Amidst a busy week in national security, The Cipher Brief’s CEO and Publisher, Suzanne Kelly, spoke with Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, author of the new book The Leader’s Bookshelf, and member of the Cipher Brief Network, to discuss the military budget, cyber security, the use of U.S. Special Operations Forces moving forward, and how the Trump Administration may approach relations with key allies and adversaries.
Suzanne: President Trump is proposing to add $54 billion to the Pentagon budget next year. There have been criticisms that it’s not enough, but it also sounds like an incredible number for others who see gross inefficiencies with how the Pentagon currently spends its money. What opportunities are there with the proposed budget, and what should we be thinking about when considering what this means?
ADM James Stavridis: The budget increase is a step in the right direction to redress a decade of hard fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has reduced military readiness significantly. Hopefully a portion of the increase will be spent on new investments in U.S. Special Operations Forces, unmanned vehicles (including space systems), and cybersecurity. We also need to find waste and mismanagement in the Pentagon’s “back office” – the overhead, IT, and excessive hiring that was identified in the important Defense Business Board’s study last fall.
Suzanne: You’ve said before that we’re headed for a cyber Pearl Harbor. Is the U.S. prepared for what that might mean? What needs to happen to be ready for it from the military perspective?
Jim: First, we should split the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command. They are currently both commanded by the same 4-star officer, Admiral Mike Rogers, who is a brilliant leader, but the span of control is simply too large. NSA does intelligence and U.S. Cyber Command is our military arm in cyberspace. These are separate missions and both are critically important – we should split them up.
We should also start thinking about developing a rudimentary cyber force. We have an Air Force, and we should have a separate cyber force. Right now, it is a “pick-up team” from each of the services’ contributing players. Cyber is too important. We should also have a voice for cyber in the cabinet. This could be folded into the remit of the Director of National Intelligence. Wherever it lands, cybersecurity is far too stove-piped to be effective at the government level.
Suzanne: What about from the private sector perspective? How should companies be thinking about protecting themselves from the risks emanating from the cyber domain?
Jim: Companies should take the same approach that airlines do to crashes – collaborate, share data, help each other react, and learn from the missteps and failures in the peer group. At the moment, most incentives drive them in the other direction. The government, via public-private cooperation, could facilitate that approach. There are also new ways to use cyber insurance that could be very helpful. And above all, companies need to get cybersecurity into the c-suite, with a CISO /CTO at the very top level reporting to the CEO and the board of directors.
Suzanne: As President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet face to face, how are you framing the importance of the U.S.-Germany relationship? How important is it for the two countries to come together on Russia?
Jim: Absolutely crucial. Hopefully, the focus will be on dealing with Russia, specifically in Ukraine, where Germany has led the sanctions regime, as well as on increasing U.S.-German cooperation on cyber security, where both nations have opportunities and vulnerabilities. While these are two very different leaders – Merkel stolid and methodical and Trump mercurial and unpredictable – the overarching national interests of their countries will push them together.
Look for a surprising level of cooperation, with Merkel working hard to have a personal relationship [with Trump] – as she did quite effectively with Presidents Bush and Obama, who were both very different people.
Suzanne: You recently signed a letter asking the current administration to rethink their deep cuts to the U.S. State Department. What will be the ramifications of these cuts on national security in the near-term? How immediately will the cuts be felt (if they go through)?
Jim: The cuts will be devastating not only operationally, but perhaps more damagingly, to morale. State Department employees and foreign service officers are feeling very under the gun, and these budget cuts will be read as a lack of respect for the hard work of our diplomats and development specialists.
If not reversed, this will be remembered as the beginning of a long decline in U.S. global influence and power. Hard power is necessary at times, but the long game is on the soft power side – diplomacy, development, strategic communications, interagency cooperation, education, and health. Taken together, hard and soft power complement each other to create smart power.
Suzanne: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro recently announced “Plan 700” against something he calls a “bread war” – an effort to stop the food shortages in the country. As a former commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), what is your take on the situation there? How long is the current political and economic crisis sustainable? Is there anything the U.S. can or should be doing differently?
Jim: We are looking at the beginning of the end of the long nightmare in Venezuela – whether it ends in a violent spasm on the streets or a constitutional victory for the opposition is about a balanced chance. Let us hope that the Maduro government will allow the mechanisms of government to function as they are intended to constitutionally, which would permit the legal regime change that most Venezuelans seem to want.
Suzanne: Do you see tensions between Iran and the U.S. in the Strait of Hormuz remaining at their current levels or could we see either an increase or decrease in the next year or so? Is the U.S. Navy prepared to deal with this threat? If not, what needs to be done better?
Jim: Tensions will ratchet up with Iran given the belligerent stance of both governments. The fault lines will be on the ground in Syria and Yemen and at sea in the Arabian gulf. With Iran, we are going to need to bloody their nose in the Arabian gulf before too much longer. Their unprofessional approaches on our ships, the capture and brief detainment of our small boats last summer, and their ongoing attacks against Sunni allies demand a stronger response than we have made to date. We need to do more than put them “on notice.” I suspect we will before long.