A World of Conflict

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The tenacious violence of an extremist, would-be Islamic state. Ideological acts of mass terrorism in Paris and California. Bloody civil wars in the Middle East and Africa. Political and military posturing by no-longer-sleeping giants Russia and China. An ongoing chess game of deterrence by nations with nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and those who want them. And underneath it all, the invisible, underestimated threat of cyberwarfare. Does our planet teeter on the brink of doomsday? Or does the longer lens of history present a different picture? We asked two of Georgia Tech’s most respected alumni — who also happen to be two of our nation’s most noted military minds — to help make sense of our world of conflict.

Few people in the world are as well qualified to discuss the current threats facing the globe as Gen. Philip Breedlove, CE 77, and retired Adm. James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld, AE 78. Breedlove serves as the supreme NATO allied commander for Europe and head of the U.S. European Command. Winnefeld recently retired from his post as the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and last year joined Georgia Tech as a distinguished professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.

Not only are these two top military leaders both Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers — and former PIKE housemates — but together they have more than 80 years of experience in serving their country at home and abroad during times of war and peace. The Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine asked Winnfeld and Breedlove to share their expert opinions on the multitude of conflicts and threats the United States and the global community now face.

Just how bad off is the world today in terms of its ongoing conflicts and the likelihood of major threats compared to other periods over the past few decades?

SANDY WINNEFELD: One only has to consider the major wars of the 20th century to understand that our world has seen far greater — indeed existential —  threats to security than ISIL. That said, while the combination of imminence and magnitude of security challenges may be somewhat decreased, their number and complexity seems to have increased. Major nation states like Russia and China have closed the gap on conventional war-fighting capabilities for a variety of reasons, and seem to be willing to challenge American leadership. Lesser and insecure authoritarian powers will apparently use any available means to either achieve hegemony over their region, as with Iran, or maintain regime survival, as in North Korea. And, of course, the juxtaposition of numerous conflicts within the Middle East is resulting in enormous instability that in some cases extends beyond the region.

ISIL has changed how we look at organized terrorism. What is the key to defeating these extremists when air strikes on oil refineries and depots so far haven’t worked? How do we engage ISIL conventionally in the Middle East — boots on the ground? Forces from other Arab countries taking some of the load? And meanwhile how do we also maintain our vigilance against attacks in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere?

PHILIP BREEDLOVE: I believe that if there were a simple solution to this problem, we would have already won. Every combatant command is affected in some way by the war against ISIL and extremist groups who use terrorism as their weapon throughout the world. When you consider the mindset of the individuals involved with these extremist organizations, there really isn’t a whole lot of room for negotiation. These people are consumed with a twisted ideology that promotes violence as the “means,” and their “ends” are completely out of touch with what any civilized society would deem acceptable. While the battle is taking place mostly in the CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) and AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) areas of responsibility, profound effects from the war have been seen in EUCOM (U.S. European Command), PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command) and NORTHCOM (U.S. Northern Command), as well. I regularly speak with my fellow COCOMs (Combatant Commands) about our combined efforts within the Department of Defense to make sure we are sharing information and resources.

There are some things working in our favor. I think that having a large, multinational coalition which is committed to defeating ISIL is a step in the right direction. This broad coalition, comprised of over 60 nations, has momentum and we are seeing many nations expanding their commitments in this fight. Additionally, we are now seeing Arab nations take a larger role in speaking out against these brutal and murderous groups. That is also a step in the right direction.

The airstrikes the coalition has conducted against ISIL locations and personnel are the immediately visible aspect of this fight. But the coalition is also taking great steps to share intelligence and halt the financing of these terrorist organizations. That may not sound like much, but ISIL needs resources to pay for their operations and the jihadists who carry them out, and govern the areas they have captured. Starving their ability to resource their organization is of great importance.

WINNEFELD: In my opinion, one must consider the rise of ISIL as yet another chapter in the generational struggle between majority moderate and minority extremist interpretations of Islam. It will only end when extremism is sufficiently attenuated — or outright rejected — by the entire Muslim world, in much the same way as the Soviet Union collapsed of its own internal contradictions. The most immediate problem we’re addressing is how to protect the U.S. and our allies and partners while this struggle runs its course. While better protecting ourselves at home, it will also be necessary to balance the magnitude of our physical response overseas with the importance of the national security interests that are actually affected. This would seem to imply a measured rather than full-bore approach that enables local governments and populations to win this battle. This approach is gradually working, but will take time and strategic patience.

