Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Aspen Security Forum—Final Thoughts


“I’ve been, in one capacity or another, in the intel business for fifty-two years and I don’t remember a time when we had been beset by more crises and challenges around the world, and a diversity of these crises and challenges than we have today.” –Remarks by James Clapper, March 2nd 2015.

“…unpredictable instability has become the “new normal,” and this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.” -Remarks  by  James Clapper Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Feb 9th 2016

I’ve opened with the two above quotes, not because I’ve turned into the mythological Chicken Little running around wrongly screaming that the “sky is falling”, but because I genuinely believe we are at a major cross road in national security policy. I agree with DNI Clapper. I’ve seen a lot in my life but never have I seen a time with greater threats to our national security. I’ve blogged about it before, but I believe we are currently involved in two world wide wars: an undeclared Cyber War and a global war against terrorism. The mainstream media mostly focuses on terrorists attacks in Europe and here in the U.S. Speaking before the Senate this year, Clapper reported “Violent extremists are operationally active in about 40 countries”. The 2015 Global Terrorism Index declared Boko Haram, which operates primarily in Nigeria and has pledged its allegiance to ISIS, the most dangerous terrorist group in the world.

In addition to terrorism and cyber, Russia is playing Pacman in Eastern Europe, China is now claiming much of the East and South China Seas and building “artificial islands” to back up those claims, North Korea keeps conducting provocative missile tests to include successfully firing a missile from a submerged submarine, and the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan continues. During his aforementioned testimony before the Senate this year, DNI Clapper addressed some other potential problem areas with national security ramifications stating:

“Seven countries are experiencing a collapse of central government authority, and 14 others face regime-threatening, or violent, instability or both. Another 59 countries face a significant risk of instability through 2016. The record level of migrants, more than one million arriving in Europe, is likely to grow further this year. Migration and displacement will strain countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. There are now some 60 million people who are considered displaced globally. Extreme weather, climate change, environmental degradation, rising demand for food and water, poor policy decisions and inadequate infrastructure will magnify this instability.”

In November we as voters must decide who the next President and Commander-in-Chief of our military forces will be. Call me old fashioned or a Geek but I believe we are doing ourselves and our nation a disservice if we don’t make an effort to educate ourselves on the key issues. In this era of “if it bleeds it leads” and/or covering major issues with controversial “sound bites” journalism, it is up to the individual to research issues in order to be better informed. Thanks to the wonders of technology, there has never been a better and easier time to do this. In my opinion, events like the Aspen Security Forum provide an invaluable service. Not only do they bring together national security leaders and policy makers in one venue but if you can’t attend they live stream these events on the web. One of my favorite moments from this year’s event and one that got the biggest laugh of the week was when Cyril Sartor, a senior CIA official, remarked: “it feels a little weird as well for a CIA officer to be live streaming on YouTube”. If you don’t have time to watch the videos they also have transcripts of the sessions on the Aspen Security Forum web sites.

I’ve already written two blogs on this year’s forum. For this last one I thought I’d share more of what jumped out at me from speakers focusing on Russia and China.


Elissa Slotkin, Acting Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs made the following key points:

– Putin is disgruntled with how the Cold War ended and is looking for ways to be a global peer competitor of the U.S. He is pushing where he thinks there’s weakness; he’s pushing to see how far he can get.
– He is using cyber as a tool of statecraft.
– U.S./NATO approach is strong and balanced. The strong means the U.S. and NATO have to have the capabilities they need in the right places to deter Russia and we have to support partners, not our allies but our partners, in building their resilience in response to Russia Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, that’s the strong.
– On the balance side, it’s absolutely holding open the idea that there are things of mutual interests that we should negotiate with and work with Russia on Iran deal, Syria, if we could possibly do it, and holding the door open for them to rejoin the family of nations in international standing, good international standing. We don’t want to be adversarial with the Russians […] we can’t stand aside while they push and illegally annex places and sow dissent in places and destabilize places.
– Pentagon looks at capabilities and intentions. In capabilities, they’ve seen significant modernization of the Russian military and seen them create a doctrine of conducting unpredictable snap exercises where they suddenly build up divisions of troops on their borders and then sometimes, as in Crimea, use that as a cover for an invasion of another country.
– They use “hybrid” techniques like cyber, their use of space, their use of propaganda and other asymmetric tools that are deniable, hard to see, and hard to identify as indications and warning the way we have in the past seen as a buildup before an invasion.
– Intent […] With Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, it was clear…going in to back up Assad, […] without any forewarning, […] sets a certain tone and it opens up certain questions about their intent. Their activities in terms of engaging in an extremely close proximity with U.S. forces, almost taunting U.S. forces, it just leaves open these fundamental questions about intent. So when you put those two together, capabilities and intent, it leads you down a road to an assessment that Putin has decided to take on a decidedly more aggressive foreign policy. And that deeply concerns us.
– Hope we have learned from Cold War not to overestimate the competitor. We were at fault for thinking that the Soviet Union was this amazing, uncrackable empire and there were many places, particularly in the U.S. government that just fundamentally did not predict the fall of the Soviets.
– We should be taking those lessons […] and applying them to Putin’s Russia today. They’re not unbeatable. They are not operating from a position of strength.

