Inside The Pentagon
May 8, 2008
The Pentagon’s top officer has directed his staff to size up the national security implications of what many experts believe is a global food crisis, the latest development in a wider push by Defense Department planners to increasingly factor non-military dynamics with the potential to disrupt international order into contingency plans.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week directed the Joint Staff to examine whether the recent spike in the prices of food staples like wheat, corn, soy and rice, which some food aid experts warn could trigger unrest around the world, presents a challenge the Pentagon should consider, according to military sources.
“He’s asked the [Joint] Staff to take a good look at the scope of the global food crisis that appears to be looming and specifically take a look at what the national security implications may be for our national security and our national interests,” said a military official familiar with Mullen’s tasking.
Rising food costs are blamed for deadly riots in Haiti and Egypt in early April, which in part prompted United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to form the U.N. Task Force on the Global Food Crisis, set to meet for the first time next week.
“If not properly handled, this crisis could cascade into multiple crises affecting trade, development and even social and political security around the world. The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people are threatened,” the secretary general told reporters on May 5.
The Joint Staff has begun convening “frequent” meetings to examine the phenomena of food shortages, the result of rising commodity prices.
“It is not a study, it is not an investigation,” said the military official. Mullen “simply wants people from across the Joint Staff to get together on a fairly frequent basis and take a good, long, hard look at what we’re likely facing here.”
The military official stressed that Mullen’s tasking -- for now -- is considered “informal.”
“It should not be construed as presaging the movement of forces or the application of military power at all,” the official said. “It is more of a fact-finding process.”
Erik Peterson, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Strategy Institute, which focuses on identifying long-term challenges and strategic solutions, called Mullen’s initiative “far-sighted” and said that food is not the only critical resource the Pentagon should be thinking about.
“Across the board, military planners now need to be thinking about a whole range of complicated linkages that exist between critical resources,” Peterson told InsideDefense.com
. “And, if nothing else, the current instability in a number of theaters across the world relating to food is symptomatic of what I think will be a set of much more significant dislocations in the future.”
Closely associated to food are water and energy, he added.
In 1992, the Pentagon -- along with forces from other nations -- deployed forces to Somalia in a bid to impose order on political chaos and civil conflict that caused widespread death and starvation.
The humanitarian relief mission morphed into an operation with the more challenging goal of propping up -- and establishing -- the institutions of a functioning government, an objective that was not accomplished before the U.S. military withdrew in 1995, after the disastrous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.
Peterson said global competition for critical resources will give rise to challenges much more complex than those the United States faced in Somalia.
Disruptive events such as famine generated by a protracted drought, dislocations caused by floods or broader problems with agricultural production are among the scenarios that should be incorporated into the military’s longer-range analysis, Peterson said.
“As we look into the future, it is clear that with continued high population growth in areas of the world where the propensity for these types of dislocations will continue in the future, that military planners need to be thinking long and hard about a whole range of responses,” Peterson said.
For nearly two years, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has been advocating a new strategic construct that strives to better prepare for “shocks” to national security and international order that are caused by non-military factors, scrutinizing global “trends” across a wide range of disciplines from demographics to economics to developments in science and technology.
This new “trends and shocks” construct -- which aims to widen the aperture of threats considered in long-term military planning -- is being led by Thomas Mahnken, deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning in the Pentagon’s policy shop.
The goal is to assess the potential defense implications of consequential events -- shocks -- that could include major changes in global climate, a nuclear attack against a major western city, a new technology revolution or a financial market collapse that triggers a global depression.
Pentagon officials say the global food crisis is just the sort of challenge that the trends-and-shocks construct is designed to give Pentagon planners the flexibility to prepare for. -- Jason Sherman