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Sea Control 133 – Hacking for Defense with Chris Taylor

By Matthew Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Professor Chris Taylor of Georgetown University to talk about the Hacking for Defense (H4D) movement. Pioneered by Stanford Professor Steve Blank, H4D is bringing Silicon Valley’s innovation ethos to combat national security challenges. Chris takes us through the defense innovation ecosystem, the partnerships which support it, and how H4D is becoming a fixture in university classrooms.

For those interested in learning more about H4D and the Silicon Valley principles which guide it, Chris recommended the following resources:

Download Sea Control 133 – Hacking for Defense with Chris Taylor

The transcript of the conversation between Chris Taylor (CT) and Matthew Merighi (MM) begins below. Special thanks to Associate Producers Roman Madaus and Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode.

MM: As I mentioned at the top I’m here with Professor Chris Taylor of Georgetown University and a member Hacking for Defense. Professor Taylor, thank you very much for being with us on Sea Control today. Now as is Sea Control tradition, Professor Taylor, please introduce yourself tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to be where you are right now.

CT: I spent 14 years in the Marine Corps as an enlisted infantryman and force recon. I finished undergrad at night. I went to night school my last three years. I left the Marine Corps and went to business school at the College of William and Mary where I earned an MBA and worked for five years after that. I went back to school at the Harvard Kennedy School where I earned an MPA in political economy and international security. I’m a two-time defense industry CEO and as you mentioned I’m an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University.

MM: You obviously have a very broad array of different experiences both in the military, outside of it, leading businesses, but also a very diverse educational background. What were the key decision points in your life as you were building your career and your educational background that guided you on the path which you eventually went down?

CT: I spent 14 years in the Marine Corps. I wanted my bosses’ job at the time I was a staff sergeant. My boss was a Major. When I did the reverse math, I would have had to have spent 10 more years to get promoted to Major just to have that job. As I evaluated all of the fantastic experiences that I had in the Marine Corps and what it had done to develop me as a leader, I thought maybe there was a different way and I wanted a way to push my Marine Corps experience through some sort of framework. I chose business school. I don’t regret that at all, it was fantastic. I loved every minute of my 14 years in the Marine Corps but I loved business school. I had a fairly easy transition to school, I got out, worked for five years in the private sector and then decided with the same formula; I had five years of experience and I didn’t know what framework to push it through to get the most of out it or contribute the most with it. So I went back to grad school at the Kennedy School. I was very fortunate. I had fantastic classmates, fantastic professors. Secretary Ash Carter was actually my adviser. So I had access to brilliant national security minds helping me think through how my experience would allow me to contribute further. That led me to leading some businesses that were successful and now I’ve dipped my toe into the teaching part of life to see how my experiences could help push forward the next few generations of national security leaders. That’s how we got to be on the phone today.

MM: Let’s talk a bit about the educational piece. I have here on the hacking4defensegu.com general info page a class titled “SEST-701 Hacking for Defense: Solving National Security Issues with the Lean Launchpad,” which I kind of understand as a man with a security and startup background. Walk us through this title. What exactly is Hacking for Defense and why is the Lean Launchpad a part of solving national security issues?

CT: Hacking for defense was a name that came along with the package when I was first asked to participate. Most people when they hear it only think it’s about cyber; that’s not true. Think about it in the way you’d think of life hacks: easy and quick ways to get things done which result in great benefit. The Lean Launchpad is a class that legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank has been teaching which is basically about how to create and run a startup. It came through a series of conversations that happened out at Stanford where Steve was teaching this with Pete Newell who is a retired Army Colonel and Joe Felter, also a retired Army Colonel. The thought was “how do we apply the Lean Startup methodology to national security challenges?” MD5, which is the national security technology accelerator at National Defense University run by [Adam] Jay Harrison, is the U.S. government proponent for the entire education program. I’ve known Pete and Joe for a number years and when they decided they were going to syndicate the class to universities across the country I raised my hand and said I wanted to bring it to Georgetown. We’re about to close out our first Hacking for Defense class on May 1.

MM: So this is just the first iteration of it?

CT: It’s the first iteration at Georgetown. Stanford begun their second iteration. There are others at U.C. San Diego, Boise State, University of Pittsburgh, and James Madison University.

MM: So the model is proliferating across different universities but it is still very new. Now that you are finishing your first session, from the feedback you’ve gotten from Professor Blank and the other institutions, how has the course been going so far? What have been the things that you expected and what has surprised you?

CT: First and foremost, the most exciting thing is that I have nothing but complete confidence in our graduate students across the country to solve national security problems going forward. Our class has been nothing less than stellar. They are smart, they are committed, they work well in teams, they’ve been doing lots of discovery. And they’ve been doing a lot to solve problems. It’s fantastic. The second thing is that what we’ve learned is that when you allow students to self-organize into diverse teams around a problem, you get exponentially better results than if you assigned them to a team and then assigned them a problem. We’re very clear that self-organization leads to the best outcomes. One of the amazing things about the Hacking for Defense class is that it’s actually a team of teams. The center is the student. Surrounding them are the teaching team: myself and Army Lieutenant Colonel Matt Zais, who is the Deputy Director of the Strategic Initiatives Group at U.S. Army Cyber Command, and my teaching partner.

Then we have a series of corporate partners. Companies like SAIS, Amazon Web Services, SAP National Security Solutions, and many others come every class to support the student teams if they get to a point where their problem-solving requires a specific resource, an engineering resource for instance, an instance in a cloud environment, or mentoring for how to think about a problem. We also have mentors who bring experience in the national security ecosystem and in business that they contact to discuss their problems and think differently. And then we have military and intelligence community liaisons. These are active duty military and people currently serving in the intelligence community who can ensure that these teams can reach out to people within the organizations they are working with, which we call their problem sponsors, to elicit as much information as they can to help solve the problem they have.

