Support for youth, interaction with the community, military support for police in the fight against crime, and continued collaboration with regional and international partners are the new strategic visions of the Jamaican Defence Force (JDF). The man behind this new era is Major General Rocky Meade, the Chief of Defence Staff of the JDF, who assumed the role on December 1, 2016. Maj. Gen. Meade spoke to Diálogo about his mission, plans, and challenges as the head of the JDF.
Diálogo: What is the JDF’s main focus?
Major General Rocky Meade, Chief of Defence Staff of JDF: The main focus of the force is securing the Jamaican people and Jamaica’s national interests. These could be man-made, natural or any other challenges that could negatively impact Jamaicans or their interests.
Diálogo: What is the focus of your military efforts?
Maj. Gen. Meade: We have concerns about domain awareness, in other words, what is happening in the space around us (in the air or the oceans). Another focus is force development. After having become aware of what is happening, we should have the ability and the capacity to do something about it. That development can include expansion, training, and building of capabilities. Another area is supporting internal security for the police. The fourth area of focus for me as chief is youth engagement, trying to find a way to employ and engage more of our youngsters.
Diálogo: You took this position in December. How has your perspective from the JDF changed in the last several months?
Maj. Gen. Meade: The biggest thing that has occurred to me, which is known theoretically, but is more obvious when you face them as a leader, is the difficulty of making big changes. As humans and organizations, I think we are naturally resistant to change; most people are concerned about the unknown. When you come in with a big vision to change programs and the structure of the force, it is challenging. For example, right now we don’t have a large presence in western Jamaica [Montego Bay], and I’m trying to change that. It’s unfortunate because Montego is our second largest city and, in fact, it is our tourist capital. I am now taking steps to acquire land and develop a similar capacity in the area.
I’m trying to regionalize our force. We recruit mainly in Kingston and St. Andrew and then deploy people all over the island. Sometimes a person is deployed four hours from where he lives and therefore can’t go home regularly. While that’s normal in the military, I think when you are deployed overseas it’s a given but if you are in country, then I think, we can regionalize-- people are deployed closer to where they live--, it may be easier. Normally we rotate the battalions around different locations. I am trying to have battalions be residents in sectors of the country that will be their permanent home. I’m trying to do many significant changes. My entire staff and subordinate command are not resistant, but they are just slow in accepting that we are going to do things differently moving forward.
Diálogo: How are you thinking of changing those mindsets?
Maj. Gen. Meade: I lead by example. Most people have a comfort zone. They’ve been doing something for 10 years, and know how to do it, and are very apprehensive about trying something new. A lot of books have been written about change management because generally change is something that human beings are fearful of. The way I’m approaching this is to lead by example. For example, with the youth engagement program that I want to do, the laws didn’t have a provision for the military to engage the youth in that way. So, I needed to change legislation. All my lawyers were telling me that it takes six months to a year to make the changes. I said, “no.” I wanted to start in the new fiscal year [April]. I had to speak with the prime minister and attorney general and actually went myself to meetings with them and drove the changes. Now the changes are in Parliament after just a few months. When my experts tell me something is not possible and I think it is, instead of just ordering them to do it, I get involved and prove that it can be done.
Diálogo: What is your proposal for youth engagement?
Maj. Gen. Meade: I have three separate major projects. The first one is that I’m going to create a national military service taking youngsters between 18 to 23 years old and train them to do military service for a year. At the end of the year, if they want to continue in military service, then they may be signed on for the normal regular full-time service. If they don’t like the military, then they can go into other public or private sector jobs as they’ll already have some training. These individuals should be very attractive to the police, correctional services, and even the private sector. Initially the national service for youth will be voluntary, but my hope in the long run is that it will become compulsory. The dilemma at the moment is I don’t have enough budget to take all the youngsters that are coming out of the schools. I’m starting small, with just 1,000 per year, but the long term plan –when there’s enough money– is to make everyone come in. Obviously because they’ll be in national service, they will not participate in armed activities amongst our population.
The second project that I’ll be doing is a military technical training program for youngsters. This set of youngsters will not become soldiers. They are going to be civilians who will come into the base to do technical training and get an apprenticeship on the job. When they leave our program, they’ll have a certificate in one of various trades, it could be carpentry, plumbing, electrical works or other technical trades. We may also take youngsters who are high-school dropouts.