Is a war against terrorism something that can be won, or can terrorism only be contained? What can be done better to stop terrorism at its roots? Is there any possible resolution between Islamic extremists and the West, or is de-escalation impossible?

WINNEFELD: That gets to a second question, which is very important in the longer term: What will it take for moderate Islam to carry the day over extremist Islam? Answering this will require a better understanding of what causes young Muslim millennials to radicalize. At a minimum, the answer will require at least five concerted efforts. The first is providing more economic opportunity to young Muslims — both within and outside the Middle East — so they have a stake in something they do not want to lose to extremism. The second is according more dignity to Muslim populations to reduce the sense of humiliation that can drive them to extremism. The third is effectively countering the “jihadi cool” factor that leads many young would-be jihadis down a fatal path. The fourth is to find credible Muslim voices to help turn the tide. And lastly, we need to show what life under a caliphate is really like for those who choose to migrate in that direction. None of these efforts is currently effective.

BREEDLOVE: I agree with Sandy. To really make a difference and appreciably shift the momentum in our direction, the world writ large needs to have a very convincing counter-recruiting campaign take hold. Individuals who are prime targets for jihadist recruiting must be convinced by moderate members of the Islamic faith that jihad is not the answer. This is going to be way more than a propaganda effort. If you want to use the “carrot and stick” analogy, right now we are heavy on the “stick.” Long-term, effective changes in governance and economics that will provide greater opportunities for young people susceptible to ISIL recruiting really will be the “carrot” that makes the biggest difference in this fight. When young Muslim men and women are more convinced that driving changes through peaceful efforts is more lucrative than joining jihadi forces, the tide will turn completely against ISIL.

Cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism seem invisible or at least distant to most U.S. citizens beyond criminal bank and retail data breaches, but we keep hearing about how massive the threat is to our national security. What should we know and why should we be concerned about it?

WINNEFELD: Cyber threats exist in what I call “the land of fading borders,” where the lines between near and far, strength and weakness, peace and war, state and individual, civil and military, and public and private have become increasingly blurred. Cyber threats are posed by a diverse array of actors, including nation states and their proxies, criminals, hacktivists, and possibly even terrorists. Depending on their sophistication, they can steal economically important data, disrupt networks through denial of service attacks, or actually destroy networks using malicious software. Such attacks threaten our economy, our infrastructure and our physical security. There are a number of keys to countering cyber-attacks, including the understanding that cyber security is a journey, not a destination. Because nearly every successful cyber-attack is enabled by human error, we need to not only focus on technical solutions, but also on human performance.

BREEDLOVE: I would defer to Sandy on much of this question, as he has been a strong advocate for cyber security. This is a complicated issue that some view as state competition, but many argue it is a warfare domain. Viewed either way, there can be major ramifications if it is not taken seriously. Peers, adversaries, state, and individual actors are routinely probing every minute of every day looking to exploit systems, gain intelligence, and potentially do harm to us. Everything we do resides in the digital domain.

The cyber piece of social media exploitation cannot be ignored. Our adversaries, both state and non-state sponsored, generate a great deal of propaganda over a vast network of social media. So far, they have been very savvy with their ability to communicate via social media platforms that are encrypted or difficult to trace. Whether these communications are to coordinate attacks, or discredit the U.S. and our allies, they are difficult to counter. Many organizations worldwide are dedicating a lot of resources and effort to exploit and limit these capabilities. Simply looking at this in terms of resources and manpower, it seems inevitable that the tide will shift in our favor. Our biggest challenge has been to get ahead and stay ahead of technology, and work within legal boundaries.

How do you view the security of the U.S. power grid and our water supplies? What initiatives need to be put in place to ensure physical or electronic attacks are mitigated?

WINNEFELD: Our power grid and other elements of physical and financial infrastructure are at grave risk from a cyber-attack. A number of defensive steps need to be taken, accounting again for the fact that this is a journey not a destination. First and foremost, those at risk need to ensure they invest wisely in improvements in both technical and human performance in the cyber domain. These investments need to be aligned to not only protecting networks, but to protecting data as well. Second, we should fully leverage the recently passed Cybersecurity Act of 2015, which better allows businesses to protect their networks and voluntarily share cyber security information, and do so with liability protections. Third, we should continue our efforts to deter such attacks, including the ability to respond in any appropriate manner against those who conduct them. And finally, far more research is needed regarding how to move beyond signature-based defenses (which always allow the first attacks to succeed until preventive measures are put into place) and towards the ability to defend against attacks in progress, while they are occurring for the first time.

After creating havoc in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been flexing his muscles in the Middle East, and his support of the Syrian regime is at odds with most of the rest of the U.N. What is he really up to? How big a threat is Russia to the geopolitical arena?

