Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Military Themed Conferences Provide a Valuable Service

One my pet peeves is people who feel watching the evening news makes them experts on defense policy.  I’m not talking about the average person.  I’m referring to the kind of people who engage in heated arguments over the topic and scream and holler about how screwed up the government, military and/or the intelligence community is without looking deeper into the topic.

I’ve given a lot of talks on national security topics.  I tell people I’m not going to tell you what to think, I only ask that you make sure your point of view is based on firm ground.  I’m of the opinion if you feel strongly about something you need to do a little research on the topic. These days the internet makes it an easy thing to do.   I ended one argument a few weeks ago during a social get together, when I asked a couple of guys who were “debating” me very strongly if they had read any Congressional testimony on the topic at hand.  I told them I did and based my information on the testimonies of members of the defense department.  I also told them because I speak and write on defense topics; when possible I attend conferences where key members of the defense community talk about the issues they’re facing.  That ended the “debate”.

This brings me to what I’d like to blog about.  I’m currently attending a conference called West 2013 Co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. Both organizations are non-profit and non-partisan.  U.S. Naval Institute’s mission is:

“… to provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

AFCEA’s mission statement states:

AFCEA is an international organization that serves its members by providing a forum for the ethical exchange of information.  AFCEA is dedicated to increasing knowledge through the exploration of issues relevant to its members in information technology, communications, and electronics for the defense, homeland security and intelligence communities.”

The bottom line is they provide a forum where industry, government, the military and academia can intersect and discuss the key issues.  Anyone can attend these conferences.  If you can’t attend in person the speeches are filmed and available on You Tube.

The subject of the West 2013 conference is:  “Pivot to the Pacific What Are the Practical and Global Implications?”  The speakers so far have included the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of the Pacific Fleet.  I’ll go over the details of the presenters in a blog I’ll write later this week. For this one I’d like to blog about an unexpected opportunity I had to sit down and speak with Vice Admiral Pete Daly, USN (Retired) the CEO of the Naval Institute and Kent Schneider, President and CEO of AFCEA International.

It’s apparent, both men spend a lot of time talking with industry, military and government officials in order to decide what topics to look at during their conferences.  Some of the highlights of the conversation:

  • They’re looking to have more intelligence related conferences at the unclassified level so more people can attend.
  • Cyber topics will be more prominent.  It’s a new warfighting domain.  The maturity of thinking on cyber is comparable to the 1950’s when people were trying to gain a better grasp of WMD.
  • They’re looking at the transition from COIN to high end warfare in a period of austerity.
  • After talking with Combatant Commanders they see there is a high level of focus on interagency and coalition warfare.  Some think there needs to be a new version of Goldwaters/Nichols for interagency cooperation.

Note:  The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, sponsored by Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. Bill Nichols, caused a major defense reorganization, the most significant since the National Security Act of 1947. Operational authority was centralized through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as opposed to the service chiefs. The chairman was designated as the principal military advisor to the president, National Security Council and secretary of defense… Since 1986, Goldwater-Nichols has made tremendous changes in the way DOD operates-joint operations are the norm…”

  • After every war, the young men and women want to bring back what they’ve learned to the force.  We have to be careful we don’t take the wrong lessons out of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Example, the men and women who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan worked with a communications structure that had been built and in place for years.  In the future you will face situations where there is no communication structure in place when you deploy to an area for military operations.  How will you communicate?  How will you handle communications bandwidth issues?  Bandwidth size determines how much and how fast you can pass data.
  • We’re spending a lot of time and effort on how to defend systems but how do we work when the systems are not working?  For example as a young intelligence officer I learned how to manually plot on a map the location of enemy forces.  I also had to learn how to predict where they would be in the future using time/distance calculations. For today’s generation of young professionals, machines do that for them.  What happens if the machine breaks?
  • The government has a hard time seeing what technology small businesses have to offer.  A conference like this gives them visibility.  AFCEA has nearly 2000 corporate members. Of that 80% are small businesses.  As part of the conferences companies can rent floor space and put up booths that allow them to highlight projects they’re working on.

I want to emphasize as non-profits neither AFCEA nor the Naval Institute lobby for solutions or companies.  They simply provide a forum for interaction and dialogue.  My talk with both gentlemen concluded with them providing me background on how both institutions were founded.  The Naval Institute was founded in 1873 when the economy was poor and the Navy was decaying at the pier.

“The U.S. Naval Institute has been a fixture at the U.S. Naval Academy since its founding in 1873 by a group of 15 naval officers who began meeting to discuss the serious implications of a smaller, post-Civil War Navy and other matters of professional interest… The founding vision was to create a forum for the exchange of ideas, to disseminate and advance the knowledge of sea power, and to preserve our naval and maritime heritage. The “proceedings” of those earliest discussions were eventually published and read throughout the fleet.”

AFCEA’s founders, a group of communicators led by David Sarnoff, experienced first-hand how open dialogue and strong relationships between government and industry in times of peace can help ensure effective communications during wartime. In 1946, they established AFCEA from the U.S. Veterans Signal Association and the American Signal Corps Association with the goal of promoting communication, dialogue, and an open and ethical exchange of information between the public and private sectors. As the Association’s outreach has broadened, this goal remains the pillar of AFCEA International.”

Of note, Sarnoff had been a general during WWII and was in charge of NBC and RCA.

As you’ve heard on the news the military is facing tough times financially.  At the end of the conversation, Vice Admiral Daly and Mr. Schneider reminded me that the 1930’s was a time of austerity for the military.  Yet it was also a time of great creativity and innovation; a period  when the military developed concepts and tactics that would win WWII.  The Marines developed their amphibious warfare tactics and the Navy developed carrier warfare.  Think I’ll end here.  Tomorrow I’ll give some of the highlights from the speakers.  As always my views are my own.



Gail Harris
Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on