This semester, we are working on four problems. One is from Special Operations Command: it’s a cross-domain solution. The next is how to use augmented reality to help military and intelligence personnel see bad guys in unstructured crowds. The next one is a social media problem: how do we use social media from an information warfare perspective to better understand what our adversaries might be doing with social media against us. We also have a counter-drone problem. It’s all the rage; everyone is writing about counter-drone. We have a team that’s working on how to use low-cost solutions to counter drones, particularly drones you might see ISIS flying.

MM: That’s a really broad array of different topics. You mentioned at the top that this isn’t just about cyber but a very broad set of challenges. I’m curious about the people who are self-organizing in these teams, since I imagine this is offered through the Security Studies Program, correct?

CT: That is correct. The Security Studies Program (SSP) is where I teach. Bruce Hoffman and Dave Maxwell have given us exceptional support to continue doing this.

MM: In terms of the students who are in these teams, do they have technological backgrounds? Are they primarily ex-military or current intelligence officers? What are the demographics of the people participating in this?

CT: All of the above. We have tech folks. We have former and current military folks. We have data analytics folks. We have linguistics folks. We have policy folks. And then of course we have the SSP folks. The course is open to all schools and all programs across Georgetown University and next year we’re going to open up Hacking for Defense to all graduate schools and graduate programs in the National Capital Region. So instead of solving four problems next year we’re going to solve 40 problems. A bit ambitious and it keeps us moving but if we want to start to develop the capability to solve problems quickly, effectively, and cost-effectively, then there is no better group of talent than America’s graduate students to be able to help us do that. That’s why we are trying to expand it the way that we are.

MM: So this course will be open to everyone in the National Capital Region starting next year which, as a person who currently works in academia, I know that getting even simple things like cross-registration agreements handled can be a challenge, so best of luck to you as you navigate those minefields on the bureaucracy side; but it’s really exciting that so many people are getting engaged. The other method of engagement that I’ve noticed is that you livestream all of the lectures for this course, correct?

CT: Every class session is livestreamed on Twitter @h4dgussp and also on our Facebook Hacking4DefenseGeorgetown. Every week we put it out there. It’s kind of like our own national security reality TV show. We put it out there because we want people to see the quality of students that we’re attracting to this class and the difficulty of some of the problems that they’re working on because, quite frankly, for many of these students this is a 13-week job interview. Many of our corporate partners have reached out to our students and said “look, when this is done I’d really like to speak to you about this” and that’s because they’re doing it well. They’re digging in, they’re becoming better problem solvers, they’re becoming better team members, and they’re leveraging everything that they’ve learned in graduate school and everything they haven’t learned yet. They are learning on the fly to solving the particular problem they are working on.

MM: So you’ve seen firsthand the positive feedback loop of the organizations supporting the course wanting to continue getting access to the students and looping them into their own work.

CT: I just spent last Friday with one of our sponsors, OGSystems in Chantilly, Virginia where the CEO and two other executives sat us down and said “we want to be part of this forever.” And the reason is because we get to see some of the problems plaguing national security but the most interesting thing is that the talent sitting in that classroom is unbelievable. We have not seen that in any other classroom environment and so they, admittedly selfishly, want to find out how to hire the very best students out of Georgetown to become part of their companies. We’re ecstatic about that.

MM: Definitely. That’s always the concern, as a recent grad school graduate; the top of mind concern for those going through their final exams right about now. I’m curious that you have OGSystems and all of these other corporate partners and the military and intelligence liaisons. How did you go about building this diverse, multi-stakeholder team? It couldn’t have been easy to sell organizations, especially ones that aren’t as used to working with the military or with Georgetown in getting involved with this very ambitious, very unique program.

CT: It was a little bit of everything. A lot of it came from my own personal network from being involved in the business of national security for so long. Certainly the folks at Stanford at Hacking for Defense Incorporated (H4DI) were very helpful in introducing us to different folks who wanted to be involved. I’ve gotta be honest with you: it’s not a difficult sell. This is the coolest class being taught. If you’re any type of international relations, national security, diplomacy, government, or business geek at all this is the coolest class being taught anywhere. So it’s not a hard sell. But we want to get the right people involved because there are investors in the classroom as well. At the end of the day, if there’s a “there” for the solution that the student teams have come up with, either the government will give them some money to continue their work or they’re going to start a company and they’re going to get venture money to get it going. There’s nothing else like this happening around the country right now.

MM: What is the next step for Hacking for Defense, the course you in particular are teaching, besides expanding it to the other schools in the National Capital Region? What do you see as the vision for where you want this very unique and clearly very successful business model to go?

CT: I’m involved on the education side, so I want to continue working with the Hacking for Defense and H4DI folks out in Palo Alto and also with MD5 to make sure we can leverage all of the talent in the National Capital Region. There’s 16 different universities in the National Capital Region consortium and we want to take advantage of all of that graduate school talent across all of the schools and programs against the hard problems our problem sponsors are giving us. What we’re coming to find is that now there’s international interest. Oxford University has interest in forming a partnership at Georgetown. I know that the NATO representative at the Pentagon for Strategic Transformation, General Imre Porkoláb, is all over trying to bring this to NATO. From an education perspective, Georgetown will play a role in the National Capital Region. From an enterprise-wide perspective, a company out in Palo Alto called BMNT has the lead on bringing the Hacking for Defense methodology into government offices, corporations, and friendly and allied militaries. So there’s a corporate and commercial side to this with BMNT and there’s an education side and that’s H4D.

MM: And for the people who are out there, whether they are currently in the Fleet or listening to our partners at the University of Kiel in Germany or down in Australia, what would you recommend for ways for those people to get involved or to learn about your organization?

