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Machetes vs. Cruise Missiles: Army Weighs Which Matters Most

I was recently sitting in one of the innumerable conferences on “future strategy” that gather members of Washington, DC’s defense community, when Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who heads Joint Forces Command, asked the crowd what they thought was the most lethal weapon wielded in the past quarter century.

Participants offered variations on the technology enhanced terrorist or suicide bomber. Actually, Mattis said, the machete has been used to kill more people in recent decades than any other weapon, including hundreds of thousands in Rwanda and Congo.

That sobering fact is why it’s so vitally important that the Army is funding the efforts of people like Maj. Shannon Beebe, the senior Africa analyst in the service’s intelligence shop. Beebe is one of those people who up-ends your existing view of the way the world works and compels you to reassess, then go one better, and proposes a different set of glasses. Perhaps that’s why such people are often called “thought leaders.” He is fleshing out the emerging concept of “human security” and its application to 21st century security approaches, particularly relevant in Africa, where the US military is sharpening its focus.

Beebe, who recently returned from eastern Congo and soon departs to be the military liaison to Angola, contends that state-based models of security and conflict need replacing. While analysts and political scientists have long debated the post-Cold War decline of the state system, Martin van Creveld’s work immediately comes to mind, Beebe proposes a “pre-conflict” security concept that examines security conditions at the level of the individual. The idea is to head off crises before they escalate. “The strength of human security works much better before things break than after they break,” he says.

Conditions-based human security weights more heavily Maslow hierarchy issues such as food, health, environment, personal security, economic and political security. Beebe says that approaching security in a broader, non-kinetic way is the only way it will work in Africa where local governments and NGOs are wary of the over-militarization of the humanitarian space.

Beebe said measuring human security can be difficult for those trained to measure security by counting up tanks and planes; measuring human security may seem too “soft” by comparison. It requires a real shift in mindset, he admits, to measure alternative metrics of success such as the enrollment of female children in school, the number of microfinance loans going into a town or the number of inoculated children in a country. Beebe admits those metrics sound “really soft,” but in Africa the challenge is heading off “creeping vulnerabilities” that can later explode into full blown conflicts. Environmental concerns may appear soft, but floods and drought create environmental refugees which create population shifts which create stability concerns.

The military is often reluctant to get involved in such endeavors, particularly after the stumbles that have accompanied nation building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Its probably better to be the world’s policeman, being out there on the beat, seeing what’s going on, seeing what’s going on in your neighborhood, rather than being the world’s fireman sitting back in the fire station polishing the fire trucks waiting for the fire to break out,” Beebe says.

Beebe says a big challenge will be getting NGOs to shift their mindset. “It bothers them that we have CJTF-HOA digging wells in East Africa. Why is that? Because they think that they’re collecting intelligence.” The military must lean heavily on the Army Corps of Engineers and Civil Affairs teams whose presence is more palatable to African leaders and NGOs. Green Beret advisers will play a key role as well, as African militaries must be trained in health care and infrastructure development so the local population views them as a value added.

Inter-agency cooperation remains a challenge, Beebe says. Human security falls into the “seams” that exist between different government agencies, making it difficult to sort out who should be in charge and who ultimately foots the bill. The real value added the U.S. military can provide in Africa, Beebe says, is the logistical support, such as airlift, that NGOs and UN peacekeeping forces often lack. AFRICOM could operate as the “quiet command,” he says, supporting NGOs such as Oxfam or Project Hope that have the on the ground expertise.

Bureaucracies won’t change overnight, Beebe readily admits, but embracing more relevant concepts that examine security at the individual level is an important first step.

Update: Beebe was promoted to LTC Beebe on Oct. 31. Congratulations!

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