Foreign Policy Blogs

AFCEA West 2017 Conference (Pt.1): What are the Major Threats to the U.S.?

Last month, the 27th West 2017 was held in San Diego, California. Considered by many to be the premier maritime related conference, the venue brings together thought leaders and practitioners from the military, industry, and academia to network, discuss problems, and develop potential solutions.

This year’s conference theme was: Ready For Today, Modernize for Tomorrow: How Can We Maintain the Edge?

As the conference began I first was curious to know, from the perspective of the senior military commanders, what were the major threats in the Pacific region. I was particularly interested in anything on China. In the days leading up to the conference there had been reports in the press that China was considering a ban on foreign submarines operating in what it viewed as their territorial waters.

According to one report the proposed law would stipulate: “Foreign submersibles should travel on the surface, display national flags and report to Chinese maritime management administrations when they pass China’s water areas.” If the reports are true this would represent a major increase in tension on the ongoing East China Sea/South China Sea debates. I also wanted to learn about the new efforts and approaches were being developed to deal with the cyber threat.

Second I was concerned about the state of the readiness of the fleet. During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 8 February, Admiral William F. Moran, Vice Chief of Naval Operations stated: “while our first team on deployment is ready, our bench—the depth of our forces at home—is thin. It has become clear to me that the Navy’s overall readiness has reached its lowest level in many years.” This statement along with gaps in aircraft carrier operational deployments is very concerning.

As Senator John McCain recently stated: “In recent years—preoccupied with the fight against terrorism, hampered by a broken acquisition system, and shackled by budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty—our military has prioritized near-term readiness at the expense of future modernization, giving our adversaries a chance to close the gap. Our military leaders have described this as ‘mortgaging the future.’ But it appears few realized how soon the future would arrive.”

Finally, I was hoping to simply listen and get informed and educated on other subjects that I might not be aware of but that senior leaders considered important.

What do the senior military leaders consider to be the major threats?

I intend to write several blogs on the conference. For this first one, I will concentrate on my first question, what do the senior military leaders consider to be the major threats? There has been much talk about the implications of the new administration reliance on current and former senior military leaders in senior positions such as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of Defense.

As I listen to these discussions there seem to be two underlying concerns. I may be wrong but here’s my take. I think the real issue is a fear that the administration will develop solutions on foreign policy that too heavily focus on a military solution and not give enough consideration to other “tools” in our foreign policy kit; and a second related concern that military leaders might not have the intellectual skill set needed to deal with complicated foreign policy issues. I believe this attitude partly comes from the Hollywood image of military types being “lean, mean, killing machines”.

During my time in the military I was exposed to some of the most informed, brilliant, and innovative minds I have ever encountered in the national security/foreign policy arena. What most impressed me was they were the types of men and women who did not just spend lots of time discussing the problems but also spent a significant amount of time working on solutions.

I was also struck by the fact that most senior military leaders did not believe military force was always the best solution; most strongly advocated for a continuing strong role of the State Department. Senior intelligence community leaders have repeatedly stated that this is one of the most challenging and complex periods for national security issues.

In order to solve these problems, I believe you need people with a strong educational background as well as practical experience. The opening speaker for the conference ADM James G. Stavridis, USN (Ret.), Dean, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (2009-2013) is a good example of the type of leader I am talking about.

Admiral Stavridis spoke on the topic of 21st Century Security Challenges and Opportunities. He began by putting today’s problems in a historical context reminding the audience that its been about 100 years since the Battle of Jutland, a sea battle resulting in 10,000 people dying. During the Battle of Verdun in WWI there were over 1 million casualties. In all WWI resulted in over 20 million dead. He asked did we learn anything. In WWII the Battle of Stalingrad resulted in 2 million casualties.

As for today he sees it as a challenging, difficult world but he does not predict the kind of global cataclysmic results we saw in the 20th century. When discussing terrorism he pointed out that violent extremism is not confined to radical Islam. There are political violent extremists and here in the U.S. we have that plus racial extremism. He pointed out Dylan Roof as an example.

He went on to point out terrorism runs across societies and motivations but at the moment we need to focus on the Islamic State. Of all the violent extremists they are the most dangerous. They have been extraordinary at raising money and have a global reach. He believes we will clear up Mosul in the next few months but they have a plan and we need to deal with it.

As for other threats, Admiral Stavridis says Iran is bad news “even without nukes”. They see themselves as an imperial power and will continue to present challenges in Yemen and Beirut. He stated that many will say North Korea is the most dangerous in the world because they are led by an unpredictable leader and he already has nuclear weapons. The Syrian Civil War has caused over 500,000 deaths and waves of refugees from Syria and Libya are destabilizing Europe.

Concerning Russia, so far we have failed to move Putin into a more strategic view of dealing with the West so he will continue to us use Hybrid Warfare possibility against Europe. Admiral Stavridis believes we can avoid a war with China with the use of skillful diplomacy but we may see a series of aggressive moves. What worries him the most is cyber. Cyber is not only big nations attacking small nations but can be small nations attacking big nations. We are relatively unprepared to deal with it. He is also concerned about European unity. These are our greatest pool of partners and they have real challenges. In terms of whom are our best partners, Stavridis said we have many traditional but we need to look at India. He believes the rise of India is more important than the rise of China.

As for what can we do, the Admiral said the most important thing is to listen to each other. We need to have serious policy debates. We need to listen very closely to the Europeans. We need to listen to our opponents. In the case of Russia we need to listen and not stumble into another Cold War. The second thing we need to do is to work on our intellectual capitol and he mentioned the Naval War College and their activities as an example. We also need to educate ourselves through things like reading and learning other languages. The Admiral concluded his remarks by saying we do need a powerful global military force but we need to find the balance between hard and soft power.

I found the Admiral’s talk interesting and thought provoking. The only think I would disagree with are his comments of ISIS. As I have blogged before, ISIS may be getting most of the media coverage in the western media but there are other groups like Boko Haram that operates primarily in Africa that are just as deadly. My mantra is “terrorism is a global problem and requires a global solution.”

I think I will end here. 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

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