CT: First, I’m glad you mentioned Australia. One of our mentors for Hacking for Defense at Georgetown is a gentleman by the name of Jamie Watson and he is an Australian military liaison for innovation and technology. He’s actually helped bring Hacking for Defense to the Australian military already. So if you’re out in Australia, we’re coming to a base near you. BMNT is bringing it out there. If you are a member of the military or intelligence community and you have a particularly difficult problem and you don’t have the capacity to solve it yourself, they should go to H4DI.org and register as a problem sponsor. Darren Halford who runs H4DI.org will help them curate the problems and then get it in to the hands of the right university who can help them solve the problem. We want as many problems as the national security ecosystem can give us and we want to put as many talented graduate students against them as we can. But it has to start with a problem. So for anyone who has a challenge they want looked at, they should go to H4DI.org and start the process.

MM: Obviously the program sponsors and liaisons are very helpful for building this Hacking for Defense system but there are other innovation initiatives happening within the defense community or outside of it. What other organizations have you been working with and what sort of support, whether it’s financial or advocacy or guidance, have you been getting from outside the Hacking for Defense Initiative?

CT: Everyone has been supportive. [Defense Innovation Unit: Experimental] DIUx has been fantastic to us. The Defense Innovation Board has been very involved; Josh Marcuse and Aaron Schumacher from the Defense Innovation Board have been exceptionally supportive of us. The Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum (DEFx), run by Jim Perkins and Ben Taylor, have been all over us. They serve as mentors for us, they get the word out to the innovation community. They very much welcome this new thing into their innovation meadow and we all try to help each other make progress together. I can’t say enough about the Defense Innovation Board, DIUx, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Selva’s office has been exceptionally supportive. And of course our friends at MD5: Jay Harrison, Joe Schuman, and Libbie Prescott have been fantastic to us, as has everyone out at Stanford. It’s a rockstar crew and we couldn’t be happier to be working with all of them.

MM: As you approached these organizations for the first time, were they receptive right off the bat and wanting to work on partnerships and provide support or was it something that you need to sell?

CT: It was not a difficult sell but I’ll tell you what sold everybody is inviting everybody to our opening class at Georgetown. We had 20 students but 113 people in the classroom. And they were all curious about how this Hacking for Defense program was going to work. At the end of the class, everyone was on board. We have routinely 80 people in the classroom every week for 13 weeks working on helping us get better. The corporate partners are fantastic, too. They step up every time. Once the different islands of innovation, like DIUx and Defense Innovation Board, saw it? Sold. It was kind of like finding a kindred spirit in the national security innovation wilderness.

MM: It’s very interesting what you’re working on but we’ve started to reach the end of our interview. As is Sea Control tradition, from time to time, I want to know more about what you’re reading. What things have you been reading recently that will either help the audience learn the ideas behind Hacking for Defense or even unrelated topics?

CT: Since we’re still in the semester, I am focusing on the books that we are using for Hacking for Defense. One of them is called Value Proposition Design by Alex Osterwalder. Steve Blank’s book The Startup Owner’s Manual is one of our texts and it is fantastic. His other book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, is also great. As I mentioned before, it’s important for students to understand how to better have conversations and elicit information so Talking to Humans is a great book. Personally, I just finished Ed Catmell’s book Creativity, Inc which was just amazing to me. I thought it was one of the best books on not only business management but also on how to think through problems. For national security stuff, I’ve become addicted to the Cypher Brief. They do really smart stuff by really smart people. It’s different from what everyone else is doing. I read it every morning.

MM: Everything you’re working on is wonderful. It’s exciting to me personally. I may go down the hall tomorrow when everyone is back to work after Patriot’s Day and talk to the people at the Security Studies Program at Fletcher about maybe trying to start a course like this. Thank you very much for the work you’re doing on behalf of the nation and world security. Thanks for being on Sea Control today.

CT: It’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.

Chris Taylor, a global business leader and entrepreneur, is a two-time national security industry CEO. A veteran of 14 years in the Marine Corps, he has an MBA from the College of William & Mary and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Chris serves as an adjunct associate professor of national security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service Security Studies Program where he teaches “The Business of National Security” and “Hacking for Defense.”

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control. He is also Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and CEO of Blue Water Metrics.

Sea Control 132 – Great Power Competition with Jack McCain

By Sally DeBoer and Matt Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Lieutenant Jack McCain, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, about the theme of this year’s Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference: A New Era of Great Power Competition. Joined by recurring special guest Michael DeBoer, the group talks about the role of navies for great powers, the perils of over-reliance on technology, and Jack McCain’s new book Angola, Clausewitz, and the American Way of War.

Download Sea Control 132 – Great Power Competition and Jack McCain

Listen to the audio above or read the transcript below of the conversation between Sally DeBoer (SD), Jack McCain (JM), and Michael DeBoer (MD). Production credits go to Associate Producer Ryan Uljua.

SD: The theme of this year’s conference, A New Era of Great Power Competition? is of particular interest to our listeners here at Sea Control and our readers at CIMSEC. We’ll start off by asking each of our guests to characterize their thoughts on the importance of this discussion in our current dynamic international system. LT McCain, you first – specifically, we’d be interested to hear your take on why this discussion is important for tomorrow’s military and civilian leaders to be having here at NAFAC.

JM: I think this year’s conference topic is very prescient and very present in that this is something that both our youth and our policymakers are beginning to have to grapple with, this idea of are we actually in a new era of great power competition? It is interesting to watch, and the thing I drew out most from this conference is this a whole new set of challenges that my students and our conference participants are being socialized into as a generation. Great power competition is not new to the U.S. or the world, but in the post-Cold War world, the U.S. was in a unique position and didn’t have to consider the nature of great power competition. We probably should have been, but we were lucky in that respect as the last standing superpower. We went back and forth about whether to call the last 25 years a unipolar world, but what really stood out was the sparking of a new conversation to drive some ideation and really examine the implications and realities of just what this great power competition may look like in the future.

