April 05, 2011

Events from Around Town: The Chairman’s Perspective on Natural Security

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
, 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
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
” 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
as well as the prospect of more “failed states instability and
potentially radicalization
” as climate change impacts civil societies

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.