The third project that I’ll be doing would be for the school children. I’ll be increasing my support of the Jamaica Combined Cadet Force to help school children. It is a uniformed organization in the secondary schools, where they get training, discipline and skills. Over the next three to five years I intend to help them increase by 100 percent the number of secondary-school kids who are involved in this uniformed group.
Diálogo: You seem pretty motivated when talking about the youth program…
Maj. Gen. Meade: Yes, I am. I’m making major progress. The government has a bigger program called LEGS [Learn, Earn, Give and Save], so I have framed my program as part of this to get government funding for my project. I’ve also engaged the business leaders and the private sector, telling them that if I get youngsters off the streets and get them training, they can make better employees and less likely to be gang members. Many business people are coming on board with my ideas. I already have a commitment from one business to support 50 of these youngsters, and I’m trying to see if I can get 500 of them supported by the private sector. There's a little apprehension, but I’m trying to motivate everyone.
Diálogo: How is your relationship with the Jamaican Police Force?
Maj. Gen. Meade: It’s been a relationship built up over the years. We have a role to assist the police with internal security matters that go beyond normal community policing. When there is a situation with violent gangs armed with high-powered weapons or extremist activities that are beyond the capabilities of normal policing, we have a mandate to assist them. We have two ways of working together. There’s an ongoing partnership agreement by which we provide a certain amount of support on a daily basis. Then if something special happens, they can request additional support. The relationship has been very good. Obviously we have different customs and different practices, but we’ve found a way to have discussions at the joint command level to make things possible. My intention is that the military will not be in the cities working indefinitely. My hope is that I can lean forward and do more. I want to do a lot more right now, so that we can bring the communities back to normal policing and I can pull the soldiers back in the future.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern in terms of national security?
Maj. Gen. Meade: The vulnerability of the youth and their susceptibility to deviant behavior. It’s a broad range too, because deviant behavior can be anything from religious extremism, gang association, illegal activities or dropping out of school. Although we’re fighting the individual crimes that are happening, I think there’s a deep problem with our youth. Many are not attached to work or school or focused sufficiently. Those that are not attached are potential recruits for deviant behavior and may be tempted to become extremist, get involved in transnational crimes, local gangs or scamming. I think if we can tackle that problem sufficiently, we’ll have many long term benefits.
Diálogo: What is your main security concern in the Caribbean region?
Maj. Gen. Meade: The main regional problem is illegal trafficking of all sorts: human trafficking, contraband such as illegal cigarettes and other goods, weapons, drugs of many types going in both directions --we produce marijuana which is trafficked out-- other countries producing cocaine. This is done by multinational syndicates. A secondary problem, but related, is the issue of the potential for extremist behavior in the region. It’s not a huge problem yet but is something we have to be conscious of. The third concern is that we’re in a region that faces natural phenomena, the major ones being hurricanes and earthquakes.
Diálogo: How does Jamaica work with neighboring countries to face transnational crime?
Maj. Gen. Meade: Information sharing is huge. Another thing we do very well is joint training. Jamaica has a number of schools, very small, nothing as big as the United States, however for our region we are leading in terms of military aviation and maritime training, military command and staff training, and technical trade training. It provides an opportunity for a common understanding, so when we have to work together, we all have similar ideas. Also we have large and small regional exercises and work together helping each other.
Diálogo: What kind of cooperation do you have at this time with the United Stated Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)?
Maj. Gen. Meade: We have excellent cooperation and a large information sharing program. We get support at all levels of training, for the enlisted, officer candidate school, and on up to the senior level. We get assistance with exercises, conferences, and a lot of engagements that allow us to leverage our mutual support in the region. The partnership with SOUTHCOM is one of genuine friendship. If something is not a part of an agreement or memorandum, and we see a joint problem, we can just talk, and if there are no established protocols, we can figure out a way to work together. That’s a mark of a true partnership.
Diálogo: Would you like to add anything else for our readers in the region?
Maj. Gen. Meade: I am very fortunate to have inherited a force that is very highly respected. I am going to try to maintain that and increase the confidence of the people of Jamaica and our international partners. I think that the people have confidence in our military and I don’t want any future indications of abuse of our citizens by my troops. I’m not tolerating that at all, as I think having the citizens feeling confident in their armed forces is extremely important.
I also want to maintain and build on our good relationships with international partners. Sometimes the relationship with the military can influence the relationship between the states, and that’s very important for me as well. I put a great deal of value on education, and that’s the reason I’m trying to engage the youth. In fact, earlier this year, I launched the Caribbean Journal of Strategic and Security Studies which is intended to be a forum to publish works.