MD: I agree with all of that, I thought that the question mark at the end of the theme was a useful exercise. It’s always a useful exercise to take a look at and map the international system and try to understand the landscape, whether that be great power competition or some other different model. I would agree with the premise that it is a new era of great power competition. The only other thing I would add for the Midshipmen is that RADM Kirby’s assertion the first day – that it us useful to see people and interact with people that are different from yourself in views, background, and interests – is always a useful exercise in both academia and independent thought

SD: One thing that I noticed among the panelists and participants was an effort to wrap one’s head around what makes a great power – a lot of that discussion went toward Russia and China. In your opinion what defines a great power?

JM: After spending a week at a round table where the goal was to try to define this issue, I have fewer answers than when I started. Our discussion really led us down a couple of roads, and everyone was in basic agreement that military power is a component of a great power, and it really came down to naval power, which was almost viewed as [the most] important form of military power. It was very interesting, I had juniors in college from civilian institutions bringing up Mahan, which left me both heartened and surprised. I would agree that military power takes a significant role in what determines a great power. I would place more emphasis on military power than economic power, based on the idea that without security, [a] nation can’t survive, but the notion of how that military power, as well as economic and diplomatic power, are utilized was really the interesting part of the conversation in asking the question does a great power also have to be a moral power? Do they have to be a power that other nations, aspiring powers, or revisionist powers, want to emulate? That motivated a significant portion of our conversation in asking does a respect for human rights have to be a part of a great power? A balance of military and economic power are your two core components in my opinion, but the idea of social or cultural power [was also discussed]. The U.S. has consciously or sub-consciously been the sole dominating cultural force for both better and worse for about the last 50 years. Everyone knows rock n’ roll and blue jeans, and the Golden Arches are all over the world, so does that cultural power translate into becoming a great power? I probably would have said yes before the conversation this week, and now I am not so sure.

MD: I guess that I would say that a great power has the ability to shape events outside its own borders, and there are several vehicles to do that. While I think it would be convenient for us to say that naval power is most important in international great power status, I am not necessarily sure that is always true. I certainly think naval power is important, but I think that may not recognize a generation of great powers that were land powers. 19th century Germany, certainly a great power, had limited naval power, or Russia, certainly a great power with limited naval power. I would caution against thinking that the ability to project power overseas is the only way to affect events outside your borders. But, it certainly is extremely helpful and provides a ton of flexibility.

SD: During the Technology and Cyber-Competition Panel, author of Ghost Fleet August Cole told the audience, “The writing process caused the authors to confront some uncomfortable truths.” The American way of war, he said, is predicated on a technical superiority that isn’t necessarily in line with our evolving reality. The reliance on tech creates a vulnerability, and through the lens of great power competition, we should be thinking about the difference between our assumptions about conflict and how conflict will actually be. What are your thoughts on this, and what can the U.S. do to manage, or even socialize, this reality among policymakers?

JM: While thinking about this question, WWII came to mind. When you look at the way the U.S. military views technology [today], it’s very similar to our own attitudes pre-WWII toward the Japanese navy. We believed in our inherent superiority, that one technology (the battleship) would play the biggest role in any naval confrontation. Circumstances after Pearl Harbor drove a refocus, rebalance, and forced us to start thinking about problems in more creative ways than we had anticipated. The true heroes of the Pacific were the submarine and the aircraft carrier, as well as the individual Marine with his rifle. That’s how I started thinking about this – what would force that creative flexibility today? Not only was Ghost Fleet an amazing book, but I agree with Cole that the U.S. military is hyper-focused on technology. You hear innovation in just about every conversation in the U.S. military right now, and this usually implies greater reliance on some sort of tech as a time or space saving utility. What has been so surprising, especially in the cyber realm, is that we believed we knew what cyber ops were going to look like. They would be attacks on infrastructure – but cyber operations or Information Operations have taken a very different tack recently and did not shape up the way we thought they would – things like election influence or the idea of seizing and shaping the strategic narrative through social media, [combined with] overt and convert sources, has been incredible to watch. That is one place that the U.S. is far behind, seizing the strategic narrative. As a democratic society, moving a single narrative is very difficult, as an open and free society – our ability to shape a narrative is countered by what we would have previously believed to be just overt propaganda which is now, due to the power of social media, not necessarily taken as such.

SD: How realistic are our policymakers about this reality and what can policymakers do to socialize this reality?

JM: That’s a tough question – I think without delving into anything political, in a general sense, this is a problem that is going to force policymakers to have to take action. What that action is will be hard to predict, in a liberal society we can’t just censor messages we don’t like. I think having policymakers that can seize on the strategic narrative that is needed to support whatever it is we’re doing will be helpful. Let’s say we are in an era of great power competition, and we’re trying to maintain a narrative offensive against an adversary – we need to make sure it’s a coherent message, shaped by social media and overt policy statements by the U.S. government. Policymakers need to understand the power of social media to shape a message, (which many policymakers understand inherently because it is a fundraising tool) and just how many people will buy into that message because of its nature. The psychological impact of those messages are hopefully going to be realized by policymakers. Short of something catastrophic, this will be an ongoing problem for the U.S.

SD: Mike, I know you had some thoughts in the same realm but more along the lines of military hardware – can you expand?

