climate change impacts civil societies worldwide.
It is perhaps for these reasons that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff considers natural security as a crucial element in the security environment facing the U.S. military. With a number of changes in the defense establishment’s leadership likely to occur in the coming months, including Chairman Mullen’s own expected retirement by the end of this year, we’ll do our best to keep you informed on how top defense officials view natural security issues.