For the second time this year, naval forces have been involved in major operations that have little to do with combat at sea. Instead, Sailors and Marines operating from dozens of warships have responded to natural disasters.
Earlier this year in Haiti, traditional warships delivered food, water, and medical supplies. On amphibious ships, the large flight decks designed to move Marines ashore via helicopters proved to be temporary airports for search and rescue teams; medical facilities designed to treat wounded infantry became floating clinics for sick and injured civilians. The use of naval ships as airports, hospitals, or as refugee camps must be temporary, but in a crisis, temporary relief is what is necessary.
Similar uses of militaries are occurring in response to flooding in Pakistan and wildfires in Russia today. NATO is planning and executing responses to alleviate human suffering created by natural disasters, which are certainly non-traditional.
But militaries around the world are being called to serve their people and others in distress. Increasingly, militaries are including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as a core concept in how they train, equip, and organize. Militaries have reluctantly embraced these new roles because their governments expect them to provide responses to humanitarian crises, support new partners, and reduce underlying conditions that give rise to instability.
At the same time that military aircrews rescue stranded people or military engineers erect temporary housing, critics worry that development is being militarized. But, they miss the larger point that military equipment like helicopters, medical facilities, and logistic hubs are necessary for providing humanitarian assistance during a crisis. Additionally, NGOs increasingly partner with militaries in North America and Europe because militaries have the capacity to reach populations in need where NGOs can deliver their services.
Given the real stress on militaries created by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, these non-traditional operations are not needed to prove relevance for militaries in a difficult fiscal period. Instead, the inclusion of humanitarian assistance in military doctrine are driven by countries’ national strategies that increasingly link human security and national security. As I wrote in Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the U.S. Military, militaries are being directed to be involved in humanitarian operations.
Far from preparation for major war, humanitarian activities rely on a unique blend of charitable political culture, latent civil-military capacity, and ambitious military officers who see the strategic landscape characterized by challenges to human security, weak states, and transnational actors. Further, changes are informed by international partners that conceive of their militaries as forces for good and not simply combat forces. The United States has been slow to catch up to European governments that see the decline of coercive power and the importance of soft power today.
This change is not only about the state of relations among governments today, but also the priority of human security. Security concerns over the last twenty years have been shifting away from state-focused traditional challenges to human-centered security issues such as disease, poverty, and crime. This is reflected in the diversity of ways by which NATO countries protect their national security. While there are remnants of Cold War conflicts on the Korean Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf region, these are largely the exception. Instead, sub-national and transnational challenges increasingly occupy national security professionals.
Within the United States, the government has embarked on a program to illustrate that its military superpower capabilities can be used for good. The same capability that can accurately drop a bomb on an adversary’s barracks has been used to deliver food aid in the mountains of Afghanistan. The same capability used to disembark Marines from Navy ships to a foreign shore have been used to host NGOs providing fisheries conservation in West Africa. And the same capability to track an enemy’s submarines can detect changes in the migration of fish stocks in response to climate change. To be sure, swords haven’t been beaten into plowshares, but military capabilities once used for confrontation are now used for cooperation.
Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a Professor of National Security Affairs and the EMC Informationist Chair at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressedare his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. Photo credit: Reuters.