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July – Freedom Isn’t Free

Every other year I have the good fortune to go to the Naval War College in Newport, RI, to participate in the Current Strategy Forum that is held just before their June graduation. The Naval War College is far more than college kids. It provides advanced military training for various branches of service and is attended by many personnel from other countries, as well as our own. Allies of the US, apply only please. “Students” range in age and rank from junior to senior officers and their studies range from military history to strategy, theory, and tactics. Some of the best minds in military have been thinking, teaching, and learning at the Naval War College since 1884.

The Current Strategy Forum blends members of the student body with former military, and even non-military, invitees. It is invitation only and I feel blessed to be on the list. The first year I went, I wondered why a non-military business person like me would be of any value. It didn’t take long to find out.

The two-day Forum is a series of lectures to some 500 attendees by a group of military experts ranging from the Secretary of the Navy, to the Commandant of the US Marine Corps (yes, please call for your free copy of me shaking hands with General Heller, himself) to ambassadors, to authors, and military expert analysts. Some of the best moments are break-out groups, sandwiched between lectures, where hot topics are tackled by small groups of 20 or so attendees with a Naval War College professor/facilitator running the discussion. The value to the discussion is in the variety of opinions and experience. The different viewpoints and questions presented by military and non-military participants make the discussion come alive. These guys listen and process and they value outside opinion.

To put things in perspective, the US has long been the 800 pound gorilla. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, if you look at the top 50 countries in the world in terms of military spending, we are not only #1, we spend as much as the next 49 . . . combined. Let me repeat for effect . . . combined! No one comes close in terms of controlling the sea lanes, the air space above us, or putting soldiers on the ground whenever and wherever they are needed. The obvious risk of being #1, is that you have a bullseye squarely on your back. Maintaining status quo is not a valid strategy when you have China itching for a chance to knock you off your perch. As much as we may feel it’s our place to be the world’s protector and traffic cop, they have been a power for thousands of years, compared to our meager hundreds. Don’t think for a second they don’t feel that it’s their destiny to control what goes on in the world, too.

Every Current Strategy Forum seems to carry its own theme. 6 years ago focused on terrorism and Iraq, 4 years ago focused on China and their military build up. This year, the focus shift was noticeable. China was still very much a topic, but cyber terrorism was a hot topic, and the shift from military might to geo-economic influencing was very visible. The way to gain the hearts and minds of a country is shifting from scaring them with military mass to helping them on a human level. Sending in a hospital ship to give every kid in the province of an African nation their first pair of glasses, that is the newfound diplomacy that speaks louder and perhaps more permanently than firing a brace of Tomahawk cruise missiles. We could notice the shift from “Might is Right” to “Let’s Help Them Turn On The Light”.

We learned that China has concentrated its efforts more on the strategic areas where they have a chance of matching us: those of Cyber Warfare and geo-economic influencing. The Chinese are using Cyber Warfare almost the way we used to use privateers around the time of the American Revolution. They were sanctioned by the government to do the dirty work the government didn’t want to do or didn’t want to admit to doing. Sanctioned pillaging, plundering and piracy . . . sounds like modern day computer hackers, doesn’t it? Disruption by any means carried out with low overhead, by low profile, and hard to pin down rogue agents . . . how very privateer.

The geo-economic part is evidenced by the goods that are left to rust or rot on Chinese docks to punish countries who do not support Chinese positions and policies. They do it very effectively. You play ball with them or they cancel the game.

What we heard this year is the need for our military to work with a blended approach, employing new tools to adapt to new threats. If you want to feel proud of our military and the fact that it is the envy of every nation on earth, if you want to understand the importance of spending over 3% of our immense Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually on defense, you can answer any reservation you may have by studying the level of instability throughout the world today. The US is a critical balancer of the many unbalanced elements of the current world. Our military is unequalled by any force in history, with a range of influence that no one has ever accomplished. I come away with admiration for the systems, the history, the depth of thought, and the incredible challenges that our US military faces currently. The speed of change and the non-stop emergence of new threats has created a challenge beyond any faced by a nation before. The more I scratch the surface of the US military, the more I begin to understand the depth that lies beneath it. We are most fortunate. Please savor that thought this July 4th, the birthday of our nation’s independence. Enjoy your holiday!