BREEDLOVE: Russia endeavors to be seen as a world power, and it hopes to achieve these results by changing the regional security system. If you look at some of the actions Russia has taken in the last year, they have all served to attempt to discredit the West, destabilize the NATO alliance and force changes in the current European security system. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that by destabilizing regional security with his campaigns in Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, and Moldova, he can test the will and the strength of the alliance.

Russia’s involvement in Syria is much like those campaigns, where Russia has placed blame on U.S involvement and leadership and claimed that the conflicts are a result of an unjust security system. And in Syria, Putin believes he can create an alternative security structure where Russia will emerge as a leader in that region. By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and by partnering with Iran and Hezbollah, Putin believes that he is demonstrating leadership indicative of a world power. This is a strategically flawed policy that will create greater instability in the region, but not to the benefit of Russia. As we see Russia continue to pour military resources into Syria, what we are actually witnessing is that nation embarking on an “all in” strategy, and this could have profound negative effects on Russia’s already struggling economy. In Syria, Russia’s involvement will destabilize the regional security structure.

Additionally, the importance of the NATO alliance cannot be overstated. Russia seeks to chip away and cause rifts within the alliance, and we must continue to support our partners and protect their interests.

WINNEFELD: I defer to Phil Breedlove on most of this, since he is right in the middle of that problem. However, I try to understand President Putin’s behavior as a combination of classic Russian paranoia and post-Soviet thuggery and kleptocracy. He is confronting a daunting landscape of the three factors ancient Greek warrior-philosopher Thucydides suggested cause conflict: fear, honor, and interest. As with any totalitarian state, Russian leaders are acutely afraid of losing control of their population — which will become restless as it continues to decline in both demographic and economic power. Russian leaders long for the honor that accompanied their prior status as a global power. And, of course, Russia often expresses its own national interests in their so-called near-abroad and even beyond. Despite commentary that would suggest brilliant maneuvering, Russia’s approaches in Ukraine and Syria have actually been clumsy and have largely backfired. They have been tactical, not strategic. While we can hope their leaders’ recognition of this will have a moderating influence on Russian behavior, for now we cannot allow hope to be our strategy, and will need to remain firm yet wise in countering this insecure power.

How is the U.S. truly perceived in the global community today in terms of foreign relations influence and military strength? Are we really weaker as some presidential candidates claim?

WINNEFELD: We have to understand that this is a political season, and regardless of which party is in power, the other will try to depict its competitor as weak on security. Meanwhile, across a number of decades now, the United States has enjoyed the most robust set of allies and partners of any nation in history. There are several reasons for this. One of the most important is our generally principled adherence to international law, in contrast to several other major powers. We also have enduring strengths in geography, natural resources, demographics and diversity, higher education, rule of law, the quality and innovative spirit within our economy, our values of freedom and liberty, and the world’s strongest military. When the chips are really down, our allies and partners always look to us for leadership.

BREEDLOVE: In regards to NATO countries, this is not an easy question to answer because the U.S. is perceived differently by each of the nations, and we all have different perceptions on different issues. Strength and influence are relative and subjective, so the range of view is likely to be wide. I will tell you that NATO nations still look to the U.S. to lead, and it would be greatly disappointing to many of them if we were ever to be perceived as abdicating our role as leaders on the world stage. The U.S. is, and I hope will always be, the No. 1 advocate for freedom, democracy and human rights around the world.
As for the global perceptions and utility of NATO, I can say that NATO has stood proudly as an alliance for peace for over 70 years now. No other alliance enjoys such an amazing track record. NATO’s greatest strength is unity of all, not the individual strength of one nation, and this is what has made NATO so successful. NATO decisions require the careful consideration of all allies, with consensus of 28 nations, and this can create powerful and enduring results. At times, this makes processes a bit slow, but on the flip side, there is great strength in 28 (soon to be 29) nations speaking with one voice.

Is our military shrinking too small to support the various conflicts around the globe? How big should our military be in terms of numbers of service members and in terms of spending as a percent of GDP?

WINNEFELD: I believe the size of our nation’s investment in its military should not be coupled to GDP. If we did so, our military would be hopelessly tied to the growth or shrinkage of our economy, which would not serve us well. Rather, we need to determine what our national interests are, prioritize them, understand the gaps between threats to those interests and our ability to mitigate those threats, and then adjust accordingly. To be sure, I am concerned that funding for our military’s three key variables of capability, capacity, and readiness is becoming less adequate to the imperative of protecting our most important security interests. However, I am more concerned about the shape of our military than its size — the threat landscape is changing, and we need to be careful to avoid becoming trapped in old ways of protecting ourselves.

