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Mission Corner

Posted by Jim Walsh, October 30, 2014

Mounting global threats require new ways of thinking, leaders at national security summit say

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Dr. Robert Gates' speaking at the 2014 SAP NS2 Solutions Summit
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Dr. Robert Gates' speaking at the 2014 SAP NS2 Solutions Summit

The old paradigm of looking at global conflicts as regular or irregular, high-end or low is no longer adequate in the world America inhabits—whether the issue is Russia, cybersecurity, terrorism or anything else.

Such was tenor of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' keynote address Thursday to attendees of the third annual Solutions Summit, a national security conference presented by Maryland-based technology firm SAP NS2 in Falls Church, Va.

"Great powers can't afford to get tired. Russia is not tired. China is not tired. Neither are the terrorists and thugs," said Gates, whose book "Duty: Memories of a Secretary at War" chronicles his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Gates is the only defense secretary to serve under consecutive presidents of opposing parties. He left the post in 2011.

The proliferation of ISIS throughout the Middle East, cybersecurity and the global creep of the Ebola virus were noted as three in a long list of national security threats grappling for the nation's attention and resources.

The event featured a number of past and present national security leaders including Michael J. Morell, former deputy director of the CIA; U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte; and Fran Townsend, former assistant to President George W. Bush. Speakers and panelists addressed a wide-ranging array of concerns facing the U.S. national security community, including the opportunities and risks associated with the ever-growing pool of global data.

"We are awash in information and data, we're collecting it really well," said host Mark Testoni, president of SAP NS2 the American subsidiary of global technology giant SAP. "I'm not sure yet if we've learned how to analyze it really well. ... The good news is the tools and the capabilities are emerging that allow us to do that."

Citing the problems of nontraditional threats from state actors, cybersecurity hacking and the trials and tribulations of a presidential administration that commenced amid a flu pandemic and today is battling the world's largest-ever outbreak of Ebola, Townsend kept it simple in her remarks: "We live in a dangerous world."

CIA veteran Jack Devine, president of the global risk consulting firm The Arkin Group, outlined the severity of the ISIS threat. Although he said he was optimistic about America's ability to rise above many of the threats facing the country today, Devine said the ISIS situation poses a unique problem for the United States.

"I think there is a difference between Al Qaeda and ISIS, I'm worried that ISIS has a different mindset. They have come to a longer-term view," Devine said. They are looking to have a confrontation with us and that confrontation, they believe, we will not have the willpower to stay."

"What concerns me in that scenario is they may indeed want to carry out something in the United States," Devine said.

Morell, the former CIA deputy director, outlined major issues he believes the U.S. should keep top of mind in the modern era. Among the concerns, which he organizes into threats and challenges, are terrorism, cyber threats, Iran and fundamental changes in the Middle East, Russia, and China.

On his No. 1 concern, that of terrorism, Morell noted that America faces an era that is much different from the one it knew on Sept. 10, 2001, before the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

"The threat of a 9-11 is much lower than it has been in a long time," Morell said, "but the threat of small scale attacks still significant to the United States." He also noted the importance of monitoring groups such as Al Qaeda in Yemen, Khorasan.

Whether looking at the current era of national defense through the lens of intelligence, analytics, mission-critical activities or the public-private sector, panelists keyed in on the idea that America's ongoing safety is and for a long time has been precarious. In order to maintain its position on the global stage, America must smartly apply the resources and technologies that keep the country one step ahead of those who would do it harm.

"As we look around the world, those military capabilities seem more necessary every day," said Gates, who extensively criticized the U.S. Congress for massive defense spending cuts and sequestration.

Experts agreed that making sure the information that moves across the globe in increasingly rapid torrents gets into the right hands before conflict boils over is critical to U.S. national security.

"One of the keys to military success going forward is ensuring that information critical to operations reaches the widest appropriate audience," Gates said. "This is one of the challenges the military and industry face working together."