MD: The U.S. will likely maintain technical superiority – though I would like to say I am a fan of Cole’s and there are areas in which our advantage is eroding – there are areas where we will retain an advantage for some time. I would point to undersea warfare and sensor packages as an example, which I think will continue to exceed anything that any other great power can deploy in the near to mid-term. In the era of combat control and all the interstitial pieces that make up naval warfare, the Chinese and Russian fleets appear to be well far behind. I don’t think we should say this will last forever, but those are places where we could continue to invest and continue to make big strides to maintain major advantages in terms of systems and expertise as we go on. The other thing that’s worth at least keeping a good eye on, though it didn’t come up much in the discussion, but the hemorrhaging of technical capability in cyber both with the Snowden releases and cyber tools becoming available is putting us at a disadvantage in that arena. We need to seriously look at how we deal with the WikiLeaks phenomena and other major defense or national security disclosures, not just in the realm of whistleblowing but at a more macro level.

SD: General Allen’s Forestall address discussed the five global mega-trends affecting the international system as we know it, to include the shift of economic power from West to East, demographic changes, rapid urbanization, the rise of technology, and climate change. Did you agree with the general’s assessment of these mega trends and what can warfighters do to prepare?

JM: Absolutely. First of all, NAFAC was incredibly fortunate to have Gen. Allen come speak, he is a highly esteemed speaker, and he has addressed these five variables several times very articulately, [which] brings to the fore some issues we need to start thinking about as a nation if we are to maintain a great power status. The only caveat I put on that is that today, we have a tendency as a military and as a nation to believe that everything we are facing is a brand new challenge, that this is hyper-new and we have never faced it before. I find that a significant amount of my Plebes coming into the Naval Academy think everything is brand new. So, if I were to rephrase these five things or give an overall label to them, I would say “old problems, new flavor.” None of these changes…even the rise of tech and climate change are issues we haven’t faced in some form or fashion as a human race or as a nation, as a culture or society. They are different, absolutely, but if we stop thinking about them as these massive unknown challenges and look to history to draw context, this is the best way that we can start making a plan for how to address these challenges as a nation. One of the things that a keen policymaker would pay attention to is not the amalgam of all these problems but the flashpoints between them. Any one of these problems can cause a crisis, but when you have say, rapid urbanization, demographic changes, and a shift of economic power, that’s a flashpoint, and that can create conflict overnight. So, it’s not just these five things in isolation or as a monolith either, it’s the interactions between them that will be most important and represent the place where, if we think strategically about it, we can have the most impact. Gen. Allen really gave an excellent speech, I can’t say that enough.

SD: It was a highlight of the whole week for me as well. Mike, did you want to asses anything?

MD: One, I think that was an amazing set of statements, I really agreed with all of them. Gen. Allen was my first commandant at USNA and he is always a joy to listen to, I’ve enjoyed every time he has spoken. The things that I would add are, one, economic predictions, particularly that far out, are sometimes difficult. I think that though economic shifts are going on, they are the most likely factor to be disrupted by changes in the world’s status, and this is difficult to predict. Second, the most likely and most determinative of those is the demographic trends that Gen. Allen discussed. Demographics are certainly a major driver in the Palestinian problem, they are (in our view) driving Russia’s decline, and the China’s older vs. richer debate we’re all familiar with. These are being driven by major demographic changes, and in fact from a human capital perspective the U.S. is doing quite well with a manageable population growth. I think that might be the most “good news” story of the group, though any one of those could also be a source of potential friction, and friction leads to fire eventually. Finally, I thought another interesting thing, and I have no great answer but believe this will be a big problem – are force planning constructs in mega cities. Understanding what the U.S. military had to go through to project power into Sadr city or any of the other massive slums we’ve been operating on the edges of doesn’t paint a joyful picture of what future conflict in such an environment might breed. I believe that will be a strain on ground forces as they try to look at how to really conduct war in hostile places with masses of people – I think that outlines my thoughts.

SD: The rise of near-peer competitors and the effect of that rise on the international system was certainly a central theme of the round tables and panels at NAFAC. If any, what conclusions or consensus did you draw about the rise of proto-peer competitors and what the U.S. should do to maintain its primacy? Did you hear any unique insight to this effect during the course of the conference that you could share with our audience?

JM: To harken back to another point, this idea of technology’s effect, especially social media, on prevailing strategic narratives is something I have been thinking about recently, and was brought to the fore during this conference. What also really stuck out was that there is a lot of concern about China, which I understand, there’s a lot anxiety about it, but if there’s a lesson that can be drawn from the last 16 years of warfare or even longer, it’s that we have a tendency toward fixation as a society with regard to military operations or the general idea of power dynamics in the international system. We like a boogeyman, and we had a convenient one in the USSR for a long time, but this draws our eye off the ball from places that it should be. Just like Korea – that was the last place anyone expected what became the proxy war between the two great powers of the time with China folded in, and that kind of lack of strategic depth puts us at a disadvantage. When we over-focus or hyper-focus, we end up undermining our own ability to think strategically and get sucked into a tactical “how do we deal with tomorrow’s challenges” problem. That was an overarching point. We should try to avoid being hyper-focused on one enemy or problem, because there are many challenges for us to face if we wish to maintain a great power status, and this excessive focus or worry on one of them ends up biting us later on, or at least it]could.

MD: The only thing I would add is that the likely most important thing going forward is to start separating and trying to focus, not narrowly but precisely, on national interest. This means moving back to a model that we became very comfortable with in the Cold War but have lost comfort with. This model is identifying and aggressively pursuing national interest against competitors. This aggressive pursuit is, at times, lacking, not to criticize any individual or administration, I think that we’ve been too expansive and too reductive in defining our national interests, and as we move into an era in which we certainly have competitors interested in playing zero-sum games about national powers, we must become much more steely about the way we implement that national power abroad.

SD: LT McCain, I would like to take a moment specifically to talk to you about your forthcoming book. Can you tell us a little bit about your debut title?