BREEDLOVE: I agree with Sandy’s response to the question, but would like to add a little bit regarding U.S. forces in Europe. Following the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the major adversary to counter in Europe no longer existed. Our force structure in Europe was no longer required to be at the level it was in the 1980s, so it was drawn down significantly. Fast forward to now. Today we have two very real, very credible threats of ISIL to the south, and Russia at Europe’s eastern doorstep. With the continued fiscal constraints we face, I think we all accept that our current permanent force structure will probably not change substantially. What we need to determine is the appropriate size and composition of future rotational forces, coupled with pre-positioned equipment. In addition, we’ll need to continue incorporating NATO rotations as well to further enhance our assurance and deterrence measures into the foreseeable future.

Given the upcoming U.S. presidential election, no matter who wins, what new attitude or approach toward foreign relations do you think will best serve the U.S. — and what would be the worst?

BREEDLOVE: Throughout the history of our nation, we have had periods of smooth foreign relations and periods of significant friction. I think we need a recollection of history and to continue to do what works, and steer away from what has hurt our credibility. Our national bilateral relationships are built upon trust. We must be very conscious of that fact and do everything we can, through diplomacy, through economic support, through information sharing, and through use of our military, to ensure that we do not take actions that could erode that trust.

WINNEFELD: As I alluded to earlier, we should ensure we operate from a clear understanding of our prioritized national security interests, which in my view include: the survival of the nation; prevention of catastrophic attacks on the nation; protection of the global economic system; secure, confident and reliable allies and partners; protection of American citizens abroad; and protection and where possible extension of the universal values we cherish. Viewing security through this lens adds discipline to a process that otherwise drifts with currents of the latest crisis. When higher or many national interests are threatened in large degrees, then more power must be applied to protect them; and the reverse is true. In so doing, we need to use all instruments of national power, including diplomacy, economic power, the power of information, and — as a last resort — military power. In my view, we have been doing this fairly well for quite some time, but could do a better job of articulating it to our own population and to the world.

On the home front, what is the biggest single threat to the security of the U.S. and its citizens?

WINNEFELD: Threats have to be viewed in the context of a combination of likelihood and consequences. Though least likely, the most consequential threat to the security of the U.S. is a nuclear attack from a major power, such as Russia or China. Because intentions can change overnight, we need to ensure the ability to deter this type of attack through a robust response. North Korea is a far lesser power, but may soon be able to launch a much smaller nuclear attack. Because such an attack is more likely — though it is still very unlikely — it makes sense to invest in a missile defense system that can actually counter such an attack. Finally, while the threat of a terrorist attack is far less consequential than a nuclear attack, it is far more likely, and we need to continue to invest in the capabilities required to prevent one from occurring on a significant scale. Cyber-attacks, as I mentioned earlier, are also serious, ongoing threats.

BREEDLOVE: As Americans, we share a set of values that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If you ask Americans what the biggest threat is, I would venture to guess they would respond with the threat that they view as most perilous to these values. How we view threats alters our perception. A sudden, all out catastrophic event, such as a nuclear attack, while not probable is no less dangerous than the slow insidious damage to society caused by terrorism from extremist organizations.

Where do we stand in our nuclear détente with Russia, North Korea, and other powers, as well as in our efforts to make sure Iran isn’t able to manufacture nuclear WMDs?

WINNEFELD: Deterrence may be a better word than détente. Our nuclear deterrent force is presently in good shape, especially in light of improvements that have recently been made to a culture that was, candidly, slipping a bit. However, we are facing the need to recapitalize the three legs of our deterrent triad, which are all coming due very soon and within a relatively compact time period.

BREEDLOVE: I am also not a big fan of the word “détente,” but I am confident that we are taking steps in the right direction to ensure that our deterrence portfolio remains strong, and should deterrence fail, NATO is on a path to improving policies and increasing capacity with regards to ballistic missile defense capabilities.

How prepared are we to defend ourselves against a biological or chemical weapon attack at either NATO bases in Europe or a major U.S. city? How big of threat do such attacks pose?

BREEDLOVE: This is a question of likelihood and consequences. The likelihood of a well-planned, well-coordinated, well-executed attack going completely undetected is very small. Prevention is the key. The crux of this issue is ensuring host nations have the capability and information to prevent an attack from occurring. Our intel community is particularly focused on prevention of WMD attacks. Within NATO, we share much of this intelligence and have taken steps to increase information-sharing processes. All that said, if an attack were to occur, I think the civil and national responders would get a lot of help from allies and partners around the world.

