Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: West 2016 Conference – Navy Leaders Discuss the Latest in Maritime Strategy

Naval cyber warfare engineer (US Navy)

Naval cyber warfare engineer (US Navy)

Looking forward, it is clear that the challenges the Navy face are shifting in character, are increasingly difficult to address in isolation, and are changing quickly. This will require us to reexamine our approaches in every aspect of our operations. Navy Publication: A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority

One of my favorite forums is the AFCEA West conference held annually in San Diego. It’s co-sponsored by the AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute and is in its 26th year. I’m biased, because it’s held in a Navy town and focuses on Navy issues I see it as an opportunity to wallow in Navy stuff. A few hours before I was scheduled to fly out to the conference this year, I woke up with a swollen face and what I thought was a severe toothache and very reluctantly decided to cancel my plans to attend. Good thing I did because my health issue turned out to be sinus related. If I had gotten on an airplane with major sinus issues, it could have been really nasty; but that’s another blog.

Because of the wonders of technology, I was able to attend the conference virtually this past weekend. It wasn’t as much fun and I didn’t get a chance to ask questions, but I did get sit in front of my computer in my retired Navy tee shirt.

The conference theme was How Do We Make the Strategy Work? The focus was the Pacific region. I found the speakers informative and thought-provoking. Here’s what jumped out at me. Retired Admiral James Stavridis, Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2009-2013) opened up the conference by providing an overview on national security issues. Some of his key points:
– A combination of 60 million people were killed during World War I and II. It was a failure of security policies. As we look back on the 20th century we need to ask ourselves what went wrong. In his opinion it was because nations tried to build security by building walls. Walls won’t protect us in the turbulent 21st century. We need to build bridges and connections.
– The global reach of ISIS is expanding and he is surprised they have not gone after maritime targets like cruise ships and Naval ships. Admiral Stavridis thinks they will in the future.
– We need to worry about nations that live outside the norms of international law like Iran. It sits astride the most important choke point in the world (Hormuz Strait).
– In his opinion North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world. They are led by a relatively unstable leader and they have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
– We also need to worry about events in Syria and he feels the eastern Mediterranean is increasingly at a higher level of tension than the South China Sea.
– Ukraine is another issue we need to be looking at. Putin is a risk taker who uses Hybrid Warfare: a mix of green men and information warfare. We’ve not seen the last of this.
– China is building a great wall of sand and is making preposterous territorial claims.

Admiral Stavridis says cyber war is what really worries him and is one of our greatest vulnerabilities. He believes our electric grid and financial institutions are vulnerable. We are not prepared for cyber war. He believes it’s time we thought seriously about a cyber force. He fears in 20 years, we’ll look back and wonder what were we thinking without having one in place.

Other speakers talked about the importance of cyber security, which the Navy includes in a category called Information Warfare. VADM Ted N. Branch, USN, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, Director of Naval Intelligence says if we don’t get things right in this space, we will lose in the other warfare spaces. Lt Gen David H. Berger, USMC Commanding General, I Marine Expeditionary Force spoke of the challenges of operating in a contested space. He stated he believes the adversaries will degrade or shut down our communications networks. An alternate possibility is that they will keep the networks open but go after apps and degrade information. He worries about possibly operating without the intelligence support provided through these networks. He’s concerned that people will believe they could not operate without GPS.

ADM John M. Richardson, USN, Chief of Naval Operations spoke on the topic of How to Move the Navy/Marine Team Forward. He stated the character of the competition has changed and we have to change the character of the way missions are done. He highlighted the fact that there is no such thing as a regional threat anymore. Everything that anyone can do now is at least a transregional, if not a global threat, by way of information warfare tools. Information systems have changed the way we do everything including in the maritime domain. The rate at which technology is being introduced is also a challenge. Additionally, maritime traffic has increased by a factor of four since 1990.

I found his comments on China particularly interesting. Admiral Richardson said he has running conversations with his Chinese counterpart and is looking at areas they can cooperate on. He pointed out there are a number of areas where China does behave in accordance with international laws.

Think I’ll end here. In my next blog, I’ll include some of the new approaches and tactics the Navy is looking at. As always my views are my own.



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