JM: Absolutely! I think I may have been a little overambitious with the title. It is an attempt to sum up all of the thoughts I had in the book, so I rolled them into this ambitious title. It is a short book, it is not something that you’ll have to read over a period of days, it’s only about 115 pages, so it’s not any lengthy endeavor. But, I started this as my graduate thesis, and it grew out of there. When I sat down to think about what I wanted to write, I have always been interested in the South African border war because of my experiences in Africa, it is a conflict that no one discusses, but there is much value in it as a case study. I wanted to write about hybrid war, because as you’ll remember about two years ago hybrid war was the new boogeyman, and hybrid war was going to dominate all future wars and we had better get with the program. So I got on the bandwagon and looked to carve a niche for myself.

As I began researching and brought my own thoughts and experience to bear, I found the title of hybrid warfare to be almost useless; everyone has an idea of what it is or what it looks like, and I started to apply the same thought process to some of our other models. What does counterinsurgency warfare mean? What do we define conventional war as? All of these labels that we have a tendency to compartmentalize operational thinking into were not useful. I went back to my Clausewitz and pulled out a couple of prescient quotes to apply, and to paraphrase, he describes war as a chameleon: the first thing you must do in any conflict is understand the fundamental nature of that specific conflict. You can’t apply another model and expect some sort of miraculous result, it must be treated as unique. That one thought really forced me in several different directions, and I tried to accommodate them through this work, and what it came down to was [this]: Clausewitz has a general theory of warfare, and I use a couple of quotes to draw that out. The U.S. military has gone from the general theory of warfare into what I would call middle-range theories. We use counterinsurgency theory as a way to apply warfare doctrine, we are starting from an operational level and working out (vice strategic) which is not a good way to plan, fight, or execute a war.

The second piece I wanted to examine is the civil-military dialogue between our policymakers and the military. Is it functioning correctly, and in an ideal case what does that relationship look like and do we have it right? The answer I came up with is no, we don’t. As for the military, we are consulted for general advice at times, but in terms of being the foundational partner for strategic decision making, not so much. At the end of the book I talk a little about the Afghan surge and how that decision making process is a microcosm for our decision making and strategic planning. With all that said, I use the South African border war as my case study because there are so many of these “type elements” – unconventional, conventional, tank on tank, tank on armored vehicle, light infantry, clandestine ops – but the South Africans never got wrapped around the axle about what type of war they were fighting, they just fought the war according to the strategy that fit their policy aims. This is one of the perfect ways to execute a war – think about what ways and means will be, balance those, execute, and reassess. I don’t want to give too much away, but I use it as a case study to help inform, hopefully, what can be better strategic decision making with regard to future conflicts.

SD: When can our readers look for your title and where will it be available?

JM: It is available on Amazon, the Kindle version will be up hopefully in a couple of weeks.

SD: We certainly hope you’ll join us again to discuss your research and book in greater detail. It’s been our privilege to participate in the 57th annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference and our honor to have you as our guest here on Sea Control. Thank you for sharing your time with us!

LT John S. McCain IV is a Naval Officer currently serving as an instructor in the Leadership Department at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of Angola, Clausewitz, and the American Way of War.

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC, and also serves as CIMSEC’s Book Review Coordinator. Contact her at President@cimsec.org

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. 

The views herein are the guests’ alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.

Sea Control 131 – Stefan Lundqvist on the Baltic Sea

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Lieutenant Commander Stefan Lundqvist of the Swedish Defence University. Hosted by Adrian Neumann of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, the conversation examines the growing tensions in the Baltic Sea between Russia and Western countries.

Download Sea Control 131 – The Baltic Sea

LtCdr Stefan Lundqvist is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Åbo Akademi University, Finland, studying the post-Cold War Maritime Security changes among Western states. He is a teacher of Joint and Naval Operations at the Swedish Defence University, specialised in Operations Assessment. He joined the Royal Swedish Navy in 1987 and has served in various staff positions since 1998. His latest publications are “Why teaching comprehensive operations planning requires transformational learning” (2015), Defence Studies, 15(2): 175–201; “Cultivating Regional Maritime Security: Swedish-Finnish Naval Cooperation in the Baltic Sea” (IOS-Press, 2015) (co-authored with J. J. Widen), in Chapsos I. and Kitchen C. (eds.) Strengthening Maritime Security Through Cooperation; “From Protection of Shipping to Protection of Citizens and National Economies: Current Changes in Maritime Security” (2013), Journal of Defence Studies, 7(3): 57–80.

Sea Control 128 – Bonnie Glaser On FONOPS and U.S.-China Relations under Trump

By Mina Pollmann

CIMSEC spoke with Asia-Pacific expert Bonnie Glaser to better understand freedom of navigation, U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration, and recent maritime operations in the region. Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Mina Pollmann: Hello, CIMSEC listeners. My name is Mina Pollmann, and as CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations, I have the honor of hosting Bonnie Glaser as our guest for this episode. Bonnie is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy.

Bonnie, thank you so much for joining us.

Bonnie Glaser: Thanks for having me.

Mina: I’d like to focus today on potential areas of conflict between the U.S. and China, specifically in the maritime domain. To lay the groundwork for that conversation, I wanted to ask a couple questions first about your take on the Trump administration and how China is reacting to the new president.

Early speculation of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy emphasized that it will be “transactional.” Based on the signs so far, such as his meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, the call with Taiwan’s President Tsai before his inauguration, and the call with Australia’s Prime Minister Turnbull last week, would you agree with this characterization? Is Trump’s approach really that calculated?

Bonnie: Well, as a businessman, it does appear that President Trump is looking to make some “deals” with other countries. We don’t know yet what kinds of “deals” that would be. He has indicated, for example, that the One China policy, which the United States has held for almost 40 years, might be reconsidered unless the Chinese make some concessions in the area of trade. But as far as I know, we haven’t started a dialogue with the Chinese yet. Maybe the Chinese will try to offer some things up in advance, but the Chinese have also told the United States, and they have said so publicly, that the One China policy is nonnegotiable.