WINNEFELD: At home, we have a relatively robust structure of civilian and military capability to respond in the wake of a moderate-sized attack. The challenge, of course, is prevention, which requires the best possible intelligence and law enforcement capability. In this and other areas, we need to enable development of intelligence information without impacting the freedoms we enjoy as a nation, which I am convinced is possible if we have the right safeguards in place.

Looking at the current state of global conflict and threat, what makes you most optimistic for humankind’s collective future?

WINNEFELD: I am most optimistic about the enduring idea presented to the world by this never-perfect democratic experiment we call the United States of America. Our respect for freedom, our creativity, and all the other strengths I mentioned above in a previous answer will continue to provide a positive example for all the world. Regardless of the criticisms we receive, whether accurate or baseless, we still represent, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the last best hope of earth.” We need to live up to that challenge and not fall prey to the temptation for isolationism or, worse, bigotry and jingoism.

BREEDLOVE: Our strong relationships with our allies and partners have, and continue to, serve us well. We must remain committed to investing in these relationships and collectively implement a broad strategy using diplomatic, information, and economic influence. Military intervention alone will not resolve any of the issues we have discussed. As Americans, we must never forget that our freedom and democracy are protected by the military and led by the people elected to office. I am optimistic that America will continue to be the leader of the free world. There are many people in many nations who see America as a beacon of hope, and they are depending on us to lead.

What worries you most?

WINNEFELD: Candidly, I am most concerned that our elected officials, and in particular members of Congress, have raised their personal and party fortunes to a higher priority than our national security, prosperity, and leadership. They have done so in an increasingly vitriolic way and almost without exception. Our political discourse has evolved into a competition for sound bites, not interesting new ideas on hard issues. Members of opposite parties in Congress rarely ever meet with each other. This has nearly eliminated the ability for political compromise on key issues, which has always driven this nation forward. This is evidenced by brinksmanship, continuing resolutions, and budgets that are consistently delivered months late.

Perhaps most concerning is the increasingly acerbic rhetoric from politicians, politically aligned pundits, and certain members of the media on both sides, which makes it harder for ordinary Americans to obtain a balanced view and makes compromise even harder to achieve. Finally, the combination of gerrymandered congressional districts and political primaries has forced those running for office on both sides to increasingly reach out to, and appease, the extreme elements of their party, expressing positions from which it is hard to walk back. Even the slightest compromise is viewed as political weakness in this toxic, hardened environment. It will take exceptionally strong and courageous leadership to restore our political process to one that is able to compromise intelligently and move our nation forward. It is hard to be optimistic about this.

BREEDLOVE: From my foxhole, I worry about unintended consequences from strategic miscalculation or tactical level mistakes: In many ways our nation and the NATO alliance fail to clearly demonstrate our resolve to keep Europe free, prosperous, and at peace. Avoiding belligerents, or wishing them away, has proven costly throughout history. It would be extremely dangerous if Russia was to interpret our lack of clarity as opportunity for further adventurism. Unintended consequences also come from the tactical level: Think of the potential impact that an unsafe and unprofessional Russian act could have if it caused U.S. loss of life.

Finally, what do you think the world will look like in 20 years in terms of global conflict?

BREEDLOVE: Predictions are a tricky thing, and if you simply look at what the world looked like one to two years ago, there are not a lot of people who can confidently say they predicted what we are facing now. Right now we are fighting ISIL, a group that perverts religion, exploits poverty, and takes advantage of the fringe and disaffected populations to achieve their goals. No one will argue that ISIL is an immediate threat to security on a global scale. But, as I mentioned earlier, Russia’s potential to threaten our allies in Europe must be taken seriously. ISIL and Russia are the present challenges we must deal with today. Even though we may not be able to predict with absolute certainty what new threats or conflicts may arise in the future, we can shape the conditions and build a strong force to meet these threats or conflicts.

WINNEFELD: I am not even sure I would call terrorism the main threat to security — though it is the most likely threat. As the late, great Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” I would make two points. First, I believe we are in a generational struggle for the hearts and minds of large, disaffected and increasingly well-connected populations across the globe. We will fail to account for this at our peril. Second, the uni-polar moment we enjoyed immediately after the end of the Cold War has passed. While the combination of factors I mentioned earlier sustains the U.S. as the strongest nation on earth, we will have to interact with our increasingly capable competitors from a position of principled strength — which is the only thing they understand — across all elements of national power.

 Originally featured in the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine


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