By Alan W. Dowd 

NATO vs. Nature?

Europe experienced one of its hottest summers on record in 2003. Like all heat waves, the one that scorched Europe was uncomfortable for most and deadly for some. In fact, dozens of deaths were blamed on the rising mercury. 

The high temperatures triggered forest fires in Portugal and Poland, forced French farmers to conserve water, restricted shipping on the Danube, and limited speeds on British rail lines—none of which sounds particularly unusual or unbearable. Indeed, these sorts of measures are summertime rituals in the United States and other parts of the industrialized world. And for much of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, enduring the heat is part of life. Not so for Europe. 

French government officials claimed that the heat wave killed 10,000 people. Those ghastly—and erroneous—numbers were based on a sloppy, simplistic comparison of summer 2003 and summer 2002 mortality rates. A CBS News analysis put the figure closer to 30 dead, which is indeed sad. It’s no wonder why officials in Spain and Italy dismissed the French figures.  

Elsewhere, Portugal asked NATO for planes and helicopters to drop water on its forestlands. Zoos in Amsterdam, where temperatures hit just 86 Fahrenheit, fed chimpanzees iced fruit and sprayed ostriches with cold showers. The London Zoo covered pigs with sunscreen. Never mind that most the world’s chimps live in central Africa, where temperatures sore into the 90s and 100s; most the world’s ostriches live in southwest Asia, where low temperatures hover in the 90s; and the typical pig in North America weathers summertime temps of 90 degrees or more. 

Still, there’s more at work here than hot weather and sweaty animals. From its failure to deal with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, to its inertia over Iraq last year, to its meltdown over the sizzling summer of 2003, many of Europe’s governments seem unable to cope with uncomfortable situations of any kind. Earth is a dangerous, messy and sometimes uncomfortable planet. Neither NATO nor frozen fruit nor melodramatics will change that.

Over Everywhere

The Pentagon has completed a new voting system that will enable military personnel deployed overseas to use the Internet to vote in the elections of 2004. Known as the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE), the new system promises to avoid a repeat of the problems election officials and service-members encountered in 2000, when Florida rejected more than 1,000 overseas ballots. Many of those ballots were filled out by military personnel.

According to Polli Brunelli, who oversees the program that designed SERVE, the “vast majority” of troops on deployment have access to the Web. As she explained to the Washington Times, SERVE will use a special digital signature to prevent voter fraud, ensure that more troops have the opportunity to vote, and guarantee that their votes will be counted.

It’s a good thing, because US troops are being deployed in increasing numbers all around the world. A study by GlobalSecurity.org, a military policy research organization, found that US forces are based in almost 130 countries. Some 364,000 American troops are on duty overseas, almost half of them in Korea, Europe and Japan. 

The deployments include 17 of the Army’s 31 active combat brigades (with two more in the midst of rotation);132,565 Guardsmen and Reservists; two of 12 aircraft carrier battle groups (with two more in pre-deployment training); and 94 of the Navy’s 299 ships and submarines.

CSI: Hong Kong?

It’s not a new TV drama. In fact, it’s an innovative new weapon in the war on terror.

CSI stands for “Container Security Initiative,” and the US Customs Service is administering the new program in some of the world’s largest, busiest ports. The rationale for the program is simple and creative: As the world’s biggest consumer, the United States opens its ports to some 6 million cargo containers every year, making US port security virtually impossible. Under the CSI, US Customs officials are based overseas and screen the goods and containers coming into the United States before they arrive in US ports.

This keeps US ports open and efficient, which makes foreign governments happy, and adds another ring of security to America’s open borders, which makes US citizens safer.

Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp, Singapore, Yokohama, Montreal, and Hong Kong are among the ports participating in the CSI program.  

Strike Force

The Pentagon is deploying a new Navy-Marine strike force to increase its firepower and flexibility in global hotspots.

The Expeditionary Strike Group includes a cruiser, destroyer, frigate, attack submarine, and an amphibious assault ship, complete with 2,200 Marines and a team of Navy SEALs. The USS Peleliu is serving as the command center for the first ESG, which will be deployed for eight months. Comprised of units and ships based in the Pacific and on the West coast of the continental United States, ESG One’s area of responsibility includes the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Another ESG, under the command of the USS Saipan, will be deployed from the East coast.

The ESG concept is partly the result of experimental task forces deployed during the war in Afghanistan. According to the Naval Sea Systems Command, rather than relying exclusively on massive aircraft carrier battle groups or small three-ship amphibious ready groups, the Pentagon deployed task forces with augmented capabilities during the Afghan campaign. The flexibility and punch of these ad hoc task forces helped take down the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks. The ESGs will likely be called upon to do likewise with other thugocracies in future phase of the war on terror.

Published monthly in the American Legion Magazine, Under the Radar provides a snapshot of current challenges in international politics, U.S. foreign policy and national security.