I think the premise of the Trump administration is that the Chinese can be influenced. That if the United States pushes back, stands firm in some areas, the Chinese will simply have to accept it. They’ll have to adjust. That is a hypothesis that hasn’t really been tested. Whether we look at the South China Sea or Taiwan or other areas, we don’t yet know whether an effort to try and establish new “redlines” – for example, Secretary of State Tillerson’s suggestion during his confirmation hearings that we might seek to deny China’s access to some of its islands in the South China Sea – will influence China. We don’t know where decisions are going to be made to try to force the Chinese to change their position, or where the Trump administration is going to bargain. We’re still in the very early days of the new administration, and we just don’t know.

Mina: It’s safe to say that unpredictability will be a defining feature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. In light of this, how can China craft a sustained and constructive foreign policy towards the U.S.?

Bonnie: I think that every country has to deal with a degree of unpredictability when they are talking to the Trump administration and making their own policy decisions. There is not a lot of certainty yet. And it may be that the Trump administration decides to maintain a large degree of unpredictability if it believes that ambiguity serves its interest.

I think as far as the Chinese are concerned, they are trying to convince the Trump administration to limit the ambiguity to areas that do not affect China’s “core interests.” At the top of that list of core interests is sovereignty and territorial integrity – which is why the issue of the One China policy is so sensitive to the Chinese. I think that Beijing is trying to establish the opportunity to have an early, in-depth conversation with President Trump. I think they believe that a Sunnylands-type conversation where they can lay out their interests and try to engage in a one-on-one conversation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump may help establish some understandings early on. I don’t know whether they will be able to achieve that goal.

Right now, the first potential opportunity for Xi Jinping to talk to Donald Trump is likely to be at the G20 in the first week of July, unless something is arranged before then. But we are seeing phone calls taking place. China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi spoke with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We don’t know what took place in that conversation, but I think that the Chinese are looking for greater certainty in trying to narrow this area of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Mina: Moving on to questions more directly related to the maritime domain – in your commentary with Zack Cooper and Peter Dutton, “Mischief Reef: President Trump’s First FONOP?” last November, you and your co-authors explain how regional observers will judge the Trump administration’s willingness – or unwillingness – to accept risk in response to China’s recent assertiveness based on where and when it conducts its first freedom of navigation operation in Asia. What message would conducting a naval operation that goes beyond “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef send to China?

Bonnie: To introduce some background here, the Obama administration started conducting freedom of navigation operations around the Spratlys and the Paracels in October 2015 – but this was not the first time. Apparently, as early as 1997, there were some freedom of navigation operations in the Paracels. And it’s important to make the point that the U.S. freedom of navigation program is, in fact, a global one. It goes back to the 1970s, and it is intended to enforce freedom of navigation for all countries in the world, to protect high seas freedoms that all seafaring nations have under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

When the Obama administration resumed these operations, there had been a hiatus for a couple years where they had not been carried out in the South China Sea. They were conducted two times in the Paracels, and two times in the Spratlys. And in all of these cases, with the exception of the last one that was conducted in October 2016, they were what we call “innocent passage.” That means, simply sailing in, in an expeditious and continuous manner, through waters that are 12 nautical miles around a particular feature.

Now, this is complicated by the fact that in the Paracels, the Chinese drew base points and baselines in 1996. They drew what’s called “straight baselines,” connecting these 28 base points. Under UNCLOS, only an archipelagic state that is composed of islands can draw these straight lines legally. China is a continental state. And it illegally drew straight baselines, and inside these baselines essentially claimed an “internal sea.” Under UNCLOS, if you have a legal internal sea, another country cannot sail inside those waters without getting permission first. The Chinese, contending that they have this legal right, demanded that the United States and other countries ask for permission before entering this internal sea. And the Chinese believe that they have a right under UNCLOS to demand that every country sailing in their territorial sea – whether it be coastal or around one of their land features – get prior permission. The United States has a different interpretation, and some countries require notification but not permission, so there are different interpretations of what the provisions are under UNCLOS.

So, with that background, in the last freedom of navigation operation in October of 2016, the USS Decatur crossed these illegal straight lines, and they conducted a maneuvering drill for the first time out of the four FONOPs publicized during the Obama administration. This is an exercise that is demonstrating high seas freedoms, and of course the Chinese objected to that. This was not “innocent passage” – simply sailing in a continuous and expeditious manner. Why is this important? If the United States simply sailed through these straight baselines through the Paracels and conducted innocent passage, that would signal an acceptance of China’s unlawful straight baselines.

Facilities on Mischief Reeef as of January 2016. (CSIS AMTI)

The reason why Peter Dutton, Zach Cooper and I are advocating conducting a FONOP around Mischief Reef is because the July 2016 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS found that Mischief Reef is a low-tide elevation. That essentially means its part of the seabed – so no country can have sovereignty over it, and it exists inside the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. So indeed it belongs to the Philippines.

Mischief Reef is one of the three land features that the Chinese have built out into a massive island, creating military installations, including a 10,000-foot runway, hardened aircraft shelters, anti-aircraft missiles, and other capabilities. So if the United States were to conduct freedom of navigation around Mischief Reef – because Mischief Reef is not within 12 nautical miles of any other feature which would affect how the FONOP be legally conducted – simply conducting innocent passage around these 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef would once again lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. And of course China has illegally occupied the feature to begin with. This means the United States, with any FONOP around Mischief Reef, would have to conduct some military activity to not lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. The U.S. could fly a helicopter, conduct an exercise of another kind, circumnavigate the feature, loiter within – those are the kinds of options the U.S. has.

The risks here are that the Chinese might respond. Perhaps the Obama administration did not conduct this particular FONOP because they were worried the Chinese might respond or interfere with that kind of freedom of navigation operation. The Chinese could interfere by sending fighter aircraft and flying very low and dangerously, or they could use maritime militia or even naval vessels to try and interfere and block the United States or force the United States to leave the area. This could potentially lead to a confrontation or even an accident. And it appears, based on the nature of the FONOPs the Obama administration did conduct, one of the factors in the decision making process was that the Obama administration wanted to minimize any potential for confrontation with China. I think they were risk-averse.

And I think the Trump administration will approach this issue a little differently. They might be willing to incur more risk. And by demonstrating to China they are less risk-averse, they hope to strengthen deterrence. Now, this is still a logic that is yet to be played out – as to what the Trump administration’s approach will be, and how the Chinese will respond. But this will be, from the Chinese perspective, a test of U.S. intentions and operations in the South China Sea. They will be looking to see whether the Trump administration is going to act differently than the Obama administration did. And the Trump administration will be looking to see how the Chinese respond to what they do. This is a critical test of where the U.S.-China relationship will go going forward.

Mina: Moving to a different part within the same region, on January 11, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed north through the Taiwan Strait after completing exercises in the South China Sea. Is this meant as a signal? If so, what specifically was it a response to? What message is it meant to convey?

Bonnie: Well, first we should note that the Liaoning aircraft carrier first went through the Taiwan Strait as part of an exercise in 2013, so this was not the first time. And preparing to conduct an exercise with an aircraft carrier – given the fact that the Chinese do not have much experience – a lot of work and preparation went into that. And the Liaoning was operating in the South China Sea, there were flight operations that were going on – the Chinese were trying to build their capabilities.

My guess is that the preparations were underway maybe five, six months in advance. So it’s doubtful that this exercise was substantially modified in reaction to anything that was happening in international politics at the time. That’s my view. But nevertheless it is a useful signal and can be played that way.

The Liaoning, heading back to Hainan Island from its exercises, really had three options to head back to China, if they did in fact consider changing routes. They could have gone through straits in Japan, or in the Philippines, or through the Taiwan Strait. They may or may not have decided initially to go through the Taiwan Strait, but my guess is that they simply were exploiting the opportunity to present it as a signal to Taiwan. The reason would be that the Chinese are more concerned about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She had a conversation with Donald Trump when he was just elected, on the phone. That was the first time ever a Taiwanese president has spoken on the phone with an American president-elect and that was made very public. And then President Tsai traveled through the United States. In fact, when this transit took place, President Tsai was in Central America and she passed through the U.S. and the Chinese are concerned about the potential for more cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, the possibility that President Trump could be emboldening Taiwan to challenge China’s claim to sovereignty. That would be a reason why they might have done that.

Chinese J-15 fighter jets wait on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in December. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

I should note, however, that the Liaoning sailed on the Chinese side of the midline between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and did not cross that centerline. As I understand it there were no flight operations that were conducted as it was transiting the Taiwan Strait. If that had happened it would have been seen as far more provocative. And finally, I would add that, three times prior to that transit through the Taiwan Strait, bomber flights took place around the South China Sea and also circumventing Taiwan. In my view, those bomber flights, combined in some cases with other aircraft, were probably intended to send a very direct warning signal to Tsai Ing-wen. And I view those with greater concern than the transit by the Liaoning through that Strait. 

Mina: Historically, China has tested incoming U.S. administrations with assertive operations. Do you think an assertive operation in the maritime domain – looking beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, considering possible contingencies even in the East China Sea – is likely? If so, what form might this take and is there anything the U.S. can do to deter it? How could the U.S. respond?

Bonnie: It has been suggested, and I believe, many observers believe that China has tested incoming administrations. In 2001, in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, there were aggressive intercepts that were being conducted by a Chinese pilot that ultimately resulted in a collision with an EP3 aircraft and led to a forced landing on Hainan Island. And in 2009, there was an early incident with a U.S. oceanographic vessel called the Impeccable, with various types of Chinese vessels harassing the Impeccable, and tried to convince the United States to reduce the intelligence, surveillance ,and reconnaissance operations around China and to move those operations further away from China’s coast.

So, one possibility is that the Chinese do try to test the Trump administration. My guess is that given the fact that the Trump administration has signaled early on that it is going to get tough against China, and the fact that they have tried to introduce a lot of unpredictability into future U.S. policy towards China, the Chinese likely see that there is a very high risk in testing the Trump administration – because they could force this new administration to become even tougher. They could even cause an early confrontation.

So far, it is remarkable how restrained, how disciplined the Chinese have been not just in their behavior, but in their rhetoric as well. There have been very carefully worded statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Defense Ministry reiterating China’s principled positions on various issues. But there have not been very strong threatening statements or actions form the Chinese. I think that they recognize that if President Trump is potentially seen as weak, he may overreact, and this could create an outcome that the Chinese don’t want to see.

There’s also the potential that in the past, some of these “tests” that took place in the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration, took place at a time pre-Xi Jinping, when the Chinese civilian control over all of the activities of the military were probably not as firm as they are today. That’s not to say the military might not do things in some areas that are not completely decided by the civilian leadership. There are still some issues in civil-military relations in China. But, it is clear that the coordination between the civilians and the military, and the instructions by Xi Jinping to operators in the aircraft and military vessels – particularly the instruction to avoid an incident with the United States – is quite clear. In the past, where some of these incidents have taken place, there was speculation that maybe the top Chinese leaders did not endorse that particular action at that particular time – I think that is less likely to take place.

Mina: Thank you so much for your time today, and I’m really excited to get this out to all of our listeners. This was such an insightful conversation. Thank you, Bonnie.

Bonnie: Thanks for having me.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum, and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.

Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.