Heather Conley, a Senior Vice President, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) made the following additional points:
– […] the piece that we are really missing […] Russia’s growing anti-access/area denial capabilities […] they are increasingly able to deny NATO and U.S. access to areas should we want to get in there. And we don’t have an answer for that right now.
– The other component that’s not quite there yet is the maritime component. We’re starting to get our hands around the increase in Russian submarine activity; anti-submarine warfare has to come back.

I disagree with Secretary Slotkin’s point about the Cold War. There seems to be this revisionist train of thought that the intelligence community over estimated the military capabilities of the Soviet Union and did not predict the fall of the Soviet Union. I spent most of my career in intelligence focused on not just the military capabilities of the Soviet Union but also trying to determine their intentions and when and under what circumstances they would flex their military muscles. I didn’t track the internal issues unless it had to do with their military spending. That did not mean that other members of the intelligence community weren’t watching what was happening in the internally in the Soviet Union.

I remember vividly the first person in the intelligence community to tell me the Soviet Union was going to fall because of their dire economic situation. This happened in the mid ‘80’s. I remember this not because of the analysis itself but because of the personality and character of the person who told me. He was the most dishonorable, back stabbing individual I ever ran into while working in the military but he was also one of the most brilliant. He had lived in the Soviet Union for a number of years so he had first hand knowledge of what he was talking about.

I don’t know if Ms. Slotkin was also implying that the intelligence community over estimated the Soviet Union’s military capabilities but I can say that intelligence estimates on capabilities were based on “close” observation of their military forces. In their book The Admiral’s Advantage , Christopher Ford and David Rosenberg remark:

“the Navy continually operated inside and among our opponent’s forces, maneuvering against real Soviet Units on a daily basis in an everyday life of war without the shooting on, above, and below the sea’s surface.”

Sometimes things got more personal. For example, in 1984, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk ran over a Soviet Submarine in the Sea of Japan.

I mentioned to Secretary Slotkin, that during the Cold War, President Reagan established a policy that before a proposed war plan became operational it had to be war gamed. During the games, intelligence analysts simulated command of the opposition forces. One of the main purposes of these games was to ensure the U.S. warfighters were familiar with how the Soviets would use their various war platforms in a conflict. I asked if they had conducted war games against simulated hybrid threats like those posed by Russia. She replied:

“We love our wargaming at the Department of Defense, rest assured you cannot imagine. You might even be concerned by the amount of wargaming we’ve done on these scenarios because, as the last questioner mentioned, it’s just so different for us. So we have donethis is what I’m talking about when I say contingency planning. Our contingency planning is based on a number of wargaming scenarios that showed us what we think the most likely invasion scenarios are and they’re not traditional. So, absolutely. If you’re interested in playing Team Red, we are happy to sign you up, but we have done significant wargaming on different scenarios.”

I agree with Heather Conley’s comments on the maritime component. In June of this year in an issue of U.S. Navy Proceedings magazine Vice Adm. James Foggo III outlined a new era in U.S. and Russian submarine warfare he dubs “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic.” You can read the whole article here but one of the key points is:

“In the early 1990s, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and commentary such as Francis Fukuyama’s landmark essay “The End of History?” led us to believe that our strategic rivalry with Russia and our need to stay one step ahead of Russian capabilities had faded. It has not. Once again, an effective, skilled, and technologically advanced Russian submarine force is challenging us. Russian submarines are prowling the Atlantic, testing our defenses, confronting our command of the seas, and preparing the complex underwater battlespace to give them an edge in any future conflict. Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, Royal Navy, the head of NATO’s maritime forces, noted recently that his forces report “more activity from Russian submarines than we’ve seen since the days of the Cold War.” 2 Some analysts believe that even our underwater infrastructure—such as oil rigs and telecommunications cablesmay be under threat by these new and advanced forces. Russian focus, investment, and activity in the undersea domain are now so unmistakable that even the head of the Russian Navy, Viktor Chirkov, has admitted that Russian submarine patrols have grown 50 percent since 2013.”

Next week I’ll conclude with some thoughts on China. 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