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Commentary | 5 November 2014

Full-spectrum commitment: Western militaries in the fight against Ebola

Image of Andrew Mackay

Andrew Mackay |Former Commander of the 2nd Division of the British Army

Ebola Global Security

The military deployments by Western forces to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea come at a critical juncture in the battle against Ebola and, more critically, efforts to prevent future outbreaks. Whilst the deployments are late in arriving, patchy and their impact too early to judge, they are at least on the way. A more muscular and reliable infrastructure – backed up by a workable logistics and supply chain – will be one positive outcome. Confining the Western military’s capacity and capability to logistics and medical expertise will result in a short-term limited impact. However, utilising military organisational, communication and intelligence capabilities could have a much bigger effect. Military headquarters operating at full capacity and running multiple planning cycles can also analyse and crunch a lot of data. This latter capacity is going to be needed if the near hysterical media reaction to Ebola – and by extension its impact on political policy-making in faraway cities – is going to abate. We have in part a global media event underway, rather than a regional medical event.

Much commentary will no doubt emerge over the coming weeks and months about military forces deploying to West Africa just as we are exiting one theatre – Afghanistan – and dipping a reluctant toe into another – Iraq. In many ways this is irrelevant, but one aspect does shine through: the two lead nations deploying sizeable military capability are once again the US and the UK. Individual command-and-control structures are being patched together that will be fairly messy when viewed as a wiring diagram, but which will work on the ground. Close liaison between the military and organisations such as DfID and USAID will iron out the civil military frictions that all too easily emerge. Indeed, many people within the military and these development agencies have recent experience of forming effective relationships with each other.

Introducing organisational rigour – with reasonably clear lines of authority and responsibility – is also an area where the military can have a considerable impact. Trying to organise the plethora of UN agencies, other NGOs and numerous charities is not a job for the faint-hearted. Nonetheless, it is absolutely necessary for what lies ahead, especially when mass vaccination programmes targeting dispersed populations become possible. Equally, a clear civil lead is necessary and it needs to be one that can coordinate across borders and reach into a range of military headquarters to understand emerging intelligence. Similarly, the civil lead should be able to respond coherently to crises and events that fall into the ‘known-unknown’ category. This then ensures that events that fall into ‘unknown-unknown’ territory will be better managed. Organisational theory is not a subject the military, aid workers, politicians or civil servants dwell on too often, but giving it some thought now will save a lot of heartache downstream.

A credible civilian-led organisational effort backed up by a muscular military response should also facilitate engagement with West Africa’s national administrations which are not only coherent, but effective. One area where both the UK and the US have learnt many lessons is the need to understand the social and economic environment within which they are operating. Key to this is close engagement and cooperation with local, regional and national leaders. A deep understanding of ethnic and tribal makeup, cultural and social norms, power networks, opposition networks, and criminal opportunism are all necessary. Stakeholder Audience Analysis is an area that the military has invested in heavily and could be put to good use in public education programmes and behavioural campaigns that seek to ensure future outbreaks of Ebola are swiftly contained. In order to do this, a fully collaborative approach needs to be taken. Again, the planning, analysis, data-crunching and subsequent coordinated implementation are areas where the military can operate quickly and effectively.

Behind the Ebola response is a much bigger problem. Put simply, the economies of the affected countries are suffering badly. I do a lot of work in Guinea and have many friends there. All of them talk about emerging food shortages, trade routes drying up and a medical healthcare system reaching breaking point (indeed if it has not already broken down). Many more people are dying from untreated malaria, typhoid and other treatable diseases. We cannot halt Ebola and then depart as the socio-economic consequences of the outbreak begin to reap a devastating long-term toll. West Africa is poised for economic take off but Ebola could scupper this trajectory in the worst affected states. Economic growth will be a key means of preventing the insistent encroachment of Islamist extremism now lapping at West Africa’s borders. This points towards a longer-term military commitment being in everyone’s interest. Those same logistical and supply-chain systems can, for instance, be put to use to prevent economic collapse. This expansion of commitment will be unwelcome in Western capital cities but welcome in the capitals of those West African countries dealing with the long-term consequences of Ebola. For the populations of those countries it will be the application of soft power at its absolute best.

In short, the military need to start planning for the medium term and forget all notions about this being a short-term, medically focused, commitment. If this sounds familiar, then so be it.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.