Georgetown Salon Series: James—Be Careful What You Ask For

Photo: The Cipher Brief

Amidst the recent terror attack in Manchester, NATO’s announcement that it will formally join the fight against ISIS, and the ongoing wars in Syria and Afghanistan, outgoing Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James painted a sobering picture of the Trump Administration’s emergent policies at The Cipher Brief’s Georgetown Salon Series.

First and foremost, said James, the U.S. military is going to remain active in the world because it is in our own national interest to fight terror and help rebuild failed states where terror thrives. “The events in Manchester this past week are just the most recent [example of] how this can happen anywhere,” she said.

The Manchester terror attack that killed at least 22 people – the UK’s deadliest since July 2005, when coordinated bus and train bombings in London left 52 people dead – coincided with NATO announcing it will join the anti-ISIS coalition, as NATO heads of state met in Brussels on May 25. But James noted that all NATO member states were already individually contributing to this effort, and having NATO join could create problems.

“Beware the bureaucracy of NATO,” she said. “Beware those additional personnel who will be oversight.” Still, the strategy isn’t hugely different from the Obama Administration’s strategy.

A big change under the Trump Administration, said James, is the approach Washington takes toward Raqqa, Syria, where the Islamic State has had control since 2014. Under President Barack Obama, the plan was to allow one escape route out of the city. Under President Donald Trump, there is a proposal to completely surround Raqqa, eliminating any escape route and, thus, raising the likelihood of civilian casualties. “I can certainly see the wisdom of that [proposal],” said James, adding, “They want to defeat and have it be decisive [but] they [Islamic State militants] will absolutely fight to the death. They have nothing to lose.”

Even with this tweak in the Raqqa strategy, James said the “big granddaddy” of all the changes is that the fight against terror under this new administration is “less White House involvement in the prosecution of the war.”

“Some degree of easing up is probably in order,” James acknowledged, but said she worries if “the pendulum swings too far” toward local decision-makers or the commander on the scene having more autonomy, then that could foster greater civilian casualties.

However, the rules of engagement are the same under the Trump Administration as they have been in past administrations: The U.S. military must take care to avoid collateral damage.

“But to the extent you lower the level of decision-making, that increases the likelihood that more shots will be taken and just that increases the likelihood of more civilian casualties,” explained James.

In the Pentagon now, people say openly, “be careful what you ask for because if you ask for the authority you will get it, and then you will be solely responsible for the outcome,” said James.

A similar line of thinking could apply to what James calls the “space renaissance” currently underway. All of the recent technological advancements in space – fueled largely by the private sector – “can be used for the benefit of mankind but they can also be used for ill purposes, and it’s the job of the U.S. military to be able to pivot and react to new threats,” James told The Cipher Brief in an interview earlier this month.

“Lower launch costs could … lead to the development of new offensive weapons systems in space,” reported The Cipher Brief’s Middle East and International Economics Analyst Fritz Lodge.

“However, the U.S. will not be the only country to benefit from this space renaissance,” Lodge wrote, noting India and China are investing substantial sums of money into their space programs. James called China’s efforts in developing space capabilities “very worrisome.”

Moreover, “The proliferation of cheap launch technology could also have the knock-on effect of increasing the proliferation of ICBMs, which use similar technology,” reported Lodge.

Still, James noted the proliferation of new technologies that allow for lower-cost satellites means the U.S. can put more satellites up in space, which is good for our resiliency. She thanked the private sector – people like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who founded the private spaceflight company Blue Origin – for their work in bringing about the “space renaissance,” while adding, “Space is integral to all that we do in the Air Force.”

James also said that autonomous warfare, what former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called the “third offset,” is “absolutely here to stay.” She rhetorically asked the Georgetown Salon Series audience, what combinations of technologies and people will give the U.S. and our allies the next big advance in military affairs? That’s the billion-